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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

View Blog | Read Bio

Selling Science: Can we best the preachers and politicians at the PR game?

Too many of the attempts to sell science are like the proverbial minister preaching to the choir: they convince nobody but the already converted. This is unfortunate because we, as scientists, have a duty and a responsibility to sell science to a wider audience.  There are four motivations for this:

  1. There are important technical questions that can only be answered by the scientific method. These include, for example, what is causing global warming? Or why are the returning salmon runs in British Columbia so erratic? We must make the case that science and only science can address these types of questions and that the answers science provides should be listened to.
  2. To provide answers to questions like those above, science must have ongoing support since the answers can only come from a scientific infrastructure that is maintained for the long haul.  In addition to answering practical questions, science also has the important cultural role of satisfying human curiosity. To satisfy either the practical or cultural goals, science needs support from the public purse. This means science must be sold to politicians and the general public who elect them and support science through their taxes.
  3. We need to excite the next generation’s best and brightest to consider science as a career. This is the only way that we can ensure science’s future.
  4. Selling science is rewarding and can even be fun. You should have seen the fun both TRIUMF staff and visitors had at the last TRIUMF Open House. There is also something contagious about explaining a topic you are passionate about.

The allusions to religion in the opening sentence are appropriate as many attempts to sell science come across as a claim that science is the one true religion and anyone who disagrees is a fool.  While that may, indeed, be true[1], hollering it from the hill tops is a strategy doomed to failure. A frontal attack on a major component of a person’s world view will only arouse hostility.  Hence, to sell science, we have to start with a common ground with the audience. To achieve maximum impact, you have to know your audience and tailor what you say to its interests.

However, there are three things that should be part of any attempt to sell science:

  1. A definition of what science is. This may seem self-evident but I have seen seminars on selling science that carefully avoided any attempt to define what science actually is. I have this real nice pig in the poke to sell you. Even worse are attempts to define science that are wrong and/or annoy people. A major impediment to selling science is that there is no commonly accepted definition of what science is. However, allow me to offer a fairly safe definition: using observation as a basis for modeling how the universe works. This definition is simple, understandable and reasonably accurate[2].  Alternatively, one can talk about the ability to make testable predictions as the hallmark of the scientific method. Use the word theory sparingly as that word has multiple meanings and invariably leads to confusion. Using words like objective reality, truth, or fact is a real turn off to many audiences. Besides, every Christian will tell you that Jesus is the truth and the more fundamentalist Christians that the bible is fact. You cannot win with those words, avoid them.
  2. Examples of scientific successes.  This is the greatest strength in selling science. We have a plethora of examples to choose from, but it is probably not a good idea to start with the nuclear bomb[3]. Again, it is important to understand the audience. To a person talking non-stop on his cell phone, the cell phone would be a good example (if you can get his attention) but to other people the cell phone is an anathema. The same is true of almost any example you can choose. After all, curing disease (and motherhood) leads to world overpopulation. On TV or radio, the role of science in enabling TV and radio is a good bet. On YouTube, the internet would be a good example.  Despite the comment above, curing disease usually gets brownie points for science.  But claiming the Higgs boson cures cancer is a bit of a stretch.
  3. Your personal experience of the thrill of science; whether it is for the good of humanity or just learning more about how the universe works. It is here that the emotional aspect of science can come to the fore. To some of us, the hunting of the Higgs boson is more thrilling than hunting grizzly bears and probably more environmentally friendly. Using personal experience may seem as going against our training as scientist; but here we can learn from the professionals, those who sell religion or political parties: Do not talk about theology but your personal experience[4]. Do not talk about the platform but your own experience[5].  In the end, this may be a telling argument and it is important to counter the stereotype of the mad scientist in his (almost always male) laboratory plotting world domination or ignoring the obvious flaws in his theory and its disastrous side effects.  Drs. Faustus and Frankenstein are never far from people’s conception of the scientist.

You would think that selling science would be easy. We have a well-defined technique, four hundred years of successes to prove its usefulness and the thrill of the hunt. But we are up against two formidable foes: competing world views and vested interests. If someone believes they will be raptured to Heaven in the near future, learning about the world below is not a high priority. Similarly if they subscribe to the old hymn, I Don’t Want to Get Adjusted to This World Below, finding a crack in which to start a conversation is difficult.

In the same vein, if you have spent your life building a tobacco empire the last thing you want is some scientist claiming tobacco causes cancer. Or if you have made selling tar-sands oil a key political plank, you do not want scientists claiming it is destroying the earth.  In these cases, science, itself, tends to become the target of the counterattack. With the world’s best public-relations machines powered by religion, politics and vested interests in opposition it is not at all clear that the efforts to sell science will be successful.  But we must try. The motivations are so compelling, we must try.

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank T. Meyer and members of the TRIUMF Communications Group for comments on various drafts of this post.

To receive a notice of future posts follow me on Twitter: @musquod.

[1] Or not, as the case may be.

[2] My Quantum Diary blogs support this definition of science.

[3] Unless you are in Los Alamos.

[4] A well-known mega church pastor.

[5] Obama campaign worker.