Why are there so few high quality science communicators?


 

If civilization was a person, the scientific method, and the knowledge gained from it would not only constitute the brain and heart, but also all the major organs necessary to support life.  Or to put it another way, without the scientific method and the knowledge gained by it, civilization as we know it would cease to be, and we would be back to living in a very VERY bleak world.

Sadly societies in general seem to be happily, maybe even wilfully ignorant of just how much our civilization and quality of life depends on this method, and the knowledge gain by it. So why is this? Who, if anyone is to blame?

Well scientists have to take their share of the blame for this, in that if anyone can promote science, it’s them.  However speaking as a research scientist I KNOW why communicating science/ debunking pseudoscience (in science circles) is generally seen as a gamma rate objective, typically only pursued by betas.

The metrics by which scientists typically measure their success is by how much research money they bring in, and how much stuff they publish.  Nowhere in this equation is communicating science valued or rewarded.

-Communicating science takes time, which practically means the more time you spend communicating science, the less time there is to ‘succeed’ in the metrics used to determine success.

 

In many ways science has been corrupted by the access to data.  20 years ago, there were no easily accessible ‘metrics of success’ like the h-index and citations.  People didn’t/ couldn’t waste as much time worrying about it.  Now things like the h-index can be easily obtained with a few mouse clicks and are widely accepted and used for determining the success of an academic.  The game has slowly changed from ‘who can do the best research’ to ‘who can get the better h-factor’.  Now this is not to say the h-index has no value, in that it is correlated to the achievements of an academic but the correlations is not great and more importantly the index is relatively easy to game for personal advantage.

 

That’s really it in a nutshell.  Once you have defined a metric for success, it is expected that people will try to optimize how they score on that metric….. they will start to game the system.  This is the research equivalent of that often heard student question ‘will this be on the test’.  That’s the tipping point between where the student has gone from being there to actually learn, to being there to simply get the highest mark they can on the test.

 

Simply put, if ‘success as defined by h-index’ is what you are after, gaming the system is now the name of the game. Or put another way, if you are honestly doing the best science you can, you will not be able to compete in ‘success metrics’ with an equally talented scientist who’s playing the game of ‘winning in success metrics’.

 

If the system is set up such that scientists have no incentives for communicating science, then it is small wonder that there are so few high quality science communicators out there?

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22 Responses to “Why are there so few high quality science communicators?”

  1. OgreMkV Says:

    I think that the solution may lie in non-scientists who are scientifically literate.

    They don’t do the science, just read it (in peer-reviewed journals) and are capable (sometimes with help) of explaining the concepts in laymen’s terms.

  2. Mike Paps Says:

    Excellent article with great points. Every major university should have a position equivalent to Oxford’s Professor for Public Understanding of Science, the post once held by Richard Dawkins. Maybe then we’d have a metric for success as a science communicator.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Mr. Science, Your FTW is insights that I appreciate. I’ve been watching you for edification and amusement. I relate to your comments about valuing education and wanting to know as a self motivation rather than a culturally normative success metric.

    I think you are moving western civilization forward, the others are gaming. The gamers are not helpful in the Global Climate Change solution or the pointing out the con jobs that religious and the religions perpetuate. The Truth will win eventually. It may get a bit ugly and painful, but reality based thinking helps me sleep with myself. ——David

  4. Links 23/5/2014: Linux 3.15 RC6, KDE Previews | Techrights Says:

    […] Why are there so few high quality science communicators? […]

  5. jmdlugosz Says:

    Funny I should see a picture of Neil when check in here, since I was just fiddling with mine in Lightroom. The problem with pictures of (self+celebrity) is that someone else is operating the camera.

    I don’t think pictures can be posted in Comments, but here it is on dropbox:

    (I’m the white guy)

  6. jmdlugosz Says:

    I think there have been a line of “for the people” scientists through the 20th century. George Gamow was looked down by his peers for writing “popular” books. But it paved the way for others to follow. I don’t know if other fields have their own Greene/Gamow/Krauss, but that’s not lacking in cosmology and quantum physics, which are “hot” subjects for entertainment.

    You feature a photo of Neil deGrasse Tyson, but he’s a professional educator, not a working scientist. That is another category: people who are pros at writing/teaching/communicating-in-general with non-pros in the field who also actually qualified for work in that field rather than writers who just repeat each other’s explanations.

    Isaac Asimov had a Ph.D. in biochemistry, but he wrote on all topics. So knowing Real Science professionally in some field is helpful in general.

    I think we need to change the perception among peers of working scientists also teaching to “popular” audiences. Isn’t that where the money is? I think sales of books and personal appearances of a celebrity scientist could be seen as a way to get funding as well as general interest into the field.

