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Flip Tanedo | USLHC | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

Promoting science doesn’t mean dumbing it down

I recently found myself spending a lot of time thinking about science outreach and so was particularly tickled by an article in The Onion about the dumbing down of science. The Onion, of course, is “America’s finest [satirical] news source.” Included in the piece:

Sources pointed to a number of proposed shows they’ve abandoned in recent weeks, including […] Atom Smashers, a series that was was roundly rejected by focus groups as being “too technical” and “not awesome enough.” “People liked that the particle accelerators were really huge, but apparently the show didn’t have enough smashing to hold their interest,” said a former employee.

I don’t own a television (is that weird?) so I don’t really know what programming is like on the Science Channel, but as a particle physicist I am often confronted with the question of how to explain my research to the public in a way that does not speak down to either the audience or the subject.

It is true that high energy physics isn’t a field which most people have everyday contact with, but this doesn’t mean that the material needs to be “dumbed down.” While the material might be unfamiliar to the audience, it is [very] wrong to assume that the audience is somehow incapable of understanding the material. In fact, it is the fault of the scientist if the audience unable to understand the material since it is part of the scientist’s responsibility to translate their technical work into something accessible to a broad audience without compromising scientific integrity.

This is not easy (though we here at US LHC are doing our best!) and there is a delicate balance between

  1. Conveying a sense of scientifically-established ‘truth’ rather than facts that people should take on faith (very unscientific!)
  2. Tailoring this argument to the interests, background, and patience of the audience
  3. Simultaneously conveying one’s personal excitement for the field.

The joke that I always keep in the back of my mind before presenting ideas to a non-technical audience is the story of an old man talking to the engineer of a steam locomotive.

The engineer does a very good job of explaining how coal is burned to boil water into steam which is then used power a system of pistons that cause the wheels to turn and the train to move forward. He explains the conversion of chemical energy to kinetic energy and the mechanics of the various valves and rods.

Eventually, the old man interrupts him and says, “Yes, yes, I understand all that. What I want you to explain is where you hide the horses.”

Flip, US LHC Blog

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