Thursday, 20 February 2014

Why is science boring?

Making science more approachable?
(Photo of The Big Bang Theory cast courtesy CBS)
I think science is wonderful, fascinating, life-enriching, and generally the best thing since the big bang. So it may seem odd to head up a post 'Why is science boring?' - but the fact is, like it or not, the majority of people consider it to be so. So those of us whose job is communicating science need to be aware of this and its implications.

Despite occasionally enjoying pointing out its failings, I am quite fond of QI, and have observed something quite interesting about the general attitude to science there. If there is a guest with a science background like Dara O'Briain or Ben Miller, then whenever that person answers a science question with a little bit of detail the other team members glaze over and generally act bored.

So why does this happen, and how can we get around the issues? Here's a few thoughts, which I can guarantee aren't comprehensive, but are a starting point.

  • A lot of science teaching is boring. If you are a science teacher, I'm sorry, but this is true. A fair amount of the blame is down to the curriculum - it is still essentially Victorian, and ought to be re-written from the bottom up, as at the moment it ignores most of the really exciting bits of science like relativity or quantum theory or epigenetics. Some of it is down to the teaching itself. It doesn't help when, say, a biology teacher is trying to teach physics. But we definitely need more inspirational teaching in the sciences.
  • A lot of scientists are boring. Actually most of them. Of course there are wonderful exceptions who are great communicators, but they are still in a tiny minority. In part the answer here is more teaching of science communication. I really believe it should be a standard part of a scientist's training how to communicate to the general public, as in the end, continued funding often depends on public support. One problem scientists face is that they are too picky about accuracy, which means they are always qualifying their answers or making them far too detailed. Sometimes you have to smooth things over a bit to get the point across. Think of it as rounding. Another issue is that they have usually forgotten the difference between jargon and normal English.
  • A lot of science is put across without enthusiasm. There seems to be a strange leap made from 'We are doing a serious piece of work' (true) to 'We we need to come across as serious people.' Take a lesson from business. Business people are serious about their work, but when they are telling people about their products and services, they make it interesting, enjoyable and sometimes even fun. That's why I like things like Festival of the Spoken Nerd which puts across science with enthusiasm. Another lesson from business is they use professional communicators to do the communicating. Science should do more of this too.
  • Give context. Science is generally very focussed on the experiment or model or theory. That's fine, scientists could learn a lot from popular science in that context - history, (potential) applications, stories about people all helps to make the science itself more approachable.
  • Challenge the glaze. If someone you are talking to does the QI glazed boredom bit, ask them why it's happening. You're a scientist - do a bit of research.
  • Politicians don't care. Our politicians are largely ignorant of science or even science-phobes. We need more people in parliament who understand science and its importance to the country. Without a political backing it is difficult to get money behind the right initiatives. 
... I'm sure you have thoughts too. Feel free to add them!

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