When I ask my fellow physicists what they think of popular science, they all agree that it’s necessary. But when it comes to who should do the popularizing, how to go about it and why, opinions diverge. “We need to get young people excited about scientific careers again…” “Pedagogy is the most important thing…” “Quantum physics is to be avoided…” etc. I had fixed ideas on the subject myself when I started to take part in science outreach activities 12 years ago. After years of public lectures, school visits, science fairs, and collaboration with museums, I have to admit that my initial beliefs on the subject have gradually been eroded. Here are ten ideas that once had me fairly convinced, but that do not stand up to closer scrutiny.
To summarize my point, the motivations and relationship with the public that popular science brings into play are more complex than they seem, and scientists who are interested in doing it need to be aware of these, without giving up their ambitions and ideals.
1. “The public’s interest in science is dwindling.”
One of the ideas I hear most often from research scientists is that the general public does not have enough scientific knowledge. It’s true that when asked a basic science question, French people often get it wrong. For example, less than 20 percent identify gases and CO2 as the cause of the greenhouse effect. A third of Europeans don’t know that the Earth revolves around the sun.
But are these incorrect answers symptomatic of a lack of interest in science or rather of insufficient science at school? Because contrary to conventional wisdom, the general public is interested in science and has a positive image of it. To the question: “Do science and technology provide solutions to the problems we currently face?” nearly 84 percent of those surveyed answer “Yes” (Le Monde, 2016). Better yet, 93 percent of the French population would like to improve their knowledge about at least one scientific field (Credoc, 2013). And among 15-25 year olds, 76 percent are interested in science and 95 percent have a positive opinion of researchers (CSA, 2014).
Finally, when French people are asked which activity is belongs to the realm of culture, science comes second with 77 percent of the vote, just after museums visits and ahead of travel, theater, music or reading. Nearly one in two French people have visited a museum of natural history or science outreach center and the growing success of science channels on YouTube confirms the finding.
2. “Young people no longer aim for science careers.”
Another widespread idea, especially among academics, is that there has been a loss of interest in science subjects in recent years, which popular science could help us to rectify. However, the number of students on science courses increased by 23 percent between 2006 and 2016, compared to 16 percent for other courses. Student numbers in fundamental science subjects at university have risen 17.7 percent, higher than the national average. Getting closer to research, numbers have increased in second-year Master’s programs by almost 20 percent. At doctoral level, the number of PhDs awarded is roughly stable for French students and constantly rising for foreigners.
Even besides these good figures, I am wary of the proselytizing mission that some people would have science popularizers take on. Can a one-off talk at a conference or lab visit inspire students to change their minds about their future careers? The image young people have of science is first of all the one they are taught. And from this point of view, things look bad for my own discipline, physics. When asked what their three favorite subjects were at school, French people answer French (42 percent), history (38 percent), and math (34 percent), with physics coming in tenth (10 percent) (Credoc 2012). This, in my opinion, is where efforts must be made.
3. “Popular science is mainly about being good at explaining things.”
For scientists who popularize, the quality and precision of their explanations is a priority. They are worried they might approximate too much at the risk of lacking scientific rigor. But popularizing science isn’t teaching—and this is a university professor talking! It is impossible to be perfectly rigorous from start to finish and it doesn’t matter, as long as this is clearly stated to begin with. For having lectured extensively on quantum physics to a lay audience, I am well aware of the “unforgivable” approximations that I am forced to make when I talk about wave-particle duality or entanglement. But thinking about it, it’s the opinion of a colleague or physics teacher hidden in the audience that scares me when I make approximations rather than that of the general public.
Above all, what really has an effect on the public is often less to do with the quality of the scientific explanation than with the scientist’s look, their personality, how good the PowerPoint is, the choice of colors—in short, the style. The answers to questionnaires after our high school visits speak volumes in this regard: “the scientist was wearing jeans!” “A physicist can be a woman,” “And I thought physics was dead,” and so on. Very few comments concern the explanation itself.
4. “In a public debate, scientific evidence is enough to convince people.”
