Educating The Public About Science

David Longley David at
Wed May 24 07:42:39 EST 1995

In article <3pqcga$9rj at>
           iapaul at "Ian A. Paul, Ph.D." writes:


> Once again, I have to take issue with David Longley.  As Matt points out, 
> the fact is that money for science is distributed by non-scientists (as 
> illustrated by Matt's news item).  You simply cannot convince the public 
> to put what they perceive as a large amount of money into research 
> without giving them a sense of what they are paying for.  Moreover, 
> explanations that boil down to a paternalistic, "You wouldn't understand 
> but, trust us, we know what's best for you." are not only ineffective 
> but, likely to be counterproductive because of the implied insult to the 
> intelligence of the lay public.  By analogy, I have very little 
> understanding of needs of the military, but as a taxpayer I do not accept 
> the explanation that I should blindly trust the very people who are 
> likely to have a vested interest in acquiring a share of my tax money.  I 
> will, and do, demand explanation and accountability.
IFF it was a matter of our being able to translate what we wish to do, 
and that we were simply not *prepared* to so, I would of course accept 
the  above  point  in  its entirety. To do  otherwise  would  just  be 
arrogance.  But my point made as a behaviour scientist with  a  little 
help  from logic (Quine). It is not a matter of lay intelligence,  but 

I  am  saying  that  we train to  work  in  specialised  areas,  using 
specialised   tools,  and  a  language  which  is  essentially   truth 
functional.  It is impossible, I am claiming, to train or  explain  to 
laymen,  what they need to know in order for them to  make  *informed* 

The people who should (and often do) make informed judgement are other 
professional   scientists  co-opted  on  to  committee's  which   fund 
research. Alas, I think that whilst for many scientists the pursuit of 
truth is a valuable end in itself, the only defensible criterion these 
days, for most decision making is through a cost-benefit analysis. 

> Dr. Longley also indicates that public respect for scientific research 
> requires increased compensation for scientists.  I would certainly agree 
> that, in a capitalistic society such as our own, public perception of 
> worth is directly related to compensation.  However, I would make two 
> points in response.  First, since the public by and large controls 
> compensation by controlling demand, increases in compensation require 
> increasing public demand for the services.  Increasing public demand for 
> scientific services necessitates increasing awareness of what we do and 
> its short and long term value to the public.  This returns us to the 
> issue of public relations.  Secondly, however much scientist gripe about 
> salaries relative to other equivalently trained professionals, the 
> average taxpayer is going to have little immediate sympathy for people 
> whose starting salaries run at $50,000 to $60,000 per annum.  I believe 
> that the median income in the US is around $25,000/annum.  Thus, from 
> the layman's point of view, we *start* at twice his/her salary *and* we 
> have the luxury of holding a position which makes us nearly immune from 
> layoffs, etc. by virtue of the tenure system.  As scientists, we 
> understand the reality that it takes years of pre- and postdoctoral 
> training at salaries well below the median income and that the value of 
> tenure has been declining for the past couple of decades.  Likewise, we 
> know that our peers in other professions are paid quite a bit more than 
> we are.  My point, however, is that the taxpaying public *does not know 
> this*!  Until we can educate them to these realities, the increases in 
> compensation which we all would like are not likely to be forthcoming.
If  the  taxpaying public do not appreciate the above,  I  suspect  it 
would  be  a relatively easy task to let them know. In  this  country, 
scientists do not have the same degree of security, and those electing 
to do a PhD do so with some trepidation. I would say that the  *major* 
problem  is  that  knowledge & education just are  not  valued  highly 
anymore - unless they are somehow shown to increase one's standard  of 
living. Hence my somewhat facile remarks about paying scientists more.

I'd  like to hear *exactly* what the  educate-the-laymen*  alternative 
would  comprise. At the moment I think such ideas are just  well-meant 
rhetoric.   One  of my colleagues, working as  a  prison  psychologist 
recently  said  that  he was going to try to  challenge  some  of  the 
misconceptions  which  prison  officers held  about  psychologists  by 
showing the officers that psychologist's salaries were actually as low 
as  the  prison  officers.  Again, the  problem  really  is  'what  do 
psychologists  do'.....but when you are received with a response  such 
as  'and  we don't want any of your fancy statistics  talk..or..'  you 
begin to see perhaps what I mean. The expectations are that we  should 
work   miracles,  predict  behaviour  perfectly,  have  *no*   foibles 
ourselves and so on.

The way i am personally trying to solve this problem is by setting  up 
systems  which  provide  actuarial  models  of  behaviour  to  support 
decision  making,  but the task of educating even senior  managers  is 
almost impossible, and seems to require PR skills which of course your 
average  applied  scientist  just  does not have. I  am  open  to  any 
*specific* suggestions, for now though, I am just able to outline  why 
I think we have an almost impossible task on our hands in the  absence 
of social idealism (socialism). Everything now is for the quick buck. 
David Longley

More information about the Neur-sci mailing list