What is wrong with the world?

by Shane L. Larson

Social media circulates witty pictures, quotes and videos like a pandemic virus spreading to envelop the world.  In a recent round on the interwebs, an image was circulated showing two celebrities.  On the left was Carl Sagan, sporting his infamous turtleneck look, and on the right was Jersey Shore star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi.  The image was overlaid with text that read: “If you don’t know who this is” (over Carl) “and you do know who this is” (over Snooki), “Congratulations! You’re what’s wrong with the world!”

I suspect this sentiment resonates with scientists, but in this case we don’t have a Planck mass of legitimacy to agree with this opinion.  What is the problem with the world?  Scientists.  We created the technology that allows the global village to communicate, but we promptly went back to our laboratories and let it become populated by all manner of nonsense, not the least of which is anti-scientific rhetoric, endless noise fueled by ignorance of even the basic principles of science, and of course plenty of gossip and twittering about Snooki and Lindsay Lohan and Tim Tebow and Charlie Sheen.  This week was the anniversary of Carl Sagan’s death, and it passed by with barely a whisper.  Carl passed way 15 years ago, and the scientific world has failed to step up and fill his shoes.  We hide in our labs, we discourage brilliant young minds that want to be engaged in reaching out to the public (that isn’t what “serious scientists” do), so of course the world knows who Snooki is and not… whoever we should have had filling Carl’s shoes!

It is easy in this day and age to tweet the problems of the world to the blogosphere in a quick soundbite or pithy image that can be shared to all your Facebook friends.  In a perhaps sad bit of irony, I’m doing that right now, using this blog as my soapbox to complain about the profession that I have made myself a part of.  But I am particularly irritated by the fact that we have dropped the torch that Carl carried so effectively.  Why?  Because I know the power of Carl’s message.  I am a scientist today because I heard Carl’s message at an impressionable age.  During the fall of 1980, I breathlessly waited every week for each episode of Cosmos to air, enthralled by a journey in the mind to the far reaches of the Universe.  Yes, I wanted to be an astronaut; yes, I wanted to be a scientist.  Yes, I worked at NASA and eventually became a physics professor.  But what I really want, the innermost desire of my heart even today, is to be like Carl.

Of course, it wasn’t just Carl knitting the neurons of my brain into the tangled web of craziness it is today.  My intellectual thirst was pushed by Jacob Bronowski’s brilliant series, “The Ascent of Man” and I descended to the unexplored frontiers of the Earth’s oceans on “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.”  Perhaps most importantly I learned my most valuable skill as a scientist, connecting seemingly disparate ideas from different disciplines together to learn something new about Nature, from James Burke’s outstanding series “Connections.”

This is not to say that we don’t have great science shows today.  “Mythbusters” captures the antics and curiosity driven desire to experiment in a highly engaging and entertaining format, but they aren’t teaching science, they are debunking myths (arguably a needed and necessary endeavour, though they sometimes come to conclusions that could still be dispelled with more careful experimental techniques).  Morgan Freeman hosted the very popular series “Through the Wormhole” on cable television, and Alan Alda hosted the excellent “Scientific American Frontiers.”  Arguably these examples promote science as much as the shows of my youth did.  So to paraphrase my father, what am I bitching about?  I’m lamenting the lack of participation by scientists.  Sagan, Cousteau, Bronowski and Burke were all scientists (technically, Burke was a science historian) committed to engaging the world in science.  They were role models for a whole generation of scientists, my generation of scientists.  The hosts of today’s science shows are arguably committed to teaching us something about science, but they are entertainers, not scientists.

Why does it matter?  Gus Grissom, at a press conference a few weeks before he died in the Apollo 1 fire, famously accepted the risk of exploration, saying, “The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.  Our God-given curiosity will force us to go there ourselves because in the final analysis only man can fully evaluate the Moon in terms understandable to other men.”  Gus in an off-hand way was debunking the myth that a picture is worth a thousand words, instead promoting the notion that the only way for the human species to deeply connect with and understand the magnificent desolation of the Moon was to be able to hear about the experience in the visceral and emotional recounting of someone who had been there.  So it is with science as well.  If we really want the world to appreciate science and its power to transform our lives, then it is our responsibility as scientists to bring our passion and emotion to the table and explain it for everyone else to understand.  Only scientists understand the nuances of modern scientific research.  Only scientists can explain the subtleties of what is and what is not understood.  Only scientists can tell the truth as it is known.

