A modest proposal

A clip from Young Frankenstein.

Scientists suffer from an image problem. If you were to ask a child to draw a picture of a scientist, for instance, you’d probably receive a depiction of an old, crazy-haired white male holding a bubbling test tube, the image drawing heavily from Dr. Frankenstein and Albert Einstein. This image seems to be especially difficult to dig out, and at times even the people who want to bridge the gap between scientists and the public resort to childish name-calling, portraying researchers as freaks and geeks (i.e. “… feel free to imagine startled and upset sheep jumping all over nerdy researchers.“). I have grown increasingly tired of the general term “scientist” being equated with a lab-coat clad bench monkey who is socially inept, wasting taxpayer money to answer questions no one wants the answer to. The problem is much bigger than roughly half the country not accepting evolution as reality or the threat of global climate change; those two points are indicative of a much larger conflict between who scientists are and who the public perceives them to be.

Rather than continue to whine and complain about the problem I think it’s time we did something about it. The question is “What can we do?” When I participated in a course about communicating marine science to children this question came up and it appeared that a short video illustrating who scientists are was an effective way to change perspectives. Rather than talking generally the film featured short interviews with a diversity of researchers, from grad students up to professors, focusing on people of different ages, races, and fields of research (most importantly showing the scientists at work). The short film focused on marine scientists, of course, but I do think that the principle is sound. If such a film could be made spanning a greater number of disciplines, perhaps in association with a body like the AAAS and distributed to public schools, it could be a good starting place for changing the way people recognize scientists.

I am afraid that in this case I can provide little more than an idea. I don’t have the means or the connections to undertake such a project but others in the science blogging community might. Maybe the idea is flawed and we could do something better; if that’s the case then I’d certainly welcome any proposals of more effective strategies. (Back in April Chad proposed a pro-science film festival, yet it seems this idea has fizzled out. I think it deserves to be revived.) The point is that I feel that many of us are frustrated with the way science is seen by the public and that we need to do something more than complain about it on our blogs. If we want to instigate change we can’t continue to just grumble among ourselves; we really should be using the unique opportunities the science blogosphere presents to do something more to improve the way the public understands science.