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.
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.