A panel at Columbia University Thursday addressed whether scientists have failed at communicating science to the general public. "Many people do not understand why the earth's climate is undergoing severe changes, or that humans evolved from simpler organisms, or that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate," the program announcement read. "Do scientists bear a responsibility to educate the public about science?"
"I'm afraid I'm going to be the Jeremiah here," said Columbia University astronomy professor, David Helfand, referring to the pessimistic Biblical prophet. "Not only have we failed, but it's too late." He cited statistics showing how few adults can define a molecule and that few high school graduates are scientifically literate. Mr. Helfand said the reason it's already too late is because "our media has become impenetrable to reason."
The program moderator, Joe Schwarcz, who directs McGill University's Office of Science and Society, noted that 43% of Americans believe that eating genetically modified food was going to change their own genes.
Eleanor Sterling, who is director of the Center for Biodiversity Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History, nevertheless remained optimistic. "Resilience," she reminded the audience, was an important part of the natural world.
Columbia University professor of earth and climate sciences, Mark Cane, discussed his experience being interviewed by the press about Hurricane Katrina. He said journalists had continually asked him whether Katrina was due to global warming but were not satisfied when he responded by saying, "You can't say any one individual event is due to global warming." Mr. Cane said he learned it was better to repeat this single refrain: "Global warming will make hurricanes like Katrina more likely in the future." "But," he had added, "this isn't the way, as a scientist, I'm trained to respond to a question."
Columbia professor of materials science and metallurgy, Siu-Wai Chan, said science education in America from kindergarten through 12th grade needed improvement. She spoke of the high percentage of graduate students in science and engineering at American universities that come from outside America: "We are basically importing them," she said, but added that they may not be available forever.
Columbia professor of Biology, Darcy Kelley, said, "I am myself the most unlikely scientist" having come from a family of painters, writers, and journalists. "And I was always regarded as much too emotional and demonstrative ever to live in what was perceived to be the cold-hearted, mechanistic, straightforward" world of science. "I rejected that," she said.
Ms. Kelley said she believes it possible to communicate effectively about science because "people are interested in knowing things about themselves." She gave examples of questions that scientists can use to capture the public imagination: "What are the differences between men and women?" "How does the brain work?" "What happens when one falls in love?"
Ms. Kelley said part of the problem was the mistaken conception of the world as divided between scientists and everyone else. She said she has had people at cocktail parties say to her: "You're a scientist? You don't look like a scientist."
On this point, Mr. Schwarcz said young children watching Saturday morning cartoons come away with the misperception of scientists as bent on taking over the world, wearing pocket protectors "with way too many pens," and speaking with German accents. In reality, he said, the only mad scientist is one whose research grant has been rejected.
Ms. Sterling explained to the audience that she became interested in science when she went away to school. She said her family was shocked when she returned home and told them: "I'm leaving for Africa to study wild primates." She recalled how one family member responded, "Africa? That's so far away! Why don't you study wild primates in the United States?"
Mr. Schwarcz, who hosts a weekly Montreal about science called "The Dr. Joe Show," related a joke that highlights reasoning skills regarding science. A woman inspects the jacket of her husband when he comes home from work each day. Inevitably, she finds a hair somewhere on his jacket and accuses her innocent husband of philandering. Finally, he decides to brush the jacket completely before coming home. When the wife finds the jacket clean of hair she exclaims, "Now you're out there running around with bald-headed women!" Mr. Schwarcz said the woman made the right observation but drew the wrong conclusion.
Perhaps scientific literacy and reasoning ability among the pubic would improve if scientists were professionally rewarded for communicating with the public. But Ms. Sterling said that scientists who are good at communicating with the public and who use stories and allegories to get across their message "are actually looked down upon in the academy." It's not something that counts much in getting tenure, she said.
One audience member asked about traditionally underrepresented groups in science such as women and minorities. Ms. Sterling said, "science runs on talent" and that science could not afford to exclude anyone because of prejudice. Another audience member, professor Ronald Breslow, spoke about church opposition initially to lightning rods. Bordellos used the rods, he said, and more churches than bordellos burned down. "At a certain point," he said, "evidence wins."