What Geeks can Learn from Gays

By Michael Edmonds 01/06/2011

I’ve just received a copy of the June 2011 edition of People & Science, a fascinating publication produced four times a year by the British Science Association. It contains some really fascinating articles on science and science communication. The March edition is currently available on line.

One of the articles that caught my attention is “What Geeks can learn from Gays” by Mark Stevensen.

In it he asks “how did the gay community manage to get most people to care about something that, statistically, they have no personal investment in (i.e. gay rights), while science is still battling to be valued by so many?”

His answer is fairly simple – “Because the gay community went out fighting, and science needs to do the same.”

Mark makes the point that while many senior scientists complain over the lack of appreciation there is for science in the general population, these are often the same scientists who will look at science populists like Carl Sagan and Brian Cox and suggest that they are “not really proper scientists.”

This is one of the things that really irritates me. Just over a year ago I gave up my research (apart from the occasional supervision of a student project) and took a management position. Up until then my research was almost all consuming. Giving up research has given me time to get more involved in science communication, however, I now encounter that catch 22 situation. If you aren’t doing research then some do not consider you to be a “real scientist” and if you are doing research it takes so much time (especially when you have to think about the PBRF) that the time you can spend on science communication is limited. (I am in awe of those engaged in research who manage to post regularly on sciblogs).

If science is to gain the respect it deserves then we need more people engaging in good science education and communication. And these people need the backing of the rest of the scientific community. I am hopeful that this change is already starting to occur. Just this morning New Zealand’s Chief Science Advisor Professor Sir Peter Gluckman was on television pushing for an evidence based approach to looking at how we raise teenagers. While in the UK the Government Chief Science Advisor, Professor John Beddington, is quoted as saying “We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] anti-homosexuality … We are not – and I think we should think about how we do this – grossly intolerant of pseudo-science.”

0 Responses to “What Geeks can Learn from Gays”

  • Mark Stevensen asked “how did the gay community manage to get most people to care about something that, statistically, they have no personal investment in (i.e. gay rights)”
    Beddington said “We are not… grossly intolerant of pseudo-science.”
    Most people have a personal investment in pseudo- science be it god, homeopathy, astrology or “there must be some purpose to life”.
    Hence the scientists’ lack of success.

  • Colin,
    Interesting, I hadn’t thought of it that way.
    Perhaps an important part of science communication is creating a personal investment in science – i.e. really demonstrating how our everyday lives rely on science.

  • I think that’s a good point, Colin. If you’ve got a personal investment in something, then you’re maybe less likely to welcome anything that appears to be threatening that investment – you become less tolerant of change…

  • Pretty much all of the younger scientists/science minded people that I know are aware of at least some Cox, Sagan, Feynman, deGrasse Tyson et.al. and tend to regard them as several different types of brilliant, both as communicators, scientists and generally fun people. Sir Peter doesn’t quite have the cool factor but is still well regarded as a scientist and a communicator, and pretty much the best NZ has.

    Passion in communication helps I think. Cox and Attenborough are good example of people who have it. Cox especially is grossly intolerant of pseudo science, yet his public presence continues to grow. Those that have to much invested in pseudo science to change are are lost cause. Personally, I think there are a lot fewer of them than people think. It’s the people that don’t think about what they are doing that can be reached with passionate argument. Intolerance of pseudo science can be a tool to make them think.