We’ve posted frequently about the decline in public support for science over the past several years. One reason for this decline is that the general public just doesn’t understand science or finds it boring (let’s be real, we’ve all have that dreadful chemistry/physics/biology/etc professor). Another reason is due to the current trend of dismissing facts and evidence-based decision making.
The scientific community has been trying to combat this by working to improve science communication in many ways. And seems like some of this hard work has paid off? Is Science (slowly beginning to) making a comeback with the general public?! Here are THREE examples why I think science is on the up and up:
Bill Nye is BACK! Bill Nye, our favorite science guy (tied with Neil deGrasse Tyson), is coming back with a Netflix series called Bill Nye Saves the World. I CANNOT WAIT. This series will feature celebrities and highlight some important topics in science today (climate change, health, etc). From what I can tell, it seems like “Bill Nye the Science Guy” but made for adults. This type of public-oriented science show is EXACTLY what science needs. A way to inspire and demonstrate cool science while also informing about the principles of how research is done and how scientists draw conclusions.
Magic School Bus is ALSO back! And thankgawd. The new series “The Magic School Bus: Rides Again” will debut on Netflix later this year. This was absolutely my favorite show as a little kid, and it’s incredibly important that the future generation receives a strong foundation in science. As a plus, our favorite SNL star Kate McKinnon will voice Mrs. Frizzle.
Dan Rather and the Science Communication Lab. I love it when non-scientists in positions of fame advocate for science. Dan Rather is doing just that. He is collaborating with iBiology to bring science to the general public. In his statement:
I have a deep curiosity about the mysteries of life, and an unwavering respect for the women and men expanding the horizons of knowledge, and I am collaborating with a nonprofit science communication group called IBiology to extend their mission from the professional science community to you, the general public. We’re calling this effort the Science Communication Lab.
We will be announcing future projects soon, including a feature-length documentary on which we have just begun production. For all the importance of politics these days, we would do well to remember that there is a larger world that can fill us with wonder and awe.
I am really looking forward to all three of these efforts to expand science to the general public!
Bill Nye was invited to give the commencement speech this year for the Rutgers University Commencement. While our favorite “Science guy” hit on a variety of points, he made sure to emphasize the importance of acting on climate change. You can read the full transcript of the speech at Time Magazine. Here are some highlights:
The oncoming trouble is Climate Change: It is going to affect you all in the same way the Second World War consumed people of my parents’ generation. They rose to the challenge, and so will you. They came to be called The Greatest Generation. I want you all to preserve our world in the face of Climate Change and carry on as The Next Great Generation.
That’s it; that’s our problem. We have almost 7.3 billion people breathing and burning an atmosphere, which is, in the planetary scheme of things, quite shallow. We all share the same air. That’s why our climate is changing. Denying it is in no one’s best interest. If you know any climate deniers, I’m sorry. But, try asking them this question: “Do you believe that it’s a conspiracy of health professional that is duping the world into believing that cigarette smoking causes cancer?” The scientific consensus on climate change is at least as strong as the consensus on smoking. Climate change is a real deal. So, hey deniers — cut it out, and let’s get to work.
Class of 2015, you have to vote! For those of you, who don’t want to participate — who don’t want to vote, would you please just shut up, so the rest of us can get things done.
Along with the evidence of common sense, researchers have proven scientifically that humans are all one people. We’re a lot like dogs in that regard. If a Great Dane interacts (can we say interact?) with a Chihuahua, you get a dog. They’re all of the same species. Same with us. The color of our ancestors’ skin and ultimately my skin and your skin is a consequence of ultraviolet light, of latitude and climate. Despite our recent sad conflicts here in the U.S., there really is no such thing as race. We are one species — each of us much, much more alike than different. We all come from Africa. We all are of the same stardust. We are all going to live and die on the same planet, a Pale Blue Dot in the vastness of space. We have to work together.
Akin to the poet laureate position, the honorary one-year laureate appointment would give a respected scientist an official national platform to enhance the public understanding of science and attract students to STEM fields.
When the bill was first introduced in 2013, Wired suggested astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, theoretical physicist Brian Greene and marine biologist Sylvia Earle among other candidates to fill this science ambassador role.
But if the bipartisan 2014 bill succumbs to another fight over the politicization of science, it’s worth considering that perhaps we don’t need a science laureate. We already have de facto spokespeople for science – celebrity scientists.
Celebrity scientists/science ambassadors
I profiled Tyson and Greene at length in my book, The New Celebrity Scientists, which examines how our media-driven celebrity culture produces popular scientific stars. Both have esteemed records in doing exactly the things the Science Laureates of the United States Act of 2014 hopes to achieve. Tyson and Greene are exemplars of what the Act calls for: someone who can “embody, demonstrate, and articulate the importance and excitement of scientific research and education.”
For example, in the past few weeks, Tyson stressed his passion and commitment to communication, telling The Washington Post’s Style section, “I’m a servant of the public’s appetite for science, for the universe, for science literacy.”
