What am I doing here?

Albert Einstein will be remembered for many contributions before this one, but this quote has been resonating with me recently:

“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”

Einstein was probably being more self-deprecating than necessary – he knew what he was doing to a greater extent than most scientists of his era, and likely of any era. Perhaps he was just making a joke. Honestly, I haven’t been able to find out much about the origin of this quote – if anyone has more insight, do let me know.

In the absence of additional context, however, I’m going to take Einstein’s words at face value. The obvious interpretation is: we do science because we’re not sure. This is an important thing for science communicators to remember. Scientists may have predictions about how an experiment will turn out, and we think about how various outcomes will support or cast doubt on the hypotheses we’re testing. But we never know for sure what’s going to happen – that’s why we do the experiment!

This uncertainty is part of what makes science exciting, and the thrill of discovery is not an experience that goes unappreciated outside of academia. The best science media give viewers or readers an opportunity to experience that thrill themselves. Robert Krulwich of NPR’s Radio Lab gave the keynote address at last month’s ScienceOnline2011 meeting in Research Triangle Park, NC. On Radio Lab, Krulwich says, he tries to pace the hour-long program so that his audience experiences their own “eureka” moment before he gives them the answer. It’s that moment – and the eager tension listeners feel, waiting to learn whether they’ve arrived at the right conclusion – that Krulwich is after. And he is very skilled at giving his listeners that experience.

I think Einstein’s quote says something else about science, however. It says, more or less implicitly, “we don’t know what we’re doing.” As scary as it is to admit that to a non-scientist – perhaps we fear that our voices will carry diminished authority? – few scientists have trouble commiserating with peers about the uncertainty, false starts, and screw-ups that characterize our day-to-day research.

But should we be afraid to announce to the rest of world that “we’re people, too?” Maybe this fear is misplaced. More scientists are beginning to recognize that they need to take an active role in engaging with non-scientists, and I’d like to propose that these bumps in the road that we experience while doing science might not be just embarrassing faults, best left on the editing-room floor.

Instead, these mistakes are the stuff of stories. No quest is complete without a few wrong turns… and as any TV executive will tell you, audiences love a good quest. Look at Mythbusters, one of the most successful shows on the Discovery Channel. Like it or not, Mythbusters brings more science to more people – including non-traditional science audiences – than just about any other show on television. The producers of Mythbusters never just cut to the chase and tell viewers whether an urban legend is busted or not. Instead, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman take the viewers on a journey, complete with screw-ups, and the journey itself is the reward.

There’s a fine line to be walked here: on the one hand, we don’t want to give the impression that we’re just bumbling through our work, aimlessly joyriding through what is by many standards a pretty cushy job (doing so, very likely, at the expense of the taxpayers). On the other hand, if we succumb to the prevailing stereotype and portray ourselves as the unfeeling, objective, infallible scientists, we have succeeded only in thoroughly alienating ourselves from the very people with whom we need to engage if we want our work to matter – the public!

Despite the decline of many printed media and the widespread disappearance of regular science columns in newspapers, a legion of online reporters – professional writers and professional scientists alike – are blogging science back to widespread attention. Many of these writers provide timely summaries of important new work, and even better, thoughtful analyses and synthesis of existing research.

But I also think there is a niche that still needs filling, and it’s one that we scientists need to fill ourselves. We need to show people why we do science – it’s not just for the big “aha!” intellectual payoff at the end, or for the fame and fortune (ha ha!) that come with publishing your work in a peer-reviewed journal. We do it because we love the whole process. Science is competitive, and people who don’t love doing it get weeded out pretty quickly.

Because we do it every day, it’s tempting to think that our day-to-day work won’t be interesting to anyone. But let’s turn to another perennially successful show on the Discovery Channel: Dirty Jobs. None of the jobs portrayed on Dirty Jobs is particularly fascinating to the workers who perform that job, day in and day out. But with a fresh perspective (and the wry commentary of Mike Rowe), you have a formula that reliably attracts hundreds of thousands of viewers a week.

We aren’t all going to be great at this kind of public engagement. But I think we should give it a try. Maybe we’ll figure out who among us can be the “Mike Rowe” of science. With any luck, there will be several of Mike Rowes, Adam Savages, and Jamie Hynemans in our midst. Because knowing science is one thing. Knowing scientists is another. And if science is going to matter in people’s lives, I think both are important!

P.S. If you know scientists who are already doing this kind of outreach, I’d love to hear about them!

4 Comments

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bora Zivkovic, Jason Goldman and David Manly, Neil Losin. Neil Losin said: New blog post "What am I doing here?" — musing on how we relate to non-scientists http://bit.ly/giLHwy [...]

