Blogroll Me! The Madness of Scientists - scientific misunderstanding of public and media: Fit the fifth: Education is not public relations or, why things seem obvious when you don’t know anything about them

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Fit the fifth: Education is not public relations or, why things seem obvious when you don’t know anything about them

“Many people in the world, even educated ones, don’t know much, and it doesn’t actually matter at all.”

Geoff Dyer, Yoga for people who can’t be bothered to do it

Cast your mind back to those schooldays you loved so much. Do you remember how parsing the odes of Horace made you so much more sympathetic to classical scholarship? Did not the revelation of the mysteries of the quadratic equation fill you with human sympathy for the mathematicians who had made it all possible? And did not the act of committing the entire Krebs Cycle to memory engender a lasting respect for the work of biochemists everywhere?

Of course not. Education – at least in the way it is inflicted upon most of us - is torture; one that all sensible persons willingly and joyfully relinquish when the days of their sentence are finally up and they can at last escape the clutches of the whole sorry racket. The “joy of learning” is a myth, put about by those few people for whom it is true. Yet, much of the effort that has been expended in attempting to improve the public perception of science and scientists has been expended in vain attempts to teach the public more about science – to educate them. It is in this sprit that most people hired by scientific organizations to do their PR, are employed. Scientists worry deeply that most people don’t know what they know.

There was a time when a man could mend anything in his house. As life became more complicated, this ceased to be true for most. My own father was perhaps not typical, being a craftsman engineer by inclination. He could not only build beautiful furniture and make window frames with complex mouldings, but dismantle his car and decarbonise its head, and even build a television when nobody else in the street had one, using an oscilloscope screen and bits of war surplus. The denizens of Hazel Road, Swansea in 1955 watched Nigel Kneale’s BBC series Quatermass II in my parents’ front room at number eleven. And because it was an old oscilloscope tube, they also watched it in colour.


But even my father gradually found that sealed units, computers, software-driven appliances and the visual language of the pull-down menu eventually deposed him as master of all he surveyed. He didn’t like it, and still doesn’t; but the 21st Century has finally put him into much the same position as most people throughout the 20th – one of relative helplessness in the face of technology.

But how, in a scientific age – scientists ask - can people who are not like them possibly be fully functional, fully enfranchised beings? How can they make informed political decisions in such areas as, say, nuclear waste disposal, without being – in effect – educated in science? It’s a monstrous hubris, combining general intellectual snobbery with the scientific imperialism I mentioned in Fit the first. But the answer seems obvious; the public cannot – and something has to be done. The public must be educated.

And should this prove so difficult? After all, scientists know how fascinating science is (to them). Surely these people who don’t like it or don’t care about it were merely the victims of dodgy learning. Scientists set themselves to put this right (for many consider themselves natural teachers and one or two are right). As I have already pointed out, scientists don’t know that they are unusual in not finding facts and ideas about inanimate or non-human things intensely dreary stuff. They don’t know that most people are only interested in people.

Surely once the sheer joy of “knowing what they know” becomes manifest (one presumes, after Mr J. Public peruses a copy of Thursday’s Daily Telegraph on the Clapham Omnibus) then the sweet light of reason will dawn and scientists will again be seen as the wonderbeings they were when Professors Quatermass and Challenger reigned supreme. And then – job done - they can all go back to doing what they like.

This is all very curious, but it is not hard to see where the general attitude comes from, given what we now know about where scientists come from. As I have already said in an earlier fit: everybody interprets the world in terms of what they know. And all intellectuals know education, because they all went through it, their forebears mostly all went through it, and many of them never leave it.

With this approach in mind - namely that the media are a delivery mechanism for information (the conveyancing of fact) and that the purpose of the exercise is education (in a teaching ‘n’ learning sense); that the journalist stands for the lecturer, and the reader or viewer or listener for the eager student - it is hardly surprising that scientists often entertain a low opinion of the results.

This is frustrating to them, but more importantly it annoys their friends a great deal – these being, of course, science journalists and scientists’ specialist employees, who work in scientific public relations. Professor Richard Dawkins, in his collection of essays A Devil’s Chaplain, spoke of his feeling “that scientific journalism is too important to be left to journalists” and his hope that “true scientists may be better at it than journalists anyway”. And there you have it in one.

This whole sorry cross-purposes fiasco is most difficult for the Public Relations professionals whose job it is to act as midwives for science stories emanating from their institutions. On one side these doughty folk have journalists hungry for entertaining stories, preferably exclusively because most of them are soft news. On the other they have scientists with all their unreal expectations and mistaken assumptions, their hubris and their imperialism. If PR folk dare to tell their employers the truth, they risk being sacked. But if they do their job well and obtain lots of coverage, they will frequently be on the receiving end of complaints – either about the coverage not being sufficiently blanket, or about dumbing down and the subordination of serious scientific matters to the dictates of the trivialising media. Or both.

But the truth whose name its very practitioners dare not speak is that Public Relations is not about teaching people about things. It is about engendering warm feelings.

Knowing how to engender warm feelings takes skills that scientists usually don’t have , find it hard to grasp, and cannot conceive others to possess in greater measure than they do. One thing is certain however – scientists certainly don’t engender warm feelings by strutting around denigrating those who are there to help, martyring themselves on the self-imposed cross of their calling, hectoring people for their ignorance and insisting they learn something they think they don’t like.


Which brings us to consider the ways in which scientists, with all the personality characteristics that make them good at being scientists but which may not be universal blessings to say the very least, actually interact with others – others whose professional services they desperately need if they are to be successful in gaining favourable media profile, and thus engendering those all-important warm feelings. I feel another fit coming on.


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