Educating The Public About Science

Matt Jones jonesmat at ohsu.edu
Wed May 24 14:07:43 EST 1995


> In article <801318236snz at longley.demon.co.uk> David Longley,
David at longley.demon.co.uk writes:
>>In article <3pqcga$9rj at fiona.umsmed.edu>
>>           iapaul at fiona.umsmed.edu "Ian A. Paul, Ph.D." writes:
>> 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.

Ian Paul has nicely summarized the basic problem with these few
sentences.  There appear to be a number of different (but somewhat
related) issues here. Although they can't be addressed entirely
independently, it might be practical to consider them one at a time. 

First is the question of how to educate the average non-scientist, with
no real vested interest in scientific funding, about what scientists do
and what the benefits of these works are to the average person and to
society as a whole.  This task serves two very important goals: 1)
education, which I desperately hope everyone reading this thinks is
important; and 2) public relations, without which we're all going to be
working either in industry or not working at all someday. I've said
before that I firmly beleive that you can teach people things in simple
language that they can understand. Obviously, a truly detailed
understanding of any subject is going to take specialized education and a
lot of time, as David Longley rightly states. But that isn't necessary to
give people the basic idea about a given field of research. 

Second is the question of how to teach people *with* a vested interest
that a certain project is worth supporting. Sometimes these people may be
scientists, but often hold managerial or administrative positions. In
this context, issues of economics and politics cannot be avoided. Once
again, I believe it is possible to simplify the explanation to whatever
level is necessary.  In this case, most of the explanation should
probably focus on the specific goals of the research with explanation of
how those goals can be reached practically, without dwelling too much on
basic principles or theory. This is simply because administrators usually
aren't interested in the theory, but rather the practice. 

In article <801318236snz at longley.demon.co.uk> David Longley,
David at longley.demon.co.uk writes:
>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.   
<snip>

In previous posts, I have suggested that research scientists should be
willing to volunteer their time to meet with schoolchildren in the
classroom, or with community interest groups. This, David, is not simply
<well-meant rhetoric>, but a specific plan of action.  I have done
similar things in the past, and will do so again in the future. The
investment of my time is appreciated by both students and teachers, and
is quite rewarding as an experience in itself.  Before you raise the
objection that I couldn't possibly have taught sixth graders anything
substantial about my field of research during an hour long meeting,
please remember that we are discussing how to teach people *about*
science, not necessarily teaching them *a science*. This is at least a
good starting point for educating the average non-scientist, and IMHO
will do wonders for public relations further down the line, provided of
course that enough scientists are actually willing to do it, and do it
regularly. 

>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. 

Is the state of science in socialist countries something we desire for
ourselves?

Finally, at the risk of precipitating a whole new thread, I'm dying to
know what you mean by <truth functional>, and why you think that
scientists communicate in this way, whereas other people don't.

-Matt Jones



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