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!