    —John

  7. William Bradley Says:

    What an interesting point! Now that you’ve made the point it seems obvious that it’s true, like so many things seem after explained. Please keep explaining these things to the rest of us. We need it.

  8. Woody Says:

    Your comments about the scientific method, its value and importance to our advance, I found moving.
    I’ve had many of these thoughts and felt so strongly about them (but rarely put them in words as well as you did).
    Neil deGrasse Tyson’s educational background probably helps a lot in has ability to get things across to audiences. And when such communication ability is used to present the magic of science, well, the results are beautiful.

    All the best,
    Woody

  9. Matura2014 Says:

    youtu.be/6F_iAaeKRkY Epic Educational Failure, please take a look!

  10. Woody Says:

    Thanks for the lead, Matura. Apart from an obvious educational failure regarding an English exam in Bulgaria, which I am glad to learn about, does it lead to a point regarding this post from ThunderfOOt or regarding my earlier comment on the 23rd?

    Best,
    Woody

    • Matura2014 Says:

      Not really, for which I am deeply sorry, but I just hope that if a person, such as thunderf00t, notice this video and talk about it, it could easily become something that people outside of my country would hear and talk about.

      • Woody Says:

        No worries Matura, I was just curious, in case there was a question I might like to answer.
        While I no longer work in education, it is still a subject close to my heart and I appreciate your concern for it.

        All the best,
        Woody

  11. Engineer-Poet Says:

    I hate to post OT, but I don’t see an e-mail address anywhere:

    Regarding the “Dumbest thing ever said about Fukushima”, which precise videos of the Canadian nutcase were excerpted for it?  His channel is full of hour-long videos which would be impossible to browse for the original material in any reasonable amount of time.

    Timestamps would be GREATLY appreciated.

  12. Jamesus Christ Says:

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/3364#comment-308901

    Unrelated but I thought you might enjoy it

  13. zortharg Says:

    Let me tell you a story from my childhood. At age 10, in 5th grade, I was put in the “dumb” math class. I didn’t reliably do my homework and so they demoted me, basically. Though who could blame me. It was pretty low-level stuff. Though the teacher in the dumb class was astute enough to identify me as flagrantly the smartest kid in the class, she didn’t realize just how flagrantly I was not just the smartest 10-year-old in the room, but the smartest person in the room. One day, she asked me to calculate the first 20 or so digits of pi for the class. I thought for a moment and told her that I didn’t actually know how to do that, and at that time, I hadn’t memorized it quite to 20 digits, and she told me to use long division. I asked how I could use long division to figure out pi, and she told me to divide 22 by 7. So it was up to ME, age 10 me, to teach HER, in the middle of class, about what a RATIONAL NUMBER was. She, who was LICENSED by the STATE OF ILLINOIS to TEACH MATHEMATICS in public school. She shouldn’t have been allowed to be granted a 4 year degree at any respectable university, let alone graduate high school, let alone graduate middle school, where I was, and not know that 22 divided by 7 is not pi, let alone to actually TEACH math. Granted this was a very long time ago, but things have not changed. You want to know why there are so few high quality science (or math) communicators? Because the damn school board, the state government, the federal government, doesn’t care about any standards for their science and math communicators, that’s why! And WHY is THAT? Because the school board, and every state government, and the politicians in Washington DC are comprised of scientifically illiterate fucktards, THAT’S WHY! And who elected them? The scientifically illiterate fucktards who make up >50% of the population, that’s who! Same reason George W. Bush was elected in 2004 (you can’t hold it against anyone for electing him in 2000, but IMHO anyone who voted for him in 2004 is too dumb to live), same reason you’ve got creationists trying to legislate biology out of classrooms or the 10 commandments onto the lawn of their capitol building or whatever. The problem is I look around and I see the same thing I did in that classroom at age 10. A bunch of retards. And they’re the ones making the decisions! It’s not just about education, it’s also about raw intelligence, and unless you have a die-off of stupid for some reason, they’re going to have the overwhelming majority no matter how hard you try to educate them.

