A Response to the “Academics can change the world – if they stop talking only to their peers” article

Mar 18, 2017 @ 12:09 AM ET By Ben Alonzo 0 Comments
academia

This is a response to Savo Heleta’s article on The Conversation that suggests academics only talk among themselves and hardly ever share, write, or talk about science to the public. Once again, someone with little to no hard science credentials tries to say public ignorance, lack of intellectual interest, and the lack of science leaders in government is an academic problem resulting from scientists not communicating outside of their circles. It’s time for someone to speak up about what’s really going on: willful public ignorance, anti-intellectualism, lack of respect for science, politicians unwilling to make science-based decisions, and a general culture that pretends to like trendy science topics, but refuses to fully, consistently embrace science. Don’t blame good scientists for the lack of public interest in their work. It’s complicated.

Cultural Ignorance

This is a response to a March 17, 2017 article that appeared on the “March for Science” official Facebook page. Since this is about science, science will be the context of this response. It appears that some may be suggesting (again) that other non-science, less rigorous subjects should be seen as on the same level as modern science, which is a tired ridiculous argument. The truth is, among academic subjects, science is the most rigorous, tested, effective, consistent utility in the modern world. Legitimate research doesn’t occur without science, same goes for journals.

image
Note: There appears to be some indication that Facebook pages like this contain a significant amount of political bias/agenda, instead of pure science.

Savo Helta’s article published on The Conversation website is a great example of misplaced blame and “writers” writing on subjects they know nothing about. Helta seems to say that academics could change the world, but their work is only read by peers, they don’t share info, and is hidden from the public in journals. This is a short response to the above article and also an explanation of the gap between scientists and the general public. One could wonder what “academics” he’s talking about, but nearly all cutting-edge findings come from science. Therefore, I’m going to assume he’s mainly talking about scientists in academia and science journals. It’s good to have an open discussion on this because more actual science professors need to be pointing this out.

Helta’s article clearly suggests that academics are talking to only among peers and offers a ridiculous reasoning for it:

“The answer appears to be threefold: a narrow idea of what academics should or shouldn’t do; a lack of incentives from universities or governments; and a lack of training in the art of explaining complex concepts to a lay audience.”

Those of us that have gone to school for almost ten years and have earned multiple hard science graduate degrees have no problem determining what we should and shouldn’t do. My passion has always been learning, doing, leading, and teaching. Many of us also operate outside of academia working with corporations, government, the media, and non-profits. Contrary to the thought of academics not existing outside of academia, we exist.

We save lives, develop new products, make people millions, train future doctors, scientists, engineers, and inform consumers. Those of us that practice sound science take pride in knowing we are performing high-quality work.

Can’t decide what to do? Because of our extensive, advanced, higher-level of education and skills, we have an advance decision-making capacity – and no problem deciding what we should or shouldn’t do. The only narrow-minded people are pseudoscientist journalists, politicians, and religious fanatics.

Helta’s remark about explaining complex concepts to a “lay audience” is basically a nicer way of saying we should do a better job of talking to stupid people.

image

What about people that are willfully ignorant? Can you reason with unreasonable people? We do have a large amount of scientifically illiterate public, but why blame this on the literate scientists? What about the fact that sometimes stupid people just don’t want to hear scientists share their ideas?

Helta seems to not understand how complicated science is, suggesting that science work just sits in journals that are only read by peers.

“Instead, their work is largely sitting in academic journals that are read almost exclusively by their peers.”

While it’s true that there’s a lot of science work published in journals, science is not limited to them. Scientists work in labs all over the world. In fact, what you see published in journals is only a fraction of the science going on. There are schools, corporations, and independent people regularly performing science. A science journal is just one of many ways a scientist can get work out to others. There are also non-profit organizations that regularly publish their findings to the public – for free. In some cases, work might be too secret to publish. Some of the most astonishing science findings may be hidden from the public – for good reason. It’s not just military secrets, corporations do it too.

Did you also know that many scientists and professors (those actually in the classroom) have free blogs where they share their latest research, ideas, and suggestions?