I’ll be quick on this point: many studies have established the list of cognitive biases that affect opponents in a debate: confirmation bias, the familiarity heuristic, the deficit model, the backfire effect, etc. Clear scientific reasoning based on objective evidence will not necessarily make people believe you; quite the opposite! For having often been faced with arguments based on pseudoscience—quantum medicine, “magnetizers,” crystal healing and the like—I no longer tend to firmly oppose those who defend these practices as I did at first, but rather try to educate the rest of the audience a little about the scientific approach.
5. “Some topics are too complicated to be popularized.”
I often hear that certain subjects such as quantum physics can’t be explained; they are too complicated, too abstract or too mathematical. I agree, if it’s a question of explaining “properly”. But, if you accept to give up a certain level of mathematical rigor, it is possible to provide some information and perceptions, whatever the subject. As proof of this, two “fearsome” subjects, the Higgs boson and gravitational waves, have been not only publicized but also popularized remarkably well since their recent discovery. The Nobel Prize for Physics, awarded every year on the most difficult subjects, is accompanied by excellent popular science pieces on the Nobel website itself. A survey of popular science experts indicates that none of them believe there is a problem too complex for the main ideas to be made understandable.
6. “We should focus on subjects with concrete applications.”
How many times have I been told that, to get the public involved, a popular science lecture on superconductivity should start with its applications, such as medical imagery or the magnetic levitation train. I don’t have any study to quote on this point, just an impression: the public doesn’t always want to be brought back to daily life and remains fascinated by the great mysteries and fundamental questions that science poses. Just look at the best selling science books: string theory, general relativity, astronomy, quantum physics, cosmos... None of the bestsellers are about physics for medicine or physics applied to electronics.
7. “Some subjects will always be more popular because they capture the imagination.”
In view of the previous point, you might conclude that the most fascinating subjects—the origins of the Universe, quantum or relativistic paradoxes—will always be more fascinating than the more concrete subjects. In physics, for example, astronomy and even string theory seem to go over better than condensed matter judging by the media coverage they get. Yet this imbalance has not only to do with the subject’s appeal, but also with the effort scientists make. String theorists have developed a real lobby for their discipline using terrific media representatives. Astrophysicists, likewise, get more involved and do a better job than others. At CNRS, they are five times more active in terms of popular science and outreach than condensed matter physicists. The size of research centers also helps: CERN for particle physics or ESA and NASA for space science have a tremendous reach compared to other communities split into micro-teams—an inspiration for other disciplines!
8. “No need for researchers to do popular science, leave it to the professionals.”
Scientists have a lot of good reasons not to take part in popular science or outreach activities, from a lack of time and lack of skills to a lack of recognition. Why not let the museum facilitators and science organizations do the job? Here again, my experience shows that scientists’ presence is irreplaceable, not for the clarity of their explanations, but for two other reasons. First, they can talk about recent research and anchor science in its modern context.
But more importantly, they are the ones doing the research. They can talk about what this involves in practice, their experience and the questions they ask themselves. The number of questions we get about the research profession and research practice are enough to show that scientists’ presence is worthwhile. I argue for complementarity and collaboration between professional science communicators and research scientists, which has been my own experience with the facilitators at the Cité des Sciences, for example.
9. “Popularizing takes too much time.”
This is true if you’re starting from scratch and aim to write an article or give a lecture to the general public. But there are “micro-actions” that can be done quickly and usefully: answering a few questions online, contributing to Wikipedia or Twitter, answering questions from a group of high school students for their research project, manning a booth at a science fair, writing a highlights section on your latest scientific article. There are plenty of opportunities for things that take no more than an hour or two.
10. “Popularizing is bad for scientists’ careers”.
I admit, this idea is not completely ill founded. Popular science and science outreach activities are unlikely to help advance research careers in France. There are not the serious evaluation methods and political will needed for these activities to be taken into account for promotion. But they don’t necessarily do any harm either and have several benefits that we tend to overlook. Good popularizers find it easier to recruit PhD students because they present their research subjects better—and I’m speaking from experience. They speak better at conferences when presenting their findings to colleagues. They write better introductions to their research papers, better highlights and—the key argument—better funding applications.
Finally, and most importantly, science outreach activities are a breath of fresh air, a way out to get out of the lab, take some distance from you own work, and meet a refreshing, enthusiastic and curious audience!