As a scientist, don’t speak to the public. Listen to the public.

There is a lot of advice written out there for aspiring science writers and bloggers. And as someone who writes science and about science, I read through this at times. The most common trend I see in this advice is to make your writing personal and to tell a story, with all the drama and plot-twists of a good page-turner. This is solid advise for good writing, one that we shouldn’t restrict to writing about science but also for writing the articles that are science. That would make reading and writing as a scientist (two of our biggest activities) much less boring. Yet we don’t do this. More importantly, we put up with reading hundreds of poorly written, boring papers.

So if scientists put up with awful writing, why do we have to write better for the public? I think that the answer to this reveals something very important the role of science in society; who science serves and who it doesn’t. This affects how we should be thinking about activities like ‘science outreach’.

In this post, I want to put together some thoughts that have been going through my mind on funding, science and society. These are mostly half-baked and I am eager to be corrected. More importantly, I am hoping that this encourages you, dear reader, to share any thoughts that this discussion sparks.

Let me start with the easy question: why do scientists put up with awful writing? As Parmvir Bahia points out: we are a captive audience. We get paid to put up with it. It is part of our job. It makes our job faster and easier to write poorly and we get little to no reward for writing well. We are going to read regardless of the writing’s quality (as long as it passes some arbitrary ‘this is the right club’ standard that is usually based on form rather than content). Part of this is because reading is directly relevant to our paycheck, but this isn’t the biggest reason for our captivity. The biggest reason is that scientists are inherently interested in the content of these poorly written articles.

How funding bodies shape our research interests

Scientists like to imagine that we have the freedom to choose to study anything that we want to. And at the level of the individual, this can have a grain of truth to it. I study algorithmic biology and evolutionary game theory because I genuinely find these topics fascinating. But the only reason I am afforded the opportunity to study this is that — however indirectly — this aligns with and serves the interest of my colleagues and funding bodies.

Those who are interested in studying things that don’t serve the interests of funding bodies, are simply not hired or are deprived opportunities to advance. This is made especially bad when we perpetuate a culture that eliminates barriers between work and other aspects of life. Thus, making it more difficult to maintain productivity on topics that you aren’t passionate about. So if your interests align less with the funding bodies and your colleagues then you will find it more difficult to stay or advance in science. This creates an overall selective pressure for a body of scientists whose interests reflect those of their funding bodies and perpetuate an existing academic culture.

But academic selection is not constrained to just people. It also operates the level of interests and passions within a person. I am more passionate about philosophy of science and social aspects of computing than I am about evolutionary game theory. For example, I almost never read EGT ‘for fun’ nor have idle conversations about it. Although I write a lot of blog post on EGT for the blog, very few of them are as fun or rewarding to write as those on philosophy of science or social aspects of computing.

But I can use EGT to please cancer funding bodies and thus secure work for myself. Much less work is available for my other passions. Further, lots of training and professional accolades are available in EGT, and I have pursued those. That has made me look (and feel) qualified to opine on EGT, but not on the other topics. And as I continue to work on EGT, I do become more of an expert. I also find aspects of EGT that stir my passion and let it displace — if I’m lucky: merge with — my interests in philosophy of science or social aspects of computing. So as an individual, I am molded to be of more service to funding bodies. And this can be even more pronounced in more hierarchical parts of science — which I’ve thankfully been able to avoid — like when a PhD student or postdoc is hired to work on just a single project. And learns to love it as a kind of Stockholm syndrome.

This shaping of interests is not necessarily bad. It is important that academia shapes itself as an institution. I’ve even written an ode to self-reinforcement of academic interests in my distinction between field-endogenous and -exogenous questions. It is also important that academia adapts to various demands placed on us by society. Scientists should not be aristocrats out for their own enjoyment and idle curiosities. Thus, both internal and external forces shaping our interests and focus can be good. What is bad is when we try to ignore the forces shaping our interests and focus. What is bad is when we don’t critically reflect on why we pursue certain questions or why we find certain topics interesting or important.

More concretely, let me try to reflect on my work in mathematical oncology. To some extent, it is undeniable that I currently have a genuine non-cynical interest in oncology. But if we look at when this blog started, that interest was completely lacking. This wasn’t because I had a deep passion for oncology hidden within me but lacked the words or expertise to express it. The passion was absent or unknown, and so let’s look for its source. It could be argued that it developed spontaneously from coming across papers in mathonco. Or just from working with collaborators like David Basanta and Jacob Scott — although it would still leave to be explained why I started working with them. But that wouldn’t be doing the underlying forces justice.