Helta goes on to say:

“Some academics insist that it’s not their job to write for the general public. They suggest that doing so would mean they’re abandoning their mission as intellectuals. They don’t want to feel like they’re “dumbing down” complex thinking and arguments.”

The notion that academics can’t speak to the public because it would mean they were not intellectuals is laughably ridiculous. For example, I can choose to write a story at either a basic, intermediate, or advanced-level. I could include calculus equations, computer coding syntax, symbols, complex technical instructions, and even graduate-level terminology. However, I have to consider my time and other responsibilities – it’s not because I would lose my official secret membership to the intellectual club, if I shared anything with the public. Sure, more scientists (competent) should share more with the public, but there’s plenty of stuff already available for the asking/seeking.

You can search Google and find text and videos covering nearly every level of science education – brought to you by some of the smartest people on Earth. How would we know someone is an intellectual, if they didn’t demonstrate and share ideas?

Here are the real reasons (not all) why much of the public isn’t interested in science or “intellectual” things (as it was put above):

I cannot speak for every science professor, but I know I’m not alone. America has a popular culture of political correctness, sensational media, hypocrisy, and an obsession with stalker-like gossip stories (what are the Kardashians up to now). Don’t blame the good scientists for public science illiteracy or disinterest.

A culture that doesn’t value science is doomed. Good scientists spend their lives learning, doing, and teaching. Many scientists regularly communicate with the public, even participating in organized non-profit sectors because they want to share amazing science with the public.

America is behind the rest of the developed world, in terms of science, tech, and healthcare 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Until we focus on delivering a better sound science education for our K-12 and college students, we fully embrace science as a society, the media starts utilizing actual scientists with formal education in the subjects they write about, and our government starts making all decisions based on sound science, not much will change.

A huge portion of the US public doesn’t understand basic science concepts. In 2001, the National Science Foundation found that at least 66% of Americans do not understand the scientific method. Discovery also reports that around 1 in 4 Americans are unaware that the Earth revolves around the Sun, according to a 2014 National Science Foundation report. It should be no surprise that more people aren’t interested in “intellectual” things.

Our health, productivity, economy, national security, and future depend on an adequate number of scientifically literate citizens. Despite science’s awesome utility in nearly every aspect of our lives, a large amount of the US public just isn’t interested in science. What’s causing this science literacy emergency and lack of interest in science? Lots of things.

We live a longer, higher quality life because of science. There is no other subject on Earth that has the level of utility that comes from modern science. The failure of K-12 education is obvious, especially science, technology, engineering, and math knowledge, skills, and abilities. What are kids doing for 12 years of school, 8 hours a day, and why don’t we have more to show for it?

We have high school graduates that lack basic history knowledge, don’t know state capitals, don’t understand the scientific method or why it’s important, can’t read or write at an acceptable level, lack basic earth science, technology, and health knowledge. Why is this so important? Science has utility in nearly every aspect of our lives, regardless of your career. People use the scientific method every day to make informed decisions. In fact, everyone should be using modern science, including our political leaders in government. Future jobs will demand a higher level of science and technology skills of potential employees. We also face numerous life-threatening challenges, which means our survival depends on whether we embrace science or not.

In the name of political correctness, which is not compatible with sound science, reason, or logic, we have dumbed down our teaching and blurred our standards. Either it’s science or it isn’t. There shouldn’t be a “hard” and a “soft” version of science.

We’ve been told that we can’t correct students when they are wrong and that we can’t present any challenging ideas to them because it might “hurt their feelings.”

Some have gone as far as to refrain from grading, using red ink (it’s a really scary color), or even telling the student they did anything wrong because it might impact their self-esteem. How would this work out for nursing students, if we don’t train them that there is a right and wrong answer? This is not a trend that sound scientists created and perpetuated, it’s a pseudoscience, regressive, identity politics-driven agenda.

We’re failing our students when we don’t give them the best science education they deserve.

