I find myself disturbed by today’s TeeFury special, by Legendary Phoenix. The image shows Rick, a stereotypical scientist in a white lab coat with messy hair, a unibrow, eyes ripe with ennui, bags under his eyes, a pointy nose, and a glum descending (and condescending) mouth. The scientist is saying (in a word bubble), “I’m sorry, but your opinion means very little to me.”
I expect some science geeks to jump up and down with glee and say, “You see? It’s not about OPINIONS! Ha! Gotcha!” However, one of the greatest challenges in science communication and science literacy is this perception that scientists are unpleasant, self-centered, passionless, people unwilling to listen or hold a civil conversation within the public sphere. “Your opinion means very little to me” could be “because I really prefer evidence over opinion” or it could be “because I’m socially inept and don’t care what people think” or it could be “because I bloody well don’t think you have anything to offer, and so I’m not listening” Or all of the above (and more).
And however you read it, these imply scientists have nothing to learn from experience, no compassion, no courtesy, no duty to educate or inform or improve science literacy among the broader populace, no understanding of intellectual sharing or community building, etcetera. Of course, real life is actually the opposite, on all counts, but this is the common perception.
This common perception has resulted in dangerous and ill informed policy decisions, reduced funding for research, strategically ill-applied research funding, poor translation of science findings into practice, and ultimately, unnecessary deaths and misery among those (all of us) who would benefit from the implementation of scientific discoveries.
“Scientific literacy is an urgent and important issue. Why should we care? The answer is simple: Our way of life and our survival are at stake.” – G. Wayne Clough, Secretary Smithsonian Institution
What I want to say is, “Your opinion matters. It matters because I care about how you got to your opinion, and I can learn from that. It matters because you might have information or resources or data that informs that opinion which aren’t available to me. It matters because I might have information or resources or data that aren’t available to you, and which might help both of us. It matters because if we put together what you have and what I have and more, we might get a picture of the problem or solution that are closer to what we really need. It matters because what how you feel about your opinion and how I feel about my opinion give an emotional context that is important in telling stories and shaping policy. It matters because IT MATTERS. So, tell me what your opinion is, share your sources and stories, listen to mine, and let’s learn together.”
I’m not buying the t-shirt. Or maybe I should, so that I can have this conversation over and over again.