Tyson’s written several popular science titles, hosted a radio show and podcast StarTalk, as well as a reboot of the path-breaking 1980 TV show Cosmos. Next month he’ll host his own late-night talk show about science on National Geographic Channel. Tyson was named by Discover in 2008 as one of the magazine’s ten most influential people in science. Next month he will be awarded the 2015 Public Welfare Medal by the National Academy of Sciences, for his promotion of science for the public good.
What more public communication could Tyson do even with the honorable distinction as science laureate?
The same is true of Greene. His breakout 1999 popular book The Elegant Universe brought to wide audiences the ideas of his specialist area of string theory. Scholars consider Greene’s book a watershed moment in the popularization and public understanding of this esoteric subject.
He embodied his work. Discover called him “the public face of string theory.” The New York Times once called him “the cutest thing to happen to cosmology since the neutrino.”
After The Elegant Universe, Greene went on to write other well received popular science books. He also hosted two multi-part specials on PBS’s long-running science show, NOVA. With his wife, award-winning television journalist Tracy Day, he founded the World Science Festival, which aims to weave science throughout the rest of our culture. He is also a prime mover behind World science U, an online learning platform for science education.
Could he do more for the public understanding of science as a science laureate?
Deeper engagement via cultural celebs
The fame of Tyson and Greene, I argue in my book, resulted in part from the confluence of two historical trends related to the public understanding of science.
There has, first, been a trend towards scientists becoming cultural celebrities, a movement that had as a pivotal moment the 1980s broadcast of Cosmos presented by Carl Sagan. As the science historian Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette wrote in her book Science on American Television, “Sagan already had modest fame outside academe. Cosmos now propelled him to international stardom.”
Since then, today’s celebrity culture refracts abstract issues through the prism of personality. As cultural historian Leo Braudy wrote in his The Frenzy of Renown, “human faces are plastered on every idea and event.”
The second historical trend has been towards a deeper engagement with citizens on the part of scientists. Crucially, this involves scientists not speaking from on high as voices of truth or reason. Instead, as science communication researchers Matthew Nisbet and Dietram Scheufele noted, it involves inviting citizens to participate in trust-based, two-way conversations about science and its role in society.
For examples of such conversations, listen to Tyson on his StarTalk podcast discussing science and politics with actress and activist Janeane Garofalo. Or discussing science, race and science fiction with Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols.
With his 2011 book The Hidden Reality, Greene sparked valuable conversations about the nature of science. The book explained the multiverse, the idea that our universe might be just one of billions that exist, each with its own particular characteristics. A Nature review criticized the book for presenting not reality but “unproven theoretical possibilities.” On this point, Greene emphasized the value for citizens to understand how scientific knowledge develops, “not just to learn about science that’s all settled, confirmed and in textbooks, but also to capture a picture of vital science in the making.”
Is a celebrity superior to science laureate?
Greene and Tyson are just two examples of prominent scientists doing exactly what a science laureate might do. Others include theoretical physicist Lisa Randall and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. These figures are the public faces of science, who each communicate complex scientific ideas, illuminate the nature of science, and place science at the core of culture.
Their popular stardom sets them apart in another crucial way from a science laureate. The 2014 bill states that the laureate would be appointed by the elite National Academy of Sciences. The post therefore risks being a modern manifestation of a decades-old style of science communication: a talented, establishment scientist accurately transmitting facts to educate the public. But, for citizens, knowledge of science does not lead automatically to appreciation of science.
A scientific celebrity, by contrast, is more inclusive, more populist, and perhaps more democratic. Lasting fame cannot be solely manufactured. As cultural critic Louis Menand explained, a celebrity’s personality must connect deeply with public and social concerns, as Sagan did at the height of the Cold War.
Our popular culture – crucially – granted Tyson and Greene the legitimacy to speak in a sustained way on behalf of science. They cut through political partisanship to connect with the public. Citizens voted them stars.
Bill Nye: Scientific Curiosity Kept Our Ancestors Alive
Everyone’s favorite Science Guy chats with Jake Roper of Vsauce3 (https://www.youtube.com/Vsauce3) about the importance of science education in ensuring future generations remain creative, experimental, and evolutionarily competitive. Science education empowers students, says Nye. It fuels our curiosity in a way that is essential for the long term survival of humanity.
As Mother Nature prepares to unleash a torrent of heavy snow on a good number of the population this week, leaving those unfamiliar with the bitter cold scrambling for cover, Bill Nye the Science Guy has a message for media outlets on their weather coverage — just use the words “climate change” now and then, Nye pleaded on MSNBC in a Monday interview with Joy Reid.
Let’s not confuse or interchange climate change with global warming. Global warming — the world is getting warmer. There is more carbon monoxide holding in more heat. So when the climate changes, some places get colder. And the thing that’s really consistent with climate change models is this variance where it’s cold, it’s warm, it’s cold, it’s warm.
Nye then issued an appeal to the media at large to bring up climate change while reporting on extreme weather patterns. He said:
So what I would hope for, my dream, Joy, is that you all, you and the news business would just say the word climate change. Just, like, “It could be climate change. It’s a possible connection to climate change. Is this evidence of climate change?” Could you just toss that in now and then?