We’re focused more on bureaucratic processes and political correctness rather than educational progress. These things are a major contributor to why much of America’s public doesn’t respect science. After all, they don’t understand it, and whatever they do hear is so full of political contamination that they find it repulsing.

The general public is just more interested in what the Kardashians are doing, the latest political outrage, sports, or who’s winning on American Idol. We live in a society more concerned about political correctness, outdated traditions, and government that isn’t making science-based decisions. Why should it surprise anyone that there’s a gap between science and the public?

It’s not that academic scientists don’t communicate with the public, it’s that too much of the public lacks basic science education and interest in any significant science subjects, especially the “hard sciences.”

Scientists do have a hard time communicating with the public because of identity politics. Is the scientist a Democrat or Republican? Real science isn’t based on politics or political science, but that doesn’t matter to the ignorant.

Scientists do have a hard time communicating with the public and media because they are not receptive to any science fact that is not politically correct, supporting any one political agenda. There are some amazing discoveries and critical findings taking place, but the political culture in America makes it dangerous to discuss them. The blind rage mobs are constantly smelling blood, ready to attack, demand a scientist or professor be fired, and even make death threats. Who wants to deal with that, if you can just talk among your peers, which typically give you a standard of respect not seen among the public or media?

Part of the reason why some people think science isn’t interesting is because the media constantly bombards them with junk science headlines. There’s so much conflicting information being passed around by journalists that misrepresent findings that it makes the public distrust academia, but who can blame them?

Junk Science is Rampant

Many of our top science communicators have pointed out that junk science is rampant and may even find its way into some of the most well-known journals. Because junk science is so rampant, it makes it so much more important for scientists, journalists, and the general public to know the difference between sound science and junk science. The problem today is the fact that people both unknowingly and knowingly push junk science. For example, a writer can pull out bits and pieces of a science story and publish a misleading article. Sometimes, articles can be purposely misleading, especially to attempt to get ratings. Again, just because something gets published doesn’t mean it’s useful, good science, or worthy of a news article.

Begin quote at time 19:29s in video. Dr. Krauss discusses junk science in journals.

During a Conway Hall lecture, the popular science communicator, Dr. Lawrence Krauss once said:

“Getting in a journal doesn’t mean anything. It’s when people reproduce your results and find them useful then it’s important. I don’t read stuff in journals because most of it’s garbage. It isn’t relevant or important. But it’s obvious when something is useful and people pick up on that.”

Unfortunately, and since so many things are published in legitimate journals, any author has a plethora of claims to write about. This is the very reason why you often see many journalists and other online writers passing along misleading information about a journal piece. This is also the reason why some of the public is frustrated because they see a “science story” about how chocolate causes cancer today and then the exact opposite tomorrow. Correlation doesn’t equal causation, but taking bits and pieces out of a journal article, either purposely misleading the public or just not understanding the science involved, happens all of the time.

image

Helta says:

“Academics need to start playing a more prominent role in society instead of largely remaining observers who write about the world from within ivory towers and publish their findings in journals hidden behind expensive digital paywalls.”

What if society isn’t interested in academics? What if government is only interested in money-making lobbyists, not scientists? So scientists only observe and write about the world from within ivory towers? Scientists only publish their findings in journals?

I can assure you that if something of particular interest to the public was “hidden behind expensive digital paywalls”, one of us would gladly interpret it and write about it to the public for free (I do it all the time). This is another reason why people need to consider the source and take what writers like Heleta say with a grain of salt.

Note: I dislike the idea of hiding information behind paywalls, but this is common practice for many academic journals. Although this is a barrier to the general public, rest assured that there are tens of thousands of scientists monitoring them. As professors, we have a duty to keep up with the latest sound science, technology, and to communicate with the media and public, if something significant occurs. Just realize that the media and public might not be interested in what science has to say, in many cases.

Note: I also recognize that inside academia there is clearly a culture that is more focused on publishing and grant accumulation, regardless of whether anything has been actually accomplished. This is something that will also improve with more transparency, more public possessing basic science education, and institutional changes. However, this does not apply to every scientist or professor working in academia. There should be a healthy balance between research, teaching, and communicating with the public.

