What Scientists Really Think of the Public

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

The stereotype of a scientist is that of a bespectacled, socially awkward nerd who would rather play with insects than interact with other members of his own species. According to this conventional wisdom, the hermit-like scientist sits perched in his Ivory Tower, stroking his microscope and looking with condescension and contempt upon the uneducated, unwashed masses below. Talk with them… about science? Humph. Why bother?

That (only slightly exaggerated) characterization may be widely believed, but it’s not actually true, says John Besley of Michigan State University.

Sure, scientists do think Americans are ignorant of science. When 1 in 4 Americans don’t know that the Earth revolves around the sun, it’s hard to disagree. What is surprising, however, is that, according to Dr. Besley’s research, a substantial proportion of scientists want to engage with the American public despite the fact that they perceive us as a bunch of noobs.

Dr. Besley sent surveys to 5,000 academic scientists, of whom 431 provided usable data. He found that 38% of scientists were willing to engage with the public online, an equal number were unwilling, and 26% were fence sitters. Probing deeper, Dr. Besley found that, contrary to his expectation that reluctance to engage the public was due to haughtiness, scientists expressed more mundane reasons for withdrawal: Lack of time, lack of ability to communicate effectively, and a belief that public outreach is not helpful to their careers. (It should be noted that in a separate publication, Dr. Besley discovered that online communication was the least popular form of outreach; scientists preferred more traditional news outlets or face-to-face discussions.)

Interestingly, Dr. Besley also uncovered that scientists feel that the public is willing to treat them fairly and to listen to their opinions. Importantly, scientists believe that discussing their research with the public is important and can make a difference. This, perhaps, comes as a bit of a surprise, given the increasingly polarized and contentious nature of public debates surrounding issues like climate change.

The main takeaway from Besley’s studies is that many scientists want to talk about their research. The trick is to get the other 1/3 to open up more. One way to do this would be to require all federal grant recipients to do some sort of public outreach. Another way would be to change how universities award tenure, perhaps by giving extra points to professors who regularly hold public seminars.

While most academic scientists are not as outgoing as Bill Nye the Science Guy, it’s nice to know that many want to be heard. That’s a healthy sign for science.

Source: John C. Besley. “What do scientists think about the public and does it matter to their online engagement?” Science and Public Policy 42 (2): 201-214. First published online: July 15, 2014. doi: 10.1093/scipol/scu042