There are, of course, great science communicators today.  Bill Nye is a huge celebrity.  Brian Greene is almost a household name, as is Stephen Hawking.  But if you look around and consider the current state of affairs on planet Earth and the level of what we call “science literacy,” there is only one, inescapable conclusion: the world needs us.  As our society becomes increasingly technological, and as the world and its resources become increasingly taxed by the burgeoning numbers of homo sapiens, there is a desperate need for scientists to actively participate in the education of the masses and future planning for the species.  Every single one of us should be engaged in this game, and at a much deeper level than we are today.

I had the good fortune to be a postdoc at Caltech when Alan Alda gave the commencement speech in 2002.  In his speech, he chided the graduating class for listening to the status quo and neglecting their obligation to communicate with the world.  “I’m asking you today to devote some significant part of your life to figuring out how to share your love of science with the rest of us.  But not just because explaining to us what you do will get you more funding for what you do… although it surely will… but just because you love what you do.  And while you’re explaining it, remember that dazzling us with jargon might make us sit in awe of your work, but it won’t make us love it.  Tell us frankly how you got there. If you got there by many twists and turns and blind alleys, don’t leave that out. We love a detective story. If you enjoyed the adventure of getting there, so will we.  Most scientists do leave that out. By the time we hear about their great discoveries, a lot of the doubt is gone. The mistakes and wrong turns are left out…  and it doesn’t sound like a human thing they’ve done. It separates us from the process.  Whatever you do, help us love science the way you do.”

Scientists are what is wrong with the world.  We sniggered and made fun of Carl for being famous and wearing his passion on his shirt sleeves, for having the desire and the ability to communicate with others.  We actively discourage brilliant young scientists from careers as teachers and communicators.  As a result, we live in a world where people can recognize Snooki on sight, and might be hard pressed to name even one scientist.

But all is not lost.  Go home, and watch Cosmos again, until you hear Carl’s voice every time you open an astronomy book.  Go watch Connections again and remember how cool it is that the manorial system that grouped peasants on common working plots in the Dark Ages lead directly to the invention of the internal combustion engine.  Then cowboy up, and do what Alan told you to do: tell the story of your day at work, how you unravelled the secrets of Nature and why its important for tomorrow.  Learn how to communicate better.  It will be hard, likely harder than it was to get your doctorate.  But trust me: it is far more important.

9 responses to “What is wrong with the world?

  1. Dear Mr. Larson,

    My name is Cheng Kuowei, I am science communicator from Taiwan. Your articles on Write Science are so inspiring to my work at pansci.tw, so I would like to ask for your permission to let me translate them into Chinese and republish them on my website.

    Please let me know if you agree or have other thoughts. Looking forward to hear from you soon.


  2. We do not mind if these are translated and republished in Chinese, so long as they also contain a weblink back to here, the original English language version.

    Clear skies,
    — Shane

  3. Thanks! We will surely link back.


  4. Thanks for this! I am a Ph.D. student in Neuroscience, finishing up this spring. I strongly believe that it is our responsibility as scientists to communicate our work to the public, thereby preventing some of the misinformation that inevitably results from non-scientists doing their best to interpret our technical jargon. I have been struggling with the idea that maybe I should follow this passion for improving scientific communication, but I’m not sure how best to do it without leaving the bench. You are completely right that actual scientists need to participate in the process of communicating to the public, and that’s what I intend to do. I just need to figure out the details.

  5. Shane L. Larson

    @Jennifer: There are certainly pathways for PhD scientists who want to communicate as a career, but it is completely possible to stay “on the bench” and also participate. I’m in my last year as an assistant professor and will get tenured next year. I maintain an active research program and participate as much as I can in education and outreach activities. Most importantly, I try to impress that this is important on my students, so they adopt this as part of their professional culture. Just remember when you are on the job market to pay close attention to the institutions you end up working for and ask yourself whether or not they value this important part of our responsibility as scientists. The old guard may not, but as our generation takes over we have to change that culture!

  6. Marshall Spears

    I recently received the picture of Carl and snookie with that caption. I was pretty embarrassed that it was in fact true in my case. I am by NO means in any way a fan of that stupid show. Well needless to say the curious being that I am brought me eventually to this article. I’m not a scientist or anything. I’m actually a 28 year old house painter. But I did enjoy this. It makes a lot of sense to me. Thank you. That is all.

  7. Pingback: 這世界出了什麼問題? | PanSci 泛科學

  8. Pingback: 這世界出了什麼問題? | PanSci 泛科學

  9. I personally desired to show this specific posting, “What is wrong with the world?
    | Write Science” together with my best friends on facebook itself.
    Isimply sought to pass on your tremendous writing!
    Many thanks, Kay

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