There exists a great division between scientists and the general public. But who cares? Scientists go about their happy lives indulging in research and the public gets to reap the benefits. The public receives better health, massive communication networks, global trade, and copious amounts of energy because of scientists; and in return scientists get to keep doing what they love, exploring the natural world. Both parties are satisfied, making everyone happy, right? In a perfect world this would be a wonderful situation (and an interesting example of symbiosis), but I'm pretty sure we can all agree this is anything but a perfect world.
The rift between scientists and the public creates societal turmoil. On one hand you have the scientists, they present the public with new ideas, gadgets, and ways of living, but they don't take much time to explain how their ideas, gadgets, or ways of living operate. On the other hand you have the public, which seems to show little interest in how scientist's ideas, gadgets, and ways of living operate. Not a single party is at fault, each situation reinforces the other. Why would the public be interested in scientific endeavors when scientists are so reluctant to explain to the public what they are doing? And why would scientists want to explain to the public what they are doing if the public doesn't seem to care? So why do these two problems create societal turmoil?
Today's public live in an era of unprecedented amounts of information and change, stem cell research, the Large Hadron Super Collider, space travel, global climate change, fusion reactors, nuclear reactors, ecological services, cloning, artificial intelligence, food production, computer security, genetically modified foods, vaccines, and gene sequencing represent just a fraction of the scientific contributions the public has to evaluate. But is the public ready to evaluate such earth shattering ideas? We live in a democracy, which means people react as a whole to decide what gets done. If the public is not equipped with a basic understanding of how these scientific ideas operate, because of the self reinforcing problems stated earlier, how are they going to react appropriately? We can already see how this misunderstanding creates serious problems, scientists working on the Large Hadron Super Collider have received death threats, only 47% of the U.S. population is expected to get the H1N1 vaccine, evolution is being downplayed in public schools, and recent surveys indicate that only 35% of U.S. citizens think global climate change is a serious problem.
To solve these problems we need more effective communication between scientists and the public. Scientists need to suck it up and take time to understand the public, in order to explain their research in a digestible fashion. The general public also needs to take some responsibility and educate themselves. This website is my small contribution to the solution; it is my attempt to spark some interest in scientific ideas and thinking. I believe that one problem in scientific communication is that people simply don't have a frame of reference to help them understand foreign ideas. Using analogous personal experiences can help create a frame of reference for understanding foreign ideas, for example using the flow of water to explain electricity. When possible, though, allowing people to become a literal part of a foreign idea does away with analogies altogether and provides a positive personal experience as well as a more concrete frame of reference in which to better understand foreign ideas. The pages that follow are a combination of strategies that attempt to provide a frame of reference. Content and updates are added the website pretty regularly now, so stop by when you get the chance.
www.aaronalai.com by Aaron ALAI is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.