i think some of the hand-wrining about how hard it is to explain some concepts in science isn't really justified. Science isn't a collection of facts and impenetrable ideas, it's the method we've developed to understand the world and there's nothing hard about understanding that at all.
The LHC is massive and ridiculous feat engineering and science about which I understand almost nothing, and we shouldn't be do concerned if very few of us really understand the maths the underpins it. What everyone should know is that it's a machine that we built to test an idea. The models that best explain how matter works predict that when matter has this much energy something will happen, so we built a machine (did I mention it's colder than space...) that accelerates matter fast enough to create those energies so we can measure what happens. And that's all science really is: you've got an idea? Ok, test it.
That should really be the message of science communication, stories like the LHC other evolution of our species, or the origin of universe itself are awe inspiring examples that we can use as hooks to get the message across, but what we've learned about 1080, vaccines, GMOs and our climate system are all part of the same project.
These things make more sense with concrete examples. I study snails, not medical science, so let’s say I decide i’m interested in flax snails and want to start a study of them.
Lots of people people value our native fauna, so i’d have to talk to DoC about how I was going to sample, and what results my research might produce. As it happens, some Northern iwi also value flax snails in particular have stories about them and consider themselves to be kaitiaki for these animals. I don’t see how it’s any more arduous or damaging to science for me to spend some time talking to these people, to understand why they value these animals and to explain to them what my result might mean. In fact, taking as many people on board as possible should be a goal for science
Sounds great, I'll look forward do seeing it. I spend really too much of my time wondering about these sort of issues, especially in the wake of the Ken Ring Circus.
The most depressing thing to come from that affair wasn't the anti-science kooks, they're pretty much a given, but the much larger group of folks who seemed to equivocate or outright say "well, science doesn't have an answer here so let's take this guy seriously...". As if there wasn't a bright white line between his nuttiness and the way science works. (Brian Edwards being an example)
I'm not entirely sure how scientists and the media can convince the middle ground to get on-board with science, however imperfect it can be, as the way humanity has been able to learn about the world. I think part of it might be those big ideas you talk about in the beginning of this post. You're right that hardly anyone makes a big deal about the cost of the Large Hadron Collider (and the black hole people have shut up) - but I've not heard anyone in NZ talking about the astounding fact that we, as a species, have built something that's colder than space and designed to re-create the conditions of the big bang in order to make knowledge. That's freaking cool, and I can't help but think that if we spent just a little more time talking about the big awe-inspiring stories in science, and how hundreds of people have contributed to their creation, we'd understand how science works a little better.
As long as there's money to be made or lost there will be climate cranks, but if we had a public that valued science and, as a result, understood how it worked, more people would see them for what they are.
Or so says me, at least.
I was struck when I talked at the launch of the Humanities Research Network about blogs and other modern communications by the way that nearly everything I said seemed to be news to those present
Have you seen "The Conversation"? Australian attempt at a sort of clearinghouse blog for research, including humanities. Lots of noise around the signal at the moment, but looks promising.
One of the challenges to the universities’ ability to produce public intellectuals in this country is the way in which there are few incentives for academics to communicate in wider public arenas, beyond, say, talking to journalists, concerning their areas of expertise.
I'd say there's almost no incentive. If I apply for an academic job in New Zealand, the committee is really only going to be interested in the grant money I might bring to their department and the PBRF ranking I might achieve. The only section of PBRF that might include 'outreach' is the 'peer esteem' category, but, even then, chances for my peers to hold me in high esteem (awards, invited talks) for 'outreach' are pretty close to nil. Consequently, I'm aware that any time I'm spending on public engagement is time spent away from writing the papers that will get me a job, and I'm sure the same applies to academics all over the country.
I guess that's good if you see universities as research factories, but I would have thought we wanted something more from them.
Of course, as Megan has suggested, the system isn't the only reason academics spend more of their time talking to each other than the public. In science, there is certainly a feeling that we should 'stick to data', and leave the debates to politicians, as if quietly collecting more and more evidence that the climate is changing, or genetic engineered crops aren't "frankenfoods", will be enough to settle the debates. I know most scientists aren't particularly good at communicating to the public, but II wish we had climate scientists that felt they could stand up and neatly and forthrightly expose the vacuity of climate change denial, while still expressing the uncertainties of that complex science. It's clear climate scientists don't want to do that, so instead there's a vacuum into which any old rubbish can be fit
There is actually an interesting bit of science behind Newman's "2000 year old rat bone" factoid. There really were bones dated to be that old (they were Kiore bones, so you'll have to imagine how the Celts fit into this scheme yourself) but it turns out there was a systematic error in the way the first radiocarbon dates were measured. All the bones measured before ~1995, including samples taken from dated archeological, were older than the first archeological evidence for Maori in New Zealand (around 850 years ago). All subsequent dates have been more recent than that the same cut-off.
The last nail in the coffin for the old rats was a recent study from Landcare, which is available as open access paper. They looked at new bones form the same sites as the "pre-Maori bones" and at rat-gnawed seeds and found no dates earlier than the first archeological evidence.
You know, just in case you were wondering.
If anyone wants to hear from people who know what they're talking about on the use of robots in mine rescues, the SMC has some choice quotes
SMC: Have robots been used effectively in the past in the wake of mining cave-ins or explosions to aid in rescuing miners?
Sean Dessureault: Used in the past, yes. Used effectively, no.
Consequently placental mammals, present in the fossil record of Australia, had all gone extinct, out-competed over evolutionary time by more energy-efficient marsupials with their small but well-adapted brains.
Which raises the question, what happened to our terrestrial mammals?
Microwave hacks, in order of try-at-homeness:
You missed the all important determining the speed of light
And since people are having the argument. I spend most of my time on Linux, but I'm writing my thesis in Word. If you were to start writing from top and type to thet bottom it would be horrible. But if you take a while to learn about styles, master documents, breaks and the rest; and you combine it with a good reference manager; it's fine. Tools like the document map (called something else in Mac I think) actually make writing the thing easier.
Has there been any more thorough analysis of the university's communications performance? I'd be interested to read it.
Not an analysis, but George Monbiot gives an amusing (and depressing at the same time) account of the media strategy employed by the CRU in this interview.
"with very exceptions the universities have just left these guys to swing"