Why Pop Science Is Important, Even If You Don't Think It's "Real Science"

While “fake science fans” may be annoying, science deniers are deadly.

May 20, 2014 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

I know a lot of people who cannot stand the Facebook page I Fucking Love Science (IFLS). A lot of them are scientists.

I can understand the backlash. If you’re someone who spent five to six years in PhD program only to make around $40,000 a year as a post doc, IFLS seems a little insulting or, at best, reductive. It’s mostly a collection of science-related memes and pictures of Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Sometimes there’s something interesting about a crazy spider.

In short, a lot of it isn’t “real science.”

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Comic via Explosm.net

 

Nobody likes poseurs. Nobody likes “fake” participants in their subculture. Nobody likes people that claim membership within a subculture without “putting in their dues” or presenting the correct credentials. Like an original fan of an obscure indie group, longtime champions of science are put off by this group of science fans who claim to love the subject with only a cursory understanding of it.

But science is not an indie band.

Science is an attempt to understand the world around us and any and all enthusiasm for the subject must be encouraged. Because while these “fake science fans” may be annoying, science deniers are deadly. Currently, the public’s trust of scientific studies is alarmingly low. In a new Huff Post/YouGov poll, only 36 percent of Americans reported having "a lot" of trust in information they get from scientists as accurate and reliable. Fifty-one percent said they trust that information only a little, and another 6 percent said they don't trust it at all. Another survey conducted by the Associated Press in March of this year found that only 31% of the people polled were “extremely confident” that “Life on Earth, including human beings, evolved through a process of natural selection.”

That’s a problem. So when I see a “non-scientist” clogging up my feed with IFLS, I’m just thankful it’s not pictures like this:

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This is a photo that has appeared in my Facebook feed on more than one occasion, and I loathe it. It's usually posted as is with no links to anything or it's captioned "Even squirrels know which one is better." It’s upsetting because the people who shared the photo are satisfied with that being an argument against GMO foods. Regardless of how you feel about GMOs -– and I encourage you to read this about the subject -– that photo is an overly-simplistic, completely useless argument. It’s a photo of two nearly identical pieces of corn, one slightly bigger than the other, labeled “GMO” and “organic” in magic marker.

The apparent "proof" in this photo lies in the relative rates of corn consumption between the two samples. There’s no scientific control and no data collection, and if one was looking for an example of correlation being used to imply causation, one has found it in this stupid picture. (Also worth noting is that even “organic” corn can sometimes be contaminated with GMOs; it’s just one of those things that is very hard to control.)

I would “like” a million chemistry cat memes to make things like that go away. Not because I'm against buying organic produce, but because it is a slap in the face to the scientific method. It’s lazy and it’s irresponsible.

We live in a time where mumps and measles are making a comeback because people are refusing to vaccinate their children. It doesn’t matter that many studies involving millions of children in several countries consistently show no significant difference in autism rates between children who got the MMR vaccine those who don't. It doesn't matter because people don’t trust doctors and they don’t trust scientists. Because of that, diseases that are preventable are experiencing a resurgence.

Pop science aims to make science more accessible and less elitist, which in turn can build trust. People don’t trust what they don’t understand. Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson is an excellent example of what pop science should be; it’s accessible, it’s engaging, and it imparts observations about the universe around us in a way that can be easily understood, whether you are “science minded” or not. Yet, there are still parts of this country where this show is seen as controversial. That is insane.

I used to scoff at “fake science fans” who could only name Bill Nye or Neil deGrasee Tyson when questioned about their favorite scientists, but you know what? Those two men are not only great scientists, but great science communicators, and the two do not always go hand and hand. I’ve met a lot of great chemists, and some of them were terrible at explaining chemistry; he's a great person to be familiar with.

If someone is “only familiar with Neil deGrasse Tyson,” at least they are familiar with an astrophysicist. Not only that, it’s someone who can impart scientific knowledge in an accessible, engaging way.

Maybe “true fans” of science would take the time to slog through technical journal articles to “properly educate” themselves on STEM issues, but the average person is not. This presents a problem because the average person must be reached and made aware of scientific discoveries, issues and innovations.

Maybe your Facebook acquaintances don’t actually love science; maybe they just love feeling intellectually superior. But I'd rather deal with someone who felt intellectually superior due to their "love of science" than someone who felt intellectually superior due to their distrust of medicine. Perhaps the only true lovers of science are those that devote their lives to the study and practice of the subject, but that’s like saying that one can’t love music without playing an instrument. The argument also ignores accessibility to education and the cost of studying science, and that’s another discussion entirely.

The best article I’ve seen on the subject is this one, which argues that you can’t possibly love science, because “if you loved science, you’d vote based on candidates who want to increase funding for it.” I agree with that completely. But in order to get people to that point, we have to make the subject accessible and inviting. I’m not talking about making scientific study easier or coaxing people into fields they’re not suited for; I’m talking about creating space for the science appreciator. Musicians don’t support the field of music; music listeners do. Similarly, scientists are not the ones who need convincing that science is worthy of their tax dollars.

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Use these as talking points.

So when someone excitedly shares one of IFLS’s weekly round-ups, the wrong thing to do is to scoff at their “pedestrian” interest in the subject. At least there is interest. If you fancy yourself one of the “true” fans of science, use those roundups as a springboard to share important research. Use them as a way to garner support for legislation that will shift funding to scientific endeavors.

It’s true that Elise Andrew (the founder of IFLS) “isn't even a scientist.” It’s true the name “I Fucking Love Science” is a little grating and kind of dumb, but let's not get bogged-down in the semantics of the word "love." Andrew never intended to become the voice of casual science appreciators; what started out as a collection of photos and links that Andrew found interesting now has around fifteen million “likes.” So while there are certainly better scientists, Andrew is the better communicator; she is doing something right. If nothing else, she is endearing science to those who might otherwise ignore it completely.

And while you may have to sift through tired memes such as this:

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I'm tired of it too.

At least it’s not this:

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This is a terrifying way of thinking.

Everyone has to start somewhere. I was raised by science-minded doctors who set me on the path early on. Even though I pursued a career in STEM, I’m probably not going to do anything Nobel-worthy or cure cancer. But there is someone out there that could do those things, and they may not know a single scientist. Perhaps what will get them started is a photo of Carl Sagan with that oft-repeated “star stuff” quote superimposed over it. Maybe a Neil deGrasse Tyson meme will get them to start watching Cosmos and maybe they’re our next "rock star" astrophysicist. We have no idea where the next great scientific mind will come from and we need to encourage interest in STEM however and wherever we can.

When a large corporation creates a webpage devoted to helping you find “chemical free” food, it’s not just an opportunity to yell at them on Twitter (which I did) it’s an indication that the culture of chemephobia is alive and well and that the average person doesn’t know what a chemical is. Elitism and exclusion won’t teach them what a chemical is, but a Facebook group might.