  2. I agree with all your points, Neil! I think scientists need to make themselves seem more vulnerable to the public.

    I’m going to speculate on the what might be preventing this from coming true:
    Since any reviewer can have their opinion of a paper coloured by personal knowledge they might have regarding the authors, I perceive a culture of “admit only what you do know”. Admitting things you don’t know sheds doubt on your skill as a scientist and can earn you the chastisement of the those peers and mentors you work with.

    Furthermore, there is pressure to appear omniscient in front of an audience that can sometimes wallow in cognitive dissonance. Since scientists see other scientists on the media being misrepresented, or even trounced in talk-show stand-offs with unscientific claims made by (often) influential people. When someone doesn’t want to believe what you’re telling them for personal reasons, a common tactic used to defend against their disbelief is to feign scientific omniscience, or at least neglect to expose your gaps of knowledge. I think it’s a natural defence against an attempt to undermine the integrity of your theory/data by using your personal competencies.

    When you’re getting funded and employed for your scientific competence, no one wants to ever seem incompetent at anything.

    Of course, in reality, many PhD students will have a tremendous amount of specialized knowledge in one area at the end of their degree. It would be ridiculous for us to all know everything about every field, and with the exponential growth in number of publications per year, to keep up with anything more than your immediate field will soon be very difficult.

    In the ideal future, I see open science taking over. Presenting yourself and your knowledge candidly will be a prerequisite to speedily completing any massively collaborative project. But until we get swept into open science utopia, I think it’s still a problem of culture; there are few scientists willing to expose their flaws or gaps in knowledge, since it may decrease their job security.

    Regarding different outreach methods, I absolutely believe these are essential to the future of science. It seems to me that academic journals are rapidly growing obsolete and we are moving towards an open access model where each paper is peer reviewed post-publication, then assigned its own impact factor. However, impact factor will be based not only on citations, but also on page ranking and number of visitors.

    When this all becomes a reality, I predict labs will be hiring up teams of “popularizers” who will generate content in a variety of art, media and communication formats as a press release. Together, these will constitute a coordinated viral marketing attempt for all new content, which increases the scientific value (by bringing citations) and the outreach value (by bringing visitors). Scientists will have to fight for their research to earn attention, and effective marketing is the answer. when this day comes, those scientists who have been preparing, and entertaining their own personal mini-celebrity on twitter and facebook, will be the ones most prepared to pump up their own personal impact factors.

    Please do not think this will depreciate the value of a good science though; I believe marketing will always only ever be a bonus. Once you get people to your paper, you need to get them to read it and send it to other people, or cite it in their academic work. Marketing will never make bad data into good data, and good data will always advertise itself.

    For my part, I’ve founded Peer Review Radio (PeerReviewRadio.com) and acted as an advisor for the newly established Ottawa Orbital (OttawaOrbital.com) to encourage science students to think about their written and oral communication skills. Also, I play bass with the Peer Review Players (PeerReviewPlayers.com) a band of scientists/musicians who make music about science. We stream our jams on Wednesdays (Tonight! 8-9:30pm EST) and we are in the process of recording several #sciencemusic songs at the moment. Even if my previous predictions are wrong, I think that scientists with any ability that might generate interest from a wider audience should be using it to do just that. It’s the only way we’ll be able to effectively communicate the sum of human knowledge until we adopt open science as the academic standard.

  3. Moritz says:

    Great article!

    In regard to Adrian’s comment about the growth of publications I think it will be just a matter of time that the “true” identity of scientists will be revealed. It will probably get a lot harder to keep up in that competitive surrounding. I’d rather have that happen on my own terms than unwittingly by a mishap which might really leave the wrong impression. In addition, and beyond all competition, I think we should be aware that the mishaps of one could backfire to the entire scientific community. Involving the public into the process of research can only lead to a better understanding while reducing the pressure of delivering irrevocable truths at the same time.

    But then again, what the heck do I know? I haven’t published any papers yet. ;)

  4. Neil Losin says:

    Thanks for the feedback, Adrian and Moritz! I love Adrian’s vision for the future of science — I would be very happy to see a more “open” science take hold over the next several years. But I’m perhaps a bit hesitant to embrace the idea fully, because I think there are very worthy scientists who won’t be any good at promoting their work, yet still are doing worthy research. Not every research program needs an associated press package… But we do need SOME effective media to maintain the relationship between scientists and non-scientists.

    Moritz, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head: we should take the reins in our interactions with the public! If we don’t, we’re leaving someone else to set the agenda, which can easily result in distortion of science.

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