Do You Know a Scientist? You Do Now.

When people ask me what I do, I tell them that I’m a graduate student in a molecular biology field finishing up my PhD. This immediately earns a blank stare or the response, “You must be smart.”

I ardently believe that being smart or even of above average intelligence is not a requirement to: a) understand science; or b) be a scientist. In reality, all that is needed is an understanding of the vocabulary. Biology has its own language, similar to French or Arabic. Words like transcription factor, lipid bilayer, transgenic, they all mean something, but in order to follow the biology, you have to understand the words. You have to understand what the words mean and how they apply, and that’s where it gets tricky. When I search Pubmed.com (a major database for scientific literature) for the terms “Science Outreach,” I get 15 articles. A paltry 15. Is there any wonder that the general public misunderstands the term theory?

We are bombarded with science every day. Climate change, global pandemics, recommendations about what to eat and why, but we seem to be paying less and less attention to the science behind the headlines. I believe part of the disconnect stems from an inability for most of the public to speak the language of science. I place the majority of the blame in the hands of scientists themselves. It doesn’t surprise me that misinformation regarding science persists as long as it does, given that so few scientists take the time to frankly and clearly speak with and educate the public. As a scientist, I believe that it is my responsibility to make certain that my work, and my work’s impact, is understood by the general public. I believe that the effort to educate is just as important as the actual research I do.

A woman with a syringe in foreground
Dorilys getting ready to inject you with some knowledge

Before any member of the general public thinks they’re getting off easy, though, part of the responsibility for understanding science rests on your shoulders as well. Most science takes time and effort to learn, and given our increasingly busy lives, we may not be able or willing to devote that time. Given that fact, as well as the science/language barrier, we are becoming increasingly scientifically illiterate. The book Unscientific American by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum details the ways in which the disconnect between the scientific community and mainstream culture is becoming a giant, gaping chasm.  In a time where I see policy and educational decisions being made based on poor or entirely wrong scientific evidence, this scares me. It should scare you, too.

If the statistics in Unscientific American are correct, only 18% of Americans know a scientist personally. Please let me be that scientist for you. I will try to interpret some of the “groundbreaking research” that gets circulated around the internet. Ask me questions. I’ll explain what I can (I like car analogies). If I can’t explain it, I’ll try to refer you to someone who can explain better.

First up next week?  The importance of maintaining herd immunity: why vaccines work.

Photos: Getty

51 thoughts on “Do You Know a Scientist? You Do Now.”

  1. So, so late to this party. I am also a scientist (Hi! We are legion). I earned my PhD in 2006 and am finishing up my postdoc in microbiology/molecular biology. I definitely have a hard time trying to explain what it is that I do to people.

    What I find frustrating is, when I try to explain my projects without jargon, people don’t even want to try to listen (hi, mom!). I just get brushed off with, “Oh, I’ll never understand what you do!” Yes, yes you will, if you try.

  2. Why hello, fellow scientists :))! I am an equine DVM here currently doing my PhD and MVSc at the same time, my thesis gravitates around systemic inflammation and its diagnosis in equines. I LOVE seeing so many ladies here, my domain is heavily man populated and I get a lot of frowns and odd eyebrow looks for being “a girl”. It’s mostly a cultural thing in my country…but it still is highly annoying. I’m really glad to see that the Persephone community offers so much…including science!

    Oh and by the way, if any one has some pet problems, feel free to PM me and I’m glad if I can help. My focus is mostly equine but I do some small animal and wildlife (which I adore) work too!

  3. This is so exciting! I can’t wait to read more articles like these.

    My theory is that the general public has a difficult time properly understanding science because of the way it is taught in schools. I don’t want to get too polarizing here but when I studied evolutionary biology in undergrad it seemed really clear that people who don’t “believe in the theory” are probably the same people who don’t fully understand it. I’ve been presented with a lot of arguments like: “If we came from monkeys then why are there still monkeys? HUH? Explain that, science!” I usually want to tell those people that they’d know the answer to that if their high school biology teacher had explained it properly. Also a lot of people don’t seem to take science or statistics courses in college unless it’s part of their degree program, which I think contributes to the problem.

    1. I don’t really agree with your assessment. Many science teachers in school are wonderful and devoted to their careers. I think that the basic problem with science education in this country comes from two basic problems.
      1) The intensive focus on teaching toward testing. The two main areas that are tested are language arts/vocabulary etc and math. This pushes aside many other subjects, including science.

      2) The second problem, I believe, is still the problem with language. When you throw a lot of esoteric terminology at children, you’re going to bore them. Science needs to be made accessible both to children and the general public. More hands on training through lab work (sadly being cut at many schools – labs are expensive to maintain) and more involvement with actual scientists who are excited and motivated about their work would make all the difference.

