Scientists often despair at the general lack of scientific understanding by the general public. And to be fair, that understanding is not brilliant, evidenced by regular surveys. I have summarised a snapshot of a series of surveys from across the world below to illustrate the point.
Percentage of people getting the right answer to a selection of science literacy questions by country. Complied from: Ipos MORI Survey, commissioned by the Government Department of Business, Innovation and Skills in 2014. Pew Research Center Poll in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2015) The National Science Foundation, 2014. National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics, Survey of Public Attitudes Towards Understanding of Science and Technology, 2001, University of Michigan, Survey of Consumer Attitudes 2004. How well would you do?
The correct answers are: 1 – false, 2 – True, 3 – True, 4 – True, 5 – False
The other side of the coin is that scientists are sometimes seen as arrogant and aloof and science as unfathomably complicated. Nevertheless, similar surveys to those examining the scientific literacy of the public also report that there is a growing enthusiasm to understand it, and a huge 90% agree that it’s the sciences that will define our future prosperity. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s 2014 television series Cosmos topped 40-million viewers and Brian Cox’s recent tour sold out more than 150,000 tickets. Spurred on by all this I decided to try and write a popular science book myself but then some points of reality hit home.
In the United States, home of Young Earth Creationism and the anti-vaccine movement, popular science is still number five on the list of non-fiction genres amounting to over $155 million in sales in 2017 (published in 2019 by Statista). The genre is dominated by a few authors such as the aforementioned Brian Cox and generally speaking a celebrity figure is much more likely to get a book accepted for publication than just an everyday scientist. The publishing business is a commercial enterprise after all, bringing to mind the Monty Python Struggling Architect sketch and, “not caring a tinker’s cuss about the struggling artist”. As I embark upon a long and difficult journey in book writing I have to be realistic and accept the fact that many more books get written than ever published.
So why bother? It’s partly a matter of personal philosophy. I have always been passionate about the public understanding of science and in the past I have organised some memerorable public events (if I say so myself). Moreover, researching my own book has opened my eyes to how the general public may indeed get the view that science can be aloof.
I am a scientist with around 30-years working with isotopes one way or another but when I try to research areas adjacent to my own specific field I still end up having to compile a dictionary of technical terms. It’s an understandable problem when experts take their specific language for granted but it makes it difficult for others to cut through the jargon. Of course if they are scientific publications aimed at other scientists in the field its understandable but when the intension is for wider communication it’s a different matter. Just as an example, I was looking at a summary of how isotopes are used to follow the flow of nutrients from rivers into the oceans and came across terms such as “sediment porewater” and “aquifer” as if they were everyday terms like, drain or sewer. They are absolutely everyday terms to an oceanographer but to anyone else what do they mean? (If you’re interested I’ll let you look them up as I had to).
I would say to all scientists, new or old (old like me) dedicate just some of your time to the wider communication of your subject but watch that jargon. There’s a thirst for science and you’ll be doing your discipline a great service. And perhaps a few of you might have a try at your own popular science book …. and you never know…