    Anyway, so that’s my take on the topic, but I’m here for something else and have the same sort of problem Engineer-Poet 2 above me had – no contact info. I actually just wanted to tell thunderf00t about the same stupidity he was complaining about the solar highways being in a sci-fi book that annoyed the hell out of me when I tried to tolerate reading it in 2001 – the book is “Red Mars”. by Kim Stanley Robinson. And there’s one part where they’re terraforming Mars, and one of the thing they did – not kidding – is drop solar powered electric motors, that would flop around on the surface to generate heat. DUUUUHHHH!!!!! Yeah, this turkey took all of 0 seconds to set off my bullshit detector. How could anyone be so stupid to think that makes any sense at all? They’d do a much better job if they dropped buckets of black paint on the ground! Paint which is black to sunlight, but white to long infrared frequencies, so that it would not radiate much of their heat, only absorb light. Of course anyone with a functional brain can see why the two situations, the thing in the science fiction book, and the LED illumination under direct sunlight in the solar freakin’ highways, are in fact the same. And yet this was a critically acclaimed book. Admired by NERDS who are yet apparently too scientifically illiterate to see how stupid it is in any amount of time when I saw it with no delay at all. Yeah, there’s no hope for the human race. I say, don’t be a proponent of building spaceships and spreading the scourge of pink goo to other planets. I kind of cringe when one of the “celebrity scientists” (especially that Michiu Kaku, oh he’s the most annoying one of them all) is always going on about how we shouldn’t “put all our eggs” on one planet and spread out to the stars. Hell yeah I say, keep all the poison eggs here on Earth. Not that I think they’d succeed making an interplanetary let alone interstellar ship and manage the task.

  14. zortharg Says:

    Jamesus Christ, Mr. Mason already knows about that thing where he was called a sociopath. He mocked it in his thunderf00t videos in at least one occasion. Frankly I think thunderf00t’s one of the few I’ve seen who go JUST the right distance on most issues (hard to believe anyone criticizes him for being too hard on Muslims, patcondell is the only one who fits that bill), his stances on things speak for themselves and anyone who calls him a sociopath for saying things like that assertions should be backed up with evidence should back up their damn insane ASSERTIONS with EVIDENCE! Theamazingatheist is the other I’d say who when he takes a definite stance on an issue, mostly reliably does it right, though TJ definitely has demonstrated some screwed up beliefs occasionally; namely when I saw his “The End of Morality and the Anarchy of the Soul”, I was so annoyed that I didn’t watch another of his videos for 2 years.

    Not that I think that being a sociopath is a bad thing, anyway. After all, how could I, I’m one myself. It just means I’m indifferent to the suffering of others, not that I enjoy causing it. But so is almost everyone else, they’re all looking out for #1 too, I’m just honest about it. It doesn’t mean I don’t know the DIFFERENCE between right and wrong. That’s the most flagrant thing that’s wrong with the idiots’ views on issues, their priorities demonstrate ethics-blindness. At no time to I gain a greater appreciation for this than when talking to a republican. I remember playing checkers on yahoo games once, and my opponent was this crazy right-wing nutjob who actually accused me of being evil (this was in 2006) for thinking things he didn’t, all the while refusing to accept a draw. He just wanted to move his one piece back and forth in the corner until I gave up. Because he felt he was entitled to victory. That’s what all these people complaining about the morality of others always amounts to. They’re all hypocrites, just like that guy, calling the other guy an evil scumbag and at the SAME TIME, cheating at checkers. So as a sociopath, and being self-interested, I have no motivation to be irrationally unfair to people, like to hate men (feminism) or everyone who doesn’t join some stupid backward coercive club (christianity, islam, scientology, etc.) while ironically having no morals (because obedience is not morality, they’re just following rules while they pathologically refuse to develop their own, insisting god’s standards would supersede theirs anyway as an excuse) and at the same time maintaining that everyone else who isn’t in the club has no morals (just like calling someone else morally bankrupt and evil all the while cheating at checkers). So something that isn’t really an insult or something to cringe away from, backed up by pure fluff and in an argument that demonstrates a difficulty itself in distinguishing good from evil, it’s a pretty empty insult to fling.

    • Jamesus Christ Says:

      I know Dr. Mason is aware of Carrier’s blatant character assassination. But I had fun proving what a poor academic Petty Officer 3rd Class Carrier is. Thought I’d shed further light on his blatant ignorance, that’s all.

      BTW, as I pointed out to Carrier, it’s not sociopathy. It’s ASPD. And for a self-declared sociopath, you seem to have a lot of disdain for the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of others. Also, if you do have clinically diagnosed ASPD, it’s presumed that you have a pervasive pattern of conduct disorder, which would be inconsistent with your statement of having no motivation to be irrationally unfair. Being irrationally unfair to others would be, well, self-interested and more in line with consistent disregard/violation of others. Food for thought.

  15. Doug Patterson (@drop2) Says:

    h-index being used at my company to track the success of our sales-dude / evangelists (scientific instrument mfgr.).

    Game on.

  16. Matt Marinello Says:

    Thing is, with not much communication of it, there will be less progress, due to, lack of new scientists/new people interested in it.

  17. Episode #99, The Benefits of Obsession – Jay Jack Uncensored Says:

    […] Why are there so few high quality science communicators? […]

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