If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know that I aim for something relatively light-hearted with lots of pop-culture and at least a nod to the scientific method. I regularly digress from the main point, but hopefully in a relevant way, if that isn’t a complete oxymoron.
You’ll also know that I’m a big fan of the late Terry Pratchett. One of the pieces of information that came out about him after his death was delivered courtesy of another of the world’s great writers, Neil Gaiman. Gaiman stated that Pratchett was driven by anger. You get flashes of this in his writing with perhaps the most sustained example being Hogfather. I mention this because for the most part, to date, I don’t think I’ve written anything on this blog out of anger, with the possible exception of my early post on microplastics. Which is not to say that there aren’t things that make me angry – I just don’t happen to write about them, usually.
One of the things that really gets up my nostrils is scientists who weigh in on issues that they are not qualified to talk about, scientists who stand on their reputation for good science and then act in a non-scientific way when offering an opinion, scientists who pontificate without getting their facts straight, scientists who can’t get down off their high hobby-horse to engage with new data. I’m not going to name names, not because I’m hiding my data, but because it wouldn’t help to challenge them. Suffice it to say that this blog was fuelled by a recent statement by one particular person, but is a subject that periodically comes to mind.
Instead, dear hypothetical reader (to merge the styles of two of my favourite bloggers), I’m going to challenge YOU. Too often we treat science as we do democracy – we offload our rights and responsibilities on to someone else, saying that it’s too difficult, we don’t understand. I will freely raise my hand and say that I’ve frequently failed to engage with what my MP has voted on, and hidden behind the excuse of “I’m too busy”. Chances are that I’m not going to change on this matter very much any time soon. Still, to paraphrase Rich Hall, I am close to approaching that point at which an Englishman snaps: I will write a letter.
So, what can we all do about engaging with science and keeping scientists on track and doing what they do best?
1) Ask for evidence: if you come across something that doesn’t seem quite right, ask for evidence. Don’t be fobbed off with a glossy brochure, ask for original sources and check whether the journal that they come from is reputable and peer reviewed. Sense About Science is a charity that specialises in debunking ridiculous claims and setting the record straight when the media misquote or misuse scientific information. On their website you can find useful information on scientific studies and you can ask them to investigate what you believe might be a fraudulent claim, based on pseudo-science.
2) Don’t believe something just because someone important says it. We’ve seen a lot of people stumble over numbers recently and whilst there can be a very good explanation, like it’s the sixth interview of the morning or something, it’s worth digging into the numbers a bit and seeing what’s going on.
3) Look for the primary source: lots of things turn out to be urban myths when examined more closely.
4) Linked to 3, whilst urban myths are fun, they are the empty calories of conversation, and a virus to boot: stop the spread by checking your facts before you pass on a story.
5) There are lots of great vectors for science communication and lots of brilliant communicators looking for an audience. Look out for Pint of Science, Brightclub, I’m an Engineer, and lots of other great events. Get any communicative scientists and engineers that you know to give school talks and demos – most will be only too delighted to
showoff demonstrate what they’re up to. (Kids are more likely to engage with science subjects when they have to study them if they are exposed to them when they are younger).
6) Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know, don’t be afraid to give new things a try, don’t expect to be an expert the first time.
7) Do try this at home – experiment with recipes, make notes, see what works and what doesn’t.
Have we got a deal?
What would you like to see scientists doing better?