      Many people don’t take science courses in college, that’s true. I think that’s because, by the time they get to college, they’re already firmly wedged in the mindset that science is too hard to understand.

      There may be some bad science teachers out there, but, for the most part, I think most science teachers teach science because they like science and they like teaching.

      Of course, I could be wrong.

  4. I just wanted to thank you so much for writing an article focused on ladies in science!! I’m getting my MPH in Epidemiology (which everyone assumes to be dermatology?) mainly focused in biostats, and everyone looks at me like I have some kind of problem after I explain what I do. This is especially bad now that I’ve been focusing on mortality rates and nobody thinks having access to decades of death certificates is as exciting as I do.

    1. Ha ha ha! Epidemiology = epidermis, I guess? That is hilarious. (And sad.)

      Death certificates are fun! My nursing program focuses on community research a good bit, so I’m forever looking up local mortality and morbidity rates. I wish we used actual death certificates instead of relying on vague, nonspecific Census numbers! It would be so much more interesting!

  5. Good on you for doing this! Too many science based articles end up like this: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2010/sep/24/1

    I’m in medicine and we definitely suffer the similar problems with health literacy. We are getting better at educating our patients (as we bloody well should) at every encounter but finding the time to do so is always, sadly a struggle.

    I don’t know if you have heard of him, but Ben Goldacre does a bad science column for The Guardian and his website http://www.badscience.net/ is a thing of beauty. I highly recommend it!

  6. I study in the field of social sciences and at the moment my master’s is scaring me away from ever doing a PhD, I’m definitely not a scientist. Still I get slightly irritated when science = natural science.
    Social sciences have similar problems, they each have their own terminology and abstract concepts and are equally inaccessible to outsiders. In addition they are often not taken serious as actual sciences. I saw some suggestions for statistics etc. further down and I would add that it might be useful to include other social science concepts as well or have a different column, like the one on economic theories.

      1. or Marxism/Socialism/Communism, most of the time somebody uses those words they don’t know what they mean or how to distinguish them.
        Recently I got annoyed by the way some politicians use multiculturalism – there are so many definitions and uses of that phrase.
        (I study political sociology, couldn’t decide between the two)

    1. My area of focus is not in the social sciences which means that is not where the focus of this column will fall. For the purposes of this column, science = the ‘hard sciences’ such as molecular genetics, biochemistry, microbiology, robotics and etc.

      I cringe to think of what a post would look like if I attempted to explain a concept from the social sciences! MANGLED. I can manage to explain statistics because I do a lot of experimental statistics – but the more esoteric side of statistics eludes me.

      I strongly suggest that you email the editors here at Persephone and either volunteer to write a column or suggest the column. I for one would LOVE to read it!

  7. Bless you. I just graduated with my PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (see it can be done!), I am so excited about this column. In fact, this column is what spurred me to register– just so I could comment!

    I think communicating with lay people has two problems (neither of which has to do with intelligence). The first, as you said, is jargon. The other problem is a culture sort of thing. What I mean by that is that a model can be proven wrong by new data and scientists won’t disbelieve the previous data (as long as the study was done correctly). Instead the model will be revised to accommodate the previous and new data. But I think this open-mindedness to new data is something that isn’t communicated well to the public.

    Ok, this is tl;dr. But really I just want to say that Yay! I’m so excited for this column!

  8. Yet another scientist here…I’m an MD/PhD student, and my thesis work is actually on HIV vaccines, so I’m really looking forward to reading your next post on vaccines! Also, it’s a huge relief to have a scientist on board writing about science news and information from an informed background, as opposed to the way it’s watered down and misunderstood on other sites. Thanks for stepping up for the job!

  9. Evolutionary biology grad student at a university with a relatively strong interest in ethics and science education. Not surprisingly, I’ve spend a bit of time discussion science literacy and education in various forums/workshops/classes. Last Friday we had a program forum discussion what our obligations are as scientists and we touched on the idea that as scientists, we have an obligation to also be educators about our field/research. It was interesting since I’d never really thought about education as an ethical obligation before.

    Tangentially, have you heard the This American Life from a few weeks ago? Ira Glass meets a teenage climate change skeptic at the Glenn Beck rally and records a conversation between the teenager and a scientists affiliated (I think) with NSF who is responsible for developing K-12 curriculums on climate change. The main issue with the teenager is that there are still gaps in our understanding of climate change. It was a great example of why we need to teach the language of science (like what “theory” actually means in the scientific context) early and often.

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