Dear Science: it’s not you, it’s me.

I just thought I should write and apologise. It’s not you, it’s me. Apparently. I’m interested, and I always have been, but that’s not enough any more. I’m from the wrong side of the tracks – the arts and humanities side. I thought it was okay, you know? But now I’ve been told that I’m part of a detrimental Movement, and I’m just not up for that. I’m sorry, Science. If that’s how you feel, I’ll stay away.

Alright, I’m taking the piss. Sort of.

I actually am a bit more nettled than I thought by this geek-related kerfuffle. I’ve been waffling on whether I should bother writing about it, but then again – I am the Jo Soap being talked about here. I’m an atheist. I read pop sci books. I’m the audience for the Infinite Monkey Cage. I’m a geek, certainly, and I mean that both in the teenage perjorative sense, and the adult descriptor sense. And I’m not a scientist. I just find it interesting. So I’m either the best or worst person to do so. Let’s go.

This concept of ‘the Geek movement‘* is, to be frank, complete bunk. A movement is a coherent group of people, most likely with a leader, and with some idea of what their common aim is. You could call skepticism a sort of movement, I guess, but you’d be stretching a bit even there. Geekdom is less a movement than it is a meander.

To me, the word ‘geek’ describes someone who loves learning, whose curiosity is constantly piqued by new ideas, and who delights in the intricacies of their particular interest. I know people I’d describe as ‘geeky’ who are scientists, certainly, but also lawyers, sociologists, techies, writers, historians, philosophers – and so on. Some of them are atheists, some aren’t. Women and men and some who identify as neither. Some of them have an interest in politics, some couldn’t care less. Almost all are intelligent, questioning minds, and great conversationalists.

So it’s a bit jarring to be characterised as a socially awkward, belligerent, superiority-complexed man.

I mean, at least one of those attributes is totally untrue.

Yes, there are people who fit somewhere on the Venn diagram of {geek}, {skeptic}, {atheist}, {argumentative}, who are absolute fuckwits**. Sometimes they’re very loud fuckwits. But they’re not the majority, and they’re not somehow in charge of this very nebulous crowd of people. That’s a complete misrepresentation with no goal except scoring rhetoric points.

It’s also odd that this post was spawned by a bit of a fracas over this New Statesman editorial by (two of) the Infinite Monkeys themselves, which basically says ‘science does good things for society, don’t forget that, and we should probably depend more on scientific evidence than unverified opinions in areas of science-related policy.’ To which I can only add: and so say all of us. I have absolutely no idea where people got a desire for technocracy, or scientism, or a superiority complex, or a self-nomination as the adjudicators of Where Science Should Go, out of the article. You have one scientist and one writer/presenter/comedian, writing in a mostly political magazine for a mostly non-scientist audience, and their task is to make their point without alienating people who may not read a science-based book from one end of the year to another. Is that really the arena for a searching inventory of the people populating the scientific professions?

Here’s the thing: science is important. Scientists are important. Public engagement with science is also important. Getting people to vaccinate their kids or reduce their energy consumption or write to their representatives to encourage them to pursue science-based policy is important, and the only way to do that is for those in the know to instruct the rest of us in best practice.

I’m a little gobsmacked at this reaction in particular because I think The Infinite Monkey Cage is a great show, whose strength lies in its collaboration between a scientist and a non-science professional. Robin is the audience avatar: he’s a well-read enthusiast, not a working scientist. Brian provides the scientific background. They’re both fluent storytellers and generally funny writers, and they bring the best out of their guests. However, they do understand that speaking to the general public as opposed to a scientist-only audience means drawing a careful balance between the need for nuanced scientific discussion, and the need to engage and retain the interest of their listeners.

And so it is, I think, with the editorial – and not a lot of people have pointed that out. It’s interesting to me that the backlash seems to have come mostly from communications fields – I haven’t seen many scientists who’ve spoken against it. Perhaps most scientists understand that the detailed nature of their work is not immediately transmissable to the public, and know that sometimes you have to blunt the edge a bit.

I’d be sad if this row turned lay-people off enjoying science for fear of being characterised as a brash, shouty, atheism-pushing know-all. I’d be sad if science writers were less likely to appeal to the public because they might suffer an evisceration from sci-comms colleagues. Sometimes the arena of internet arguments is a dodgy place to tread.

Keep the geek flag flying high, friends. Or don’t. I’m not the boss of you, either.

* please see here for an excellent piece-by-piece skewering of that post by MJ Robbins.

** a very technical term, do excuse me.

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3 thoughts on “Dear Science: it’s not you, it’s me.

  1. Pingback: mass communication | Eppur Si Muove

  2. Pingback: Is the sci-comm movement bad for science? « The Thought Stash

  3. Pingback: The Science of Communication and the Communication of Science « delilahdesanges

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