Friday, November 7, 2014

Is This the Death of Science?

While waiting for a bus this morning, I noticed an article in the local newspaper about the gap between teens' attitudes toward science and their career plans.  A recent poll by the science outreach organization Let's Talk Science found that 72% of high school students think science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are fun, and 78% think STEM fields provide lots of career options, but only 12% actually want STEM-related jobs.  And a further 19% of student (that's almost 1 in 5!) think that careers in science and engineering are better suited to men.

I guess we should rejoice in the gains we've made as scientists in engaging youth.  In 2010, only 34% of high school students thought science was fun, and 25% thought it was boring (now only 11% do!).  So kids are more interested in science than they've been in the past, and they understand its importance, but they most still don't see a future for themselves participating in science.  I have some ideas as to why that may be:

The Jury's Still Out
There are a lot of people out there who love to put down scientists.  Actually, a ridiculous amount.  Science, and especially scientists (who are flawed, imperfect people like everyone else) are having a bad PR moment (or twenty).  The thing is, science is hard, and public understanding of science relies on a good foundation of science education, which is sadly lacking.  Many people haven't really thought about science since their high school classes - which are fraught with inaccuracies and outdated concepts anyway.  And many people think of scientists as sitting up in their ivory towers, talking in jargon, filling their pockets with money from Big Pharma, and looking down on the "normies".  

This is what popped up when I typed "scientist"
into Google Images - talk about stereotypes
You type in "scientists are" in Google, and autoword will complete it with stuff like "scientists are liars", "scientists are evil", and "scientists are wrong".  Once vaccines started getting a bad rap, people assumed that scientists were only out to advance the interests of Big Pharma, Monsanto, and GE.  Scientists are helping the people trying to kills us, so no one is trustworthy anymore.

With Great Celebrity Power Comes Great Irresponsibility
Celebrity advocacy can be a very dangerous thing!  Jenny McCarthy argues that vaccines cause autism, and now we are experiencing outbreaks of diseases we have cures!  British celebrity chefs and monarchs (oh, and Dr. Oz) are speaking out against GMOs, and Gwyneth Paltrow and Tom Hardy are all about alternative medicine.  Don Cherry isn't interested in scientists and thinks their evidence is "garbage".  Here's a quote from Ms. McCarthy regarding vaccines:

As of March 2014, there were 107 studies showing that there is ABSOLUTELY NO CONNECTION between vaccines and autism.  Jenny McCarthy says it's a lie, because she has anecdotal evidence to the contrary.  Her celebrity makes people listen to and trust her, and my head explodes.

The danger here lies in cognitive dissonance - that discomfort we experience when we hold two contradictory ideas in our heads at one time.  If  you and your favorite celebrity are right, then that makes countless scientists wrong.  Pseudoscience is easier to understand than science - you could go through those 107 studies with all their jargon and numbers, or you could listen to Jenny, who tells you in plain language exactly what you want to hear.  Throw in mistrust of "evil" scientists, and suddenly this beautiful person who joins you in your home while you eat Cheetos in your pajamas is who you listen to when making important medical decisions.  Nevermind the fact that they have no clue what they're talking about.

The War on Science
With increasingly conservative values coming back into politics, it seems as though governments have launched a war on science.  This is definitely true in the U.S., Canada, and Australia.  Over the last few years, Canada has seen the muzzling of scientists, the dismantling of environmental science research as a whole, and the death of evidence in policy-making.  Globally, we've seen climate change denial, huge cuts to science funding, and a shift toward research that "does something".  

A photo from Canada's "Death of Evidence" rally, July 10, 2012
With less money to go around, morale is pretty low - I've seen tenured professors engage in competitiveness and snarkyness like reality show contestants.  I've been told not to share too much at conferences because someone might steal my work (and I've seen this happen to a friend of mine).  I was also told (by a government scientist), at the tender, impressionable age of 21 (and right before I started grad school) that there was no longer any point in going into scientific research because there is no future.  That type of role model doesn't do much to boost a person's confidence in STEM careers.

And the Kids...?
Alright, so all of this does relate back to the kids, I promise.  See, we've created a society that has very little trust in and opinion of scientists, and a field in which scientists bicker and compete bitterly for money.  Kids aren't stupid.  But unless we find a way to get more teens to actively choose STEM careers, are we facing the death of science?

But there's more to it than that.  When you think of science communication and science outreach, the first people that come to mind are Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson.  By the time Bill Nye was The Science Guy, he had already spent 16 years working as an engineer.  The scientists we see on TV, who become the voices of science and the most prolific science communicators are those that have had brilliant careers, working for Boeing (Nye) or who were personally recruited by Carl Sagan (Tyson).  
For a teenager, who likes science but is still learning the basic concepts, it can seem like a huge leap going from their level to being as brilliant as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, or Stephen Hawking.  There's a disconnect here, because we are not exposed to people at all stages of science careers in the media.  It becomes easy to think that if you're not a genius at age 14, you'll never be a genius, and will therefore fail in a STEM career.  Maybe if we gave teens the opportunity to see the real, unglamorous day-to-day life of a scientist, and all the career stages that come along with it, I think it help them see themselves in these positions.

Let's Talk Science's course of action to address this problem involves all levels - from parents and teachers to governments and science outreach organizations.  I agree, but I also think we need to put more focus on mentoring and role modeling, rather than simply on engagement.  When I was a researcher, I tried to target my outreach to encompass this idea.  When I could, I spoke to teens about what research is like, and I even invited some to job-shadow me for a day.  I tried to clear up all the smoke-and-mirrors of research and show them that on some days, science is messing up your calculations, or having to wait for the centrifuge, or pouring agar into petri plates.  You can't pursue a career you don't see yourself in, and so I tried to give these kids an idea of what research (and researchers) look like from day-to-day.

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