Consider another example of my interests: cultural evolution and the evolution of biological complexity. This is closer to my older interest, and I have an equally wonderful collaborator — Julian Xue — in those fields; in fact I’ve known both Julian and those fields for longer than David or Jake. So what makes the difference? It could very well be chance, but it might be more interesting to follow the money. Julian can’t hire, and David could. So I ended up moving to Moffitt and nurturing my interest in oncology. Now Julian and I have collaborated for a decade and only have one joint paper together, where my role was largely peripheral. But David and I have collaborated for half that time, but have accumulated five papers together — with each paper having required much more investment of time and energy from me.

This doesn’t make my interests in oncology any less authentic than my interest in cultural evolution. But it does point to how interests are shaped at least in part by funding. Of course, the stories of other scientists might be radically different from my own. However, I would be surprised if there aren’t a good number of stories that had similar motifs.

None of this is that different from professionals in other fields. But this is too often forgotten in science. We serve the interests of our finding bodies. We only serve the interests of people indirectly when our funding agencies happen to have interests that align with the public. But as we know in the US, this alignment is often accidental. US Government policy — through which so many scientists are funded — tends to serve the rich. Sure, there are some disagreements right now between the current regime and many scientists, but what part of this disagreement is unique to scientists seems largely like a squabble between two different factions of the rich rather than something more profound. And the more profound oppositions that I’ve seen — and that is needed — has come from the public more generally (of who scientists are also a part, more on this later) and not scientists in their role as scientists.

So what does this mean for science outreach?

The politics of science outreach

Both our collective interests and to some extent our individual interests as scientists are shaped by funding bodies. As I say on Stephen Heard’s blog: we might not work for the people that pay us, but we work for the Class that pays us. So when we teach the public about our science or give pub talks about what we’re excited about, we’re effectively advertising or propagandizing for our funding agencies (maybe that’s why they’re starting to support this monetarily more). When we assume or demand that we are heard; when we rely exclusively on appeals of expertise — we are not empowering citizens in general, we aren’t even empowering scientists so much; we are empowering our funding agencies.

Thus, we play our role in a political drama. But we try to appear apolitical. To be “guardians of the truth” who are beyond/above politics. If we do comment directly on politics then we do not see our positions as political statements reflecting the interest of (a subset of) the ruling class. Instead, we present our statements as “simply the facts”. We view ourselves as reluctant participants in the usually fact-free world of politics. In other words, we imagine ourselves as Plato’s Philosopher Kings.

Of course, the above is not limited to science. This technique of hiding behind objectivity is much more transparent in journalism. And the clearest examples of this come not from science, but journalism. A particular part of the professional-managerial class: political explainer videos like Vox. As David V. Johnson writes:

[Vox] is the ideological grandstanding of the technocrat and of the professional-managerial class, whose differences with you, ordinary citizen, are not political — no, no, no — but based on expertise. He “knows” what you don’t and “explains” what you “fail to understand,” so that you, too, like him, will see what he sees and agree that it is obvious common sense. You don’t need persuasion to support free trade. You just need a PowerPoint-style review of the facts—or at least, of those facts that your helpful pedagogic explainer class deems to be relevant.”

You see other hints of this with papers like the Economist not listing authors for individual articles — given the illusion of an objective impersonal source. Or with some science journalists reporting on how a “[famous institution’s] study shows”.

It is a fine line to walk between legitimate deference to experts and entrenching of a neoliberal managerial elite. And when we defend expertise, we need to make sure that we are aware of the fine balance that we need to strike. Unfortunately, I see many of my fellow scientists missing this mark. Maybe some have had enough of experts because we are too prescriptive. Because we are not willing to broaden our epistemic community to take seriously the voices of the “Great Unwashed”. Because we are too happy to dismiss the “low information voter”.

It is also tempting to swing too far in the other direction, and attribute all statements to their voices. To see every truth as relative. But although I often see this extreme held up as a boogeyman, I don’t know many people who aren’t made of straw who actually embrace it. So it might be a better side to err on, especially when objective truth seems like ‘common sense’ and obvious. If this is the case for you then I ask: if we believe that the scientific truths that we discover are often non-obvious, why should the epistemic or ontological foundations on which we base the mechanisms for finding those truths be obvious?

Now — instead of rejecting non-expert views or embracing everything as relative — what should we do instead?


Encourage participation.

