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Editor's Blog

Public engagement, mass media and science

Alice Roberts, the anthropologist who's on telly a lot, outlines the basics of why the world needs academics to engage more with the public [or does her job title mean that she meant that the public should engage more with science?]:

Prof Alice Roberts: 'Public engagement should be part of academic life' - video

Well, yes, of course the public should have more access to science in one sense, namely that knowledge is inherently free and should remain so - academic journals are far too expensive: that's one reason I set up CrimeTalk - to liberate the truths criminology has captured from the linguistic and methodological shroud involved in the capture.

To put science with public in the same sentence is not a simple matter, if only because academics are often very overworked in these days of mass education, and deeply resentful of the paperwork involved in being publically accountable. Plus there are others who merely serve time itself, being accountable only to spouse, children, golf club or football team and travel agent, having little science to purvey to a public they long since gave up on as a receptacle for meaningful information.

If only we could resolve  the problem by reducing audits so that an academia passionately committed to a public thirsting for knowledge can enthusiastically tell them all it knows....

Here's 10 reasons, off the top of my head, and I do have the T-shirts to prove it, the T-shirt - one of the most scientific forms of proof, why it is difficult for science to engage with its public:

1 Audits: the RAE and now the REF, forms of research audit, have the effect of accentuating the tendency of academics to write to each other; but  it should be acknowledged that [a] even without scrutiny of their research in audits by other academics, most academics prefer to talk to each other anyway - some even prefer to look at the floor than at other people, and conversely [b] some academics talk a great deal to their classes - and their students are of course members of the public until they join the academic club in their postgraduate years;

2 Introspection: academics, like other people, prefer to talk to people who speak and understand their language; it is still unclear why all knowledge should be reducible to two sentences in a banal vernacular squeezed in between adverts for tampons and betting companies;

3 It is hard to communicate complex ideas in the two seconds that the television and newspapers give you, especially when you know they will re-write or misinterpret what you said anyway. Media have their own agendas and need to examine why they think there is any advantage to the theories of relativity, climate change and the causes of crime being crushed into a brief soundbyte that explains little and creates a delusion of science. Television can sometimes re-present science well of course, but are we sure a little knowedge is a good thing? Isn't the real deal, and the only one really worth having, uncomfortable or difficult for both scientist and public?

4 There may be a disinclination in some quarters of science to give away the fruits of years of hard labour on ordinary pay to smooth media types who won't fart for less than a grand; this might be based on the profound idea, usually put forward by journalists, that scientific knowledge should be free but not newspapers or television;

5 To be fair, some academics would have more difficulty running a raffle, although less so with piss-ups in breweries I found, than actually communicating with other members of the species, so measured knowledge transfer to an enlightened public might be a tough call, subject of course to evolutionary breakthroughs on both sides;

6 Why would anyone in a capitalist society want to purvey their hard-won scientifically valid knowledge to the public anyway? If you have discovered something of value today, the next thing you do is acquire a business plan, a bank loan and staff; the last thing you would do is broadcast it. I worked in Cambridge for two decades: I'll say no more other than list the stock market epic codes of ARM, CSR and ABC, not to mention the now-sold-on-for-billions Autonomy;

7 It may well be that media filters or news-values ensure that the only scientific knowledge that gets through is either the incredibly universal, like Brian Cox says there's 76 galaxies, or the incredibly banal, like David Starkey says there are racial tensions in recent UK political history. A documentary producer for an ITV series once told me I couldn't say homicide was more of a male proclivity, despite the number of women sadly missing in our sample of cases, for fear of upsetting the men in my audience. It's ironic how knowledgeable media people are about the impact of their work on their audiences, master scientists in fact, despite the lack of persuasive work on the causal effects of media output.

8 It may shock the more inquisitive among you but sizeable chunks of the public don't actually want to know; they want to consume; and with criminology this means that if you mention stereotypical criminals in the same sentence as explanation it is no longer amazing to see how many respond with 'lock 'em up, throw away the key - explaining their crimes is the same as sympathizing with them';

9 What a fair number of the public wants to consume isn't the wondrous mechanics of our physical and moral universe so much as something different that entertains them for half an hour; so ideally the best television and newspapers simply recycle familiarities at firmly fixed regular intervals - hence the existence of soaps; even that may be too demanding for those with ADD and they prefer paintballing to knowledge transfer;

10 When inquisitive members of the public want to know more detail about how stuff works, natural or social, they go to university and buy books - I have even known a fair few who won't let their kids watch television; funnily enough, it's their kids who are most inclined to do the same and also get degrees; the problem these people have today is that there is so much pressure on universities to pay for themselves that the proportion of intellectuals in those places is reducing, ever since the university demanded better paperwork, more fund-raising, better business-sense, full-on p.r., a motherly approach to student comfort, and a hard-headed managerialist approach to budgets -  so students don't find it easy to find the increasing percentage of profs who prefer to write books at home, go shopping for shoes, look after their kids, appear on tv or form their own company.

Personally, I feel there was more public engagement with science 40 years ago, when science was less of a lucrative commodity and more of a public service, and the media were less mass but a lot more public, in ownership, objectives and style. When you drive down the idea of public service from both your universities and your media, and replace it with the phony, private sector wisdom of 'the business model', managerialism and mission statements, you will find there is less of a public and fewer publically minded intellectuals to engage with each other. It's called a vicious circle in scientific quarters, which proves that you can circle quarters. I think I'll tweet that now.....because I'm not being paid for any of this wisdom......

"From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it." 

[Marx, Groucho, that is] 



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