As far as incentives, sure, academics would love to be rewarded for dedicating more time to communicating with the public. However, in fairness, we’re busy teaching thousands of students every semester, grading, keeping track of the latest research in journals, keeping up with technology, making lecture videos, writing material, adopting textbooks, creating quizzes and tests, doing an astonishing amount of reading, filling out lots of paperwork, performing our own research, paying our own bills, worrying about our health insurance, raising our families, and the other typical things in life. Being inside of academia, especially in critical sciences, is very demanding, even to the point of burning people out.

You do not go into academia to become a billionaire and much of your work goes unnoticed and unthanked. Just because we aren’t blogging our every move to people like Heleta doesn’t mean we’re not working hard or communicating.

One of the biggest walls to promoting sound science interest are the huge amounts of pseudoscience blogs and journalists in the public spotlight.

Pseudoscience Writers & Websites

Scientists do communicate with the media, but why not go with something more sensational for ratings? What does get out through the media is often completely different than the original science article. When so much junk science gets published in journals and by the media, it causes a distrust of science. It’s also a matter of journalists having no formal science education to interpret science stories and make them interesting to the public.

The internet is an awesome thing, but it also means people can find junk much easier. Anyone can make a claim and spread it on a blog or through social media. Unfortunately, far too many journalists and individuals pretend to like science, but they fail to consistently embrace it. In addition, far too many people (“science writers”) writing on science stories have no formal educational background in the science subjects they cover. This lack of education means they are at a disadvantage and may not have the knowledge to interpret or communicate a specific science matter to the public.

Actually, this is the exact reason why you might find a website or Facebook page about science pushing so many junk science titles, click bait, or downright misleading stories. People legitimately get tired of this and start ignoring it.

We can’t just blame the people that spread junk science, it’s also a large amount of the public that lack a basic science education and are just not interested in it. America has a culture of ignorance, which is very evident in survey and academic data.

The solution isn’t to deploy a North Korean dictatorship. Instead, pseudoscience can be stamped out by promoting sound science. If more of our citizens and journalists had a basic science education and adequate knowledge of the scientific method, more people would take interest in it, know the difference between fact and fiction, and we would advance as a society.

Positivity

I saved the best thing for last. Science is awesome, whether you know it or not.

space

We’ve grown so comfortable that it’s easy to take the things we use on a daily basis for granted. Your computer, phone, music, bed, television, remote, hair coloring, our space program, modern medicine, disease prevention, longer life, and clean air and water are all a direct result of science. How awesome is that?

Science has saved my life numerous times and I have used it to save many other people from death. I consider it an honor to be studying and teaching science. I also have great respect for others that teach sound science because they are making a difference. Sound science is the best way to make decisions. You get the best engineers, scientists, and doctors from a good science education. You learn to appreciate them, especially when you need them, and your life depends on it.

There is no other subject on Earth that has the level of utility we see in science. The awesome technology we use and future inventions are all a testament of modern science. We have an infinite amount of things to discover, which means there is plenty of room for more scientists. Everyone should have a basic science education because it has become a necessity for even the most basic life functions.

Science literacy leads to a greater appreciation, higher interest of science, and more respect for intellect. Great things happen when a nation and its citizens fully embrace science.

bio
Author: Ben Alonzo is a scientist, professor, tech expert, and director of ULTRATechLife.com. He’s currently CEO of the tech firm Emera Media. He holds a M.S. in Geoscience, M.S. in Health, and a B.S. in Geoscience. Alonzo is a highly-rated professor that teaches numerous courses at multiple colleges, including earth science, meteorology, environmental science, geology, oceanography, and public health. His diverse background also spans network and computer engineering, healthcare, telecommunications, weather forecasting, consumer electronics, and web development. He holds a variety of professional credentials, ranging from A+ information technology to healthcare provider and emergency medical technician certifications. He’s been writing about science and tech for over 10 years.
Share this: