Faith in science is not enough – people deserve proof
Education must be at the heart of science communication, or else we are simply asking people to ‘believe’
by Alom Shaha
I am an evangelist. But instead of spreading the gospel or any other religious message, I spend my time trying to share the knowledge of what I believe to be humanity’s greatest cultural achievement: science. There is a more mundane term for what I do – "science communication". It’s a horrible term, smacking of exactly the kind of thing that turns some people off science. It covers a wide range of activities – from science film-making to working for medical-research charities to going into schools and throwing liquid nitrogen around in a desperate attempt to convince teenagers that "science is fun". Funnily enough, it’s not used to describe those who teach science, even though science teachers arguably do more "science communication" than anyone else.
The UK’s best known science communicator is probably Professor Brian Cox. He’s doing a great job of making science seem cool and sexy to the public and, in my opinion, deserves the accolade of modern-day Carl Sagan for his contribution to the cultural status of science. I’ve known Brian for years and worked with him before his celebrity status went supernova. I would love to say "I told you so" to all the TV commissioning editors who rejected my suggestions to use him as a presenter. I suspect Brian finds it as ironic as I do that TV companies now regularly put out adverts looking for "the next Brian Cox".
As much as I love Brian’s work, I don’t think we need any more like him at the moment. Instead, we need more really good science teachers, and here’s why: I don’t want to see science become something that people "believe" is important and cool and sexy without understanding why. I don’t want people to mindlessly buy into the geek scene in the same way that they might have bought into the alternative lifestyle scene, had they encountered it first in the right circumstances. But that’s what I’ve seen happening – people attending the lectures, events and festivals organized by "science communicators" and going home convinced that science is the "right" way to look at the world, without really understanding why science is special. I’ve encountered people who are desperate to hang out with the science in-crowd (yes, there really is such a crowd), and even "science communicators" who struggle to explain what it is they think is special or important about science. When I ask them why they want to be science communicators they invariably talk about wanting to share their love of science with the world. Perhaps this is not so different from people who want to share their love of Jesus, Muhammad or Krishna.