Not just blind, but blinkered

Last week, my husband and I had the opportunity to go see Alan Alda give a talk at the National Academies of Sciences called “Beyond a Blind Date With Science.” The talk was amazing (see a clip here). In short, Dr. Alda was making the point that the American public is on a “blind date” with science. They are potentially interested in the relationship, but they are also uncertain and often skeptical of science’s language, goals, and motives. As such, it is the job of scientists to do a better job in communicating to the public exactly what it is that we do, in order to foster an enduring commitment to science. As such, Alda’s center recommends that scientists focus more on relating to the public, rather than lecturing (and recommends improv classes to improve their skills).

But much as I enjoyed the talk (and realize there is a limited amount of time) I think the analogy needs to go one step further. When meeting someone for the first time on a blind date, we are not just uncertain and potentially skeptical. Instead, we rely on common stereotypes to make snap judgments. Boring accountant. Confrontational lawyer. Pushy salesperson.

Science is no exception. As an academic studying social science, there are a number of stereotypes that can make communicating “what I do” more difficult. First is the general perception of what a scientist does. Googling “scientist” will bring up pictures of people (mostly white men) in white lab coats, working with burners and tubes. As a social scientist, I have to explain that I study how people learn about and communicate about politics – which hardly fits into this notion of a white lab coat (and I don’t even own one). This may also explain why most of the American public can’t name a living scientist – they are thinking of only one (small) group.

Second, I am a scientist affiliated with a university.  My job calls 40% of my time to be devoted to research, another 40% to teaching, and 20% to service. But of these three, only teaching is immediately understood to those outside of academia or science, leaving the “research” side of my job opaque. This is perhaps where I (and other scientist) can do a better job in being relatable: in explaining what I do with the supposedly 16 hours a week (as if I – or other assistant profs – worked a 40 hour week!) of research and why it matters. Just a few weeks ago, a family friend admitted they still don’t understand what I do outside of teaching. This provoked a moment of reflection: if close friends don’t understand what I do, how can we expect the general public to understand it?

Together, these factors have promoted a final overarching stereotypes of the academic scientist: as a remote elite. The “ivory tower” mentality hurts academics, and this is perhaps where Alda’s lessons about being relatable – being clear and passionate about what we do – matters so much.

But much as I would love to relate to the public more, it is worth remembering that at this point in my career, building these relationships is essentially extra, unpaid work. My promotion and tenure depends largely on publishing in academic journals, which are often literally inaccessible even to interested members of the public. “Public outreach” is said to be valued, but usually the number and quality of academic publications matter much more.

I don’t want to entirely absolve “the public” of their responsibilities either. If you accept a blind date, you should go in with an open mind and be willing to see what results. Going beyond the prejudices of what a scientist should be – whether it’s of elites, of white coats, or something else – might open a new world and a new possible relationship. And scientists, we need to do a better job of – in Alda’s words – relating our passion, our excitement, and our value to the public when they join us on a blind date.

I’m ready for the challenge – especially once I pour myself a glass of wine!

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