The conference I attended in San Francisco had a couple of different sessions on Science Advocacy. The first one I sat in on was a talk by Ann Reid from the National Center for Science Education. The title of the discussion was "How to solve a problem like science denial?" and she talked about how science deniers are threatened by science and the information that comes from scientific discovery. I sat there listening to numbers and percentages I'd heard before like how 25% of the population does not believe the earth revolves around the sun and I was somewhere between on the verge of bursting into tears and throwing up. This talk was not so much "Hey! Look at how cool science can be!" and more "How to deal with confrontations because people are now going to think you are a witch and not a scientist." I had visions of angry mobs with pitch forks.
There was an emphasis in this talk on making yourself (the scientist) less threatening. Scientists often say things that conflict with core values. A good example is the topic of evolution. Evolution conflicts with religion and beliefs and those kind of people either believe in evolution or they don't. The 'believing in science' thing is a phrase that I struggle with. Science is not a faith based religion. There's no believing in the facts that come through scientific discovery. Yet, that angry mob I am envisioning are not thinking analytically. Dr. Reid gave the audience some really good advice on dealing with people who do not think analytically. She told us to ask questions and listen respectfully and be personal. She showed this graph that shows how people see scientists as competent, but not particularly warm. We don't illicit comforting feelings. In fact, we're seen as the second most competent job but with the warmth level just above a lawyer.
So, the second session on Science Advocacy, which turned out to be a table discussion, was all about how to turn socially awkward scientists into more personable, lovable creatures. This session turned out to be not at all what I thought it was going to be. I thought I'd be sitting in an audience, listening to someone talk about how to develop a two-minute speech that would convey what I do as a scientist without being threatening. Instead, I walked into a table discussion where me and Sarah (we tagged along together to this) were placed at one of the front tables. The guy moderating our table looked at us and said "Let's hear your pitch!" and flames whooshed up my neck and into my cheeks as I stammered for actual words as opposed to the sounds of "uh...uh..um..." that I was making.
Here's the thing. I don't talk about what I do. Period. I do not talk to Michael about what I do. I do not talk to family about what I what I do. I do not talk to friends about what I do. I just don't talk about what it is I actually do as a scientist with anyone. I noticed a long time ago that when someone would ask me what it was that I do for a living and I said "research scientist" their eyes immediately glazed over or they would nod their head and say "that's nice." before turning and walking away. I have heard "Is she speaking English?" from people as I have talked about some aspect of my job. I do not talk about what I do because I have yet to come up with a simple way of explaining what it is that I do without being condescending. I suppose, if pressed, I could write something about what I do, but at that moment when the mediator at our table said "GO!" I could not form a complete sentence or even say the word 'microscopy'.
My friend told me this story about an interaction she'd had with a small child recently. The child was holding a garden hose and then asked Heather where the water came from. Heather started explaining the water cycle to the small boy when his grandma walked over and looked Heather in the eye while she turned on the water faucet. The kid just wanted the water on and had zero interest in evaporation and condensation. In general though, I feel like this is what it is like for any scientist who has been pressed to explain their work. In order to explain my work, I feel like I need to give you ALL of the information including the big picture part because my work is just a small part of that big picture. My part in the water cycle is turning on the tap or pumping that water to the tap. The questions scientists are asking are big and complicated questions that can't be answered all at once. We have to take small chunks out of the big question. That's what I do. I work on a small chunk of a much greater question. Hopefully the answer to the small chunk leads to answers in solving the big ones like curing cancer or Alzheimer's.
In the meantime, I'm going to be sitting over here working on my two-minute pitch so I look less like witchcrafty when the angry mob shows up.