Bringing Science to the Masses
April 19, 2017 9:12 AM   Subscribe

How can I help the general public better understand basic scientific concepts and encourage people to exercise critical thinking?

Lately, I've been getting more and more disheartened by how widespread science denial is becoming in the US. (Or perhaps, it's a case of science deniers becoming louder or gaining access to positions of influence?) It seems that science is being treated as something subjective, as an "opinion", rather than what it really is: the collection and application of knowledge attained through an evidence-based methodology.

I think there is a disconnect between "Science" and the "Public." This may be due to a series of factors--political agenda, corporate interests, etc. I think there might be a perception problem, as well. Maybe people don't see how science is not something confined to a lab that only people in white coats engage in. Maybe people aren't seeing how science is part of every aspect of their lives. There is also the issue of many people being too busy or too stressed to care.

I was a Biology major for a few years in college before switching to the humanities, so I while I am not a Scientist, I understand the importance of things like evidence-based reasoning. I like writing and drawing and was thinking about making small comics that share science facts, theories, and concepts and encourage people to think critically. I want to help educate people and correct misconceptions about things like climate change, evolution, the Big Bang...things that even people in my own friend circles deny the legitimacy of in favor of non-evidence based beliefs. (Obviously, I'll source my info from reliable sources and cite everything.) Would this be a good idea? It is one of the few ways I can think of helping with the skills I have now. One thing that I am a bit worried about is that my work won't be viewed as credible because I don't have a science degree. :(

What are some other ways that a person who is not formally trained in the sciences, but cares a lot about science and critical thinking, can help fight against anti-science sentiment?

Thank you in advance for your advice.
posted by galaxypeachtea to Education (5 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You might check out some of the Smithsonian "Citizen Science" projects, including the "Digital Volunteers" options. Even a number of the non digital projects do not require you to be in the Washington, D.C. area.
posted by gudrun at 9:49 AM on April 19, 2017

Do any of your local schools or libraries have science enrichment programs that could use volunteers?
posted by heatherlogan at 1:38 PM on April 19, 2017

AAAS has a lot of resources devoted to this sort of thing. Some are free to members, some are 'courses' that have an additional charge as well.

To add my two cents beyond that, helping people who want to learn (like judging science fairs) will be satisfying and you will feel you are making a difference and the lack of a science degree won't matter.

For people who start out hostile to accepted science, your lack of credibility will not be that you lack a degree but that you say things they "know" are wrong. If you actually want to change anyone's mind in that category you'll need the patience of waves determined to grind down a cliff. I don't know if there's any way to do it other than politely discussing small points with friends / relatives / drinking buddies when they bring it up and accepting you won't change their mind, even on minor stuff, right away.
posted by mark k at 8:30 PM on April 19, 2017

The Center for Communicating Science has a number of very good workshops and classes, although most are aimed at 'professional' scientists, I (not a STEM professional) attended a workshop and it was helpful and interesting. If you have the opportunity to use any of their resources, I highly recommend it.

The workshop I took was about having conversations. The central concept that I learned from this workshop is that #1 it is very important to be empathetic to your audience, and #2 people will not understand more than 1-2 key points. On point #1, you need to watch your audience closely for nonverbal signs of engagement and disengagement and change your conversational tactics appropriately, use metaphors they actually understand (don't use jargon!), be funny, and do whatever you need to do to make sure they are actually engaged with your topic. On point #2, people can't really absorb too much at one time, so make sure you are clear at the outset about what you want them to understand.

You can create real change by simply having conversations with the people you know. Talk to them, and keep point #1 (listen and watch! be funny!) and #2 (what's your key point?) in mind. Don't argue and don't have a soapbox. Be empathetic and take people where they are. I have been trying this with my coworkers and relatives to good takes practice, though.
posted by epanalepsis at 8:57 AM on April 20, 2017

The Union of Concerned Scientists is fighting the good fight on a policy/advocacy level, and they do a lot of their own research relevant to policy. (E.g.: working out the details of the effective fuel efficiency of electric cars in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, given the conversion efficiencies and the electricity generation mix state-by-state in the U.S.) They also sponsor regular webinars on the public communication of science. You don't have to be a scientist to join.
posted by heatherlogan at 6:47 PM on April 20, 2017

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