Garbo, Jeeves, or Dr Evil – Which science communicator are you?
Recently, as part of my MSc, I studied the blog comments of scientists who were debating their relationship with the public. These conversations argued about about how, or sometimes why, science should communicate itself to others. Opinions differed greatly. There were some who believed that communication of science was pointless when faced with an ignorant, stupid populace. There were others who believed that engagement with the public was one of the most important missions of a scientist. There were the conspiracy theorists who thought that media/politicians/religious nuts/climate deniers represented a single army of darkness out to get the poor, selfless scientist. And there was the perennial complaint of sub-cultures and teenaged diarists the whole world over – “nobody understands us!”
Despite the wide spectrum of opinion, three minority ‘types’ of scientist communicator emerged from the comments – frequently exerting a strong influence on the tone of discussion. Rather than construct a mature set of user profiles outlining consistencies in opinion, scientific discipline, gender, socio-economic class, etc – I have decided to be completely childish and construct a set of fatuous stereotypes with which to categorise them. Much more fun.
So here is my very brief list of scientist communicator stereotypes. Are you one of these? Do you know one of these? Would you like to date one of these? Would your mother still speak to you afterwards?
1. The “Greta Garbo”
– a mysterious middle-european movie siren, immortalised by her famous appeal for personal space:-
“I vaaaant to be aloooone!”
The ‘Greta Garbo’ scientist is a mystery – wrapped in an enigma – wrapped in a rather fetching pair of latex gloves. For this person, a scientist’s sole purpose in life is to do science. Nothing else. They resent being bothered by petty requests to explain their work, and are far too busy changing the world to actually talk to it. They suggest that a representative of the tax-paying public might periodically push a large research grant cheque through the small crack in their lab door – after which the door can be slammed shut, double-locked, and a large chair placed against the handle. Any scientist who attempts to “engage” with any of the six billion or so other people on the planet is dismissed as a lightweight – a pretender – a softy. They are not real scientists. They should seek out employment that better exploits their ‘people-skills’ – such as an air steward, a game-show host or an Italian Prime Minister – and leave the real business of science to the anchorite honchos in the ivory tower.
2. The “Jeeves”
– a long-suffering servant of society, possessing vastly superior intelligence, but governed by a strong sense of duty towards those less fortunate.
P.G Wodehouse’s fictional valet typifies the scientist communicator who believes that science ‘outreach’ – like death and taxes – is a sad but inevitable part of one’s existence, and a duty to be performed with dignity and grace. Whilst the public – Bertie-Wooster-like – can happily barge around the place with few brains and a well-honed sense of entitlement – it falls to the faithful scientific servant to rescue them from their own stupidity.
Bertie Wooster: Jeeves, you’re a wonder!
Reginald Jeeves: Thank you, sir. We do our best.
Our hero is always ready with a gentle smile, a quiet word and a little government policy here and there. A Jeeves has the enviable knack of making it appear that human progress is society’s idea all along, and not something scientists scribbled down on a quiet afternoon after tiffin. Our Jeeves is merciful to society’s little foibles – religion, astrology, democracy, the arts – but tries delicately to steer his charges away from pursuits that may lead to their own harm. Or to melted ice caps.
3. The “Dr Evil”
– a fictional evil genius with an ongoing staff problem, famous for the following lament:-
“Why must I constantly be surrounded by frickin’ idiots?”
Poor Dr Evil. He has a brain that can bring the whole world to its knees, but is constantly having to speak to people barely bright enough to slither out of a petri dish. Scientist communicators of this type are driven mad by the stupidity of others, and are convinced that the world would be immeasurably improved if everybody else would just shut up and do exactly what they say. But, inexplicably, they don’t. These types have even tried using a veeeeeryyy slllooooow voooooice to explain trivial concepts to the public – like the correlation between their deeply-held religious beliefs and knuckle-dragging stupidity. But the public only seems to get more cross. And as for the press! Why-oh-why can’t they just print that 10,000 word paper on their front page in its entirety! Why do they seem intent on finding some kind of “meaning” in what is a perfectly well-formulated collection of data?
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Of course, most science communicators aren’t like this. They are in fact just like everybody else. They are modest, passionate, articulate, committed, talented and caring. They believe that citizens should be thrilled and protected and empowered by knowledge. And that science can raise people up. They have one of the most successful messages humankind has ever had to tell. And they are very happy to tell it – if only that small minority of caricatures could SHUT UP FOR A MOMENT!