Listening to open the knowledge commons

Claire Grant says it well in the context of philosophers:

Her sentiment of encouraging thinking rather than prescribing it generalizes to all academics, not just philosophers. Instead of educating the public, or telling them about our interests, or sharing our passions, we should encourage thinking. But thinking doesn’t mean reflecting. It doesn’t mean just thinking about what we want to prescribe. As we know from our time in the academy: thinking is a communal activity. To borrow from Silvia Federici: knowledge is a commons. We must work against (i.e. to reverse) the enclosure of this commons. Encouraging thinking means encouraging a participation in this commons, not just the spectating as an exclusionary set of experts joust over knowledge. Thinking is not a rare skill that is available to only a select few. There is no scarcity of thinking. Instead, we create an artificial scarcity of whose thinking is taken seriously. An artificial scarcity of whose thinking is admitted to the knowledge commons.

Hence getting people thinking, in practice, means listening to what people have thought about, taking it seriously and responding to continue thinking. This means that we must search for ways to listen to the public. For ways to engage the public in doing and directing science. We shouldn’t aim to come up with a story that will help readers or listeners effortless absorb information. Instead, we should set up communities and spaces where we can be questioned and challenged. Where we can try to figure out what we should be interested in and what we should be working on so that we are serving the public and not our funding agencies. Instead of assuming that we know best, we should allow for the possibility that our work is irrelevant and our interests are co-opted.

We must do this while being mindful that there are many awful ideas out there. And if done incorrectly, dialogue with bad ideas can serve to broadcast them. We must be mindful that listening is a sliding scale that must be tuned carefully to not lose the signal for the noise.

Tuning this scale is hard. It is part of the idealized reason why funding bodies were set up to serve as intermediaries between scientists and the public. Funding bodies are supposed to have the skills to listen to the public, make sense of what they are saying, and explain it to scientists. However, it is not clear to me that funding bodies are living up to these ideals.

It is even harder because the public — contrary to what the singular of the label might suggest — is not a homogenous body. It is also a body that encompasses scientists within it. And scientists (or experts, or academics) are also not a single body. An editor at Nature or Science might be the definition of an insider expert for biomed, but can also be an overconfident layman when it comes to theoretical computer science. I might be an expert on EGT, but can also be an overconfident laymen when it comes to science outreach. But I will continue to use this singular label because there are some unities behind it.

Let’s return to the difficult of listening.

The public is often divided and often filled with bad ideas. But much of science is also divided and filled with bad ideas. Yet scientists are often taught to navigate the divided scientific literature and not the public sphere. We have methods for learning who of our colleagues to follow and who to challenge. Similarly, listening to the public doesn’t mean we always do whatever the public wants. But even when we decide not to follow certain aspects of public opinion or suggestions for us, this should be based on having heard them and reflected seriously on why we don’t want to follow these opinions. A reflection that should be mindful by the bias that comes from being part of the professional-managerial class.

It has become standard for scientists to be cynical of science journalists. We can see them failing at delivering our science to the public. That is why more and more scientists are taking the time to learn the hard skills of science outreach. But I think that this is misguided. Instead of spending time, energy and resource in training scientists to lecture to the public, we should be investing that time, energy and resources in training scientists in how to listen to the public. Even if our goal remains to ‘educate’, Peter Jeavons remarks on tutoring resonate with me: the easiest mistake to make while teaching is doing most of the talking.

If we want dialogue then listening to the public should be our first step.

But it is difficult to engage in real discourse in public. As academics, it is scary to open ourselves to failure and critique and go beyond outreach and education. It can be frustrating to expand our discussion group to include those whose priors and motives align less with our own.

Surely, having persevered through this slog of words, you — dear reader — know how to listen. Do you have any advice for me? How can I learn to be a better listener instead of just a speaker?

For me, just like the worst examples of edutainment and outreach come from outside academia, so do the best examples of what we should be doing. We should be building communities like those built by Olly Thorn of PhilosophyTube or Mike Rugnetta and colleagues at PBS Idea Channel (sadly this project has now finished). Finally, there are scientists who are reflective on and critical of the role they play in political dramas. And most scientists I know have the best intentions. Unfortunately, intentions and ideals are not enough to fix broken systems. How should we act?

About Artem Kaznatcheev
From the Department of Computer Science at Oxford University and Department of Translational Hematology & Oncology Research at Cleveland Clinic, I marvel at the world through algorithmic lenses. My mind is drawn to evolutionary dynamics, theoretical computer science, mathematical oncology, computational learning theory, and philosophy of science. Previously I was at the Department of Integrated Mathematical Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center, and the School of Computer Science and Department of Psychology at McGill University. In a past life, I worried about quantum queries at the Institute for Quantum Computing and Department of Combinatorics & Optimization at University of Waterloo and as a visitor to the Centre for Quantum Technologies at National University of Singapore. Meander with me on Google+ and Twitter.

5 Responses to As a scientist, don’t speak to the public. Listen to the public.

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