Scientists are these mythical creatures that live somewhere between the clouds and the stratosphere. Their working habits include using lab gowns, pocket protectors and calculators. Many of them (some would say most) are unkempt and dress poorly, except the ones that don’t. The scientists speak their own language, which is filled with long words and an adherence to strict meanings for words. When trying to communicate to the rest of the people, they describe their work in overly complicated technical terms. This inspires fear, which is exacerbated by the natural fear of the unknown. The typical stereotype of scientists is that of a mad scientist. This is apparent in movies and television dramas. Mostly, it shows scientists as being unconcerned with the day to day stuff that makes most of humanity tick. Most importantly, the attitude that is portrayed is one of arrogance. Scientists are described as condescending `know it all’ SOB’s who can’t bother to explain their work to people that don’t understand it.
At least in recent years it seems that some kinds of science are getting more respect (forensic science for example), and one can find random clippings on the web on how that has affected the real life work of the individuals who practice it. The reality is closer to an non-scientific community.
So now we enter the theme of the day. How can we overcome the above hurdle for communicating science to the public?
Well, If I may say so, we ‘exaggerate a little bit’ and try to draw a comparison with every day stuff that is not quite technically correct, but that at least provides some warm fuzzy feelings in the public towards scientists. We do this propaganda to counter the ‘scientists want to destroy the world’ anti-propaganda that makes many technical advancements seem both scary and bad. So we have a PR issue here.
So now, for the humor part of the post, I have a few suggestions on how to sell this thing called science to the masses, so that they see us as a more friendly beast than a dragon. For today, I will just focus on what is scientific work like? People might not be interested in the details of the research, but they are definitely interested in some vague notion that is accessible of ‘how we conduct our daily lives, in particular with regards to research’. These are some slogans that you might find useful, with an ‘explanation’ of the analogy in case you need to elaborate.
Scientific research is like being a gardener.
Lemme explain this. You meet with people, you plant ideas in their head, you cross-pollinate to generate new ideas. You wait until they grow, and eventually they might even bear fruit. Sometimes you need machines to make this happen, and a green house (controlled environment). Of course, you have to watch out for weeds that take over a garden. Vigilance is the key. Once you get a good batch, you might just want to make sure that you can get it again if you need to. So you repeat until the crops are stable and then you go to the market with your produce.
Scientific research is like fishing.
You have to imagine that each scientist has their own set of fishing equipment, hooks and worms, and their favorite spot to fish. When scientists get together they exchange pictures of their recent catch, as well as the location of the spot where it was found. If the catch seems good, a lot of other scientists flock to the same site and start fishing the `good spot’ with their different fishing gear. They might exchange some of that with each other until they find the best hooks and worms for the spot. And of course, fishing sometimes requires a lot of patience, and a relaxing chair to enjoy the day with some reading material. Not surprisingly, most of the fish that are found are small fish, but people still have a good time. And if you have enough small fish, you might have a larger catch than just one big fish.
Scientific discovery is like grazing in a pasture.
Scientists are like cows (spherical cows indeed). They graze in packs. As soon as a good pasture is found, you have a stampede of scientists flocking to the site. All the easy tall grass gets eaten up quickly and the herd moves on. There are some stragglers that eat the leftovers behind. And the hard grass to chew is many times left behind for a new generation that has a better set of teeth to chew it with. Of course, these are scientific cows, so the new teeth might be these ultra strong dentures made of titanium and coated with diamond dust…. but I digress. I’m sure that by now you get the analogy.
Scientific research is like playing video games.
Well, every time a new ‘level’ gets finished, ten new levels sprout up. In the meantime, you get your buddies and tell them how to finish the level so that they can help you conquer the next ones. Also, just like in video games, a lot of ideas on how to complete a level end up with a ‘dead character’ and RESTART: new life. Until somebody figures it out, or they find that the level was programed to be impossible (a little hacking might be required).
Scientific research is like surfing.
You never know when the next big wave is going to hit and you might miss it because you’re looking in the wrong direction.