Increasing Science Literacy requires Clarity and Passion

Posted By Pamela on Jul 30, 2007 | 13 comments

Pamela and Neil deGrasse TysonToday I attended a pair of excellent presentations by award winners Gerry Wheeler and Neil deGrasse Tyson (shown with me at AAS last January). Both, in very different ways, challenged the audience of physics (and astronomy) teachers and professors to not just instill in their audiences the facts of science, but to also make scientific thinking (e.g. the scientific method) part of day to day thinking. Gerry Wheeler focused on “here is what we’re doing and what’s wrong with our modern science communications” and Neil deGrasse Tyson focused on “here is what is wrong with mainstream thinking.” What is missing was a solution to the question: How do we make skeptical and observation-based thinking the norm.

Let me step back and review what I’ve heard and then try and communicate the answers as I see them.

Gerry Wheeler pointed out very correctly that had Paul Revere been a physicist, his famous ride would have included the call, “We have noted the British are approaching.” We have an image problem. In part this comes out of our communications style. When you ask me a scientific question, I can (to borrow Wheeler’s terminology) be either completely clear (but leave out some details, some exceptions, and thus sacrifice some truth), or I can be completely truthful (and lose my audience in the details). Complete truth in astronomy and physics requires me to communicate in academic language and to assume levels of knowledge of my audience that it would have taken years to acquire. Complete clarity in my communications to the public requires me leave some things out that would cause an academic audience to cringe. Complete truth or Complete clarity. Pick one. You can’t pick both. As scientists, we are trained to pick truth. This loses our public astronomy audience.

It also scares our public audience.

Wheeler relayed his own personal experiment in testing how people respond to physicists by, when that dreaded “So what do you do?” question came up, variably answering “sex-ed instructor,” “teacher”, or “physicist.” He found that on long airplane flights, the first answer would earn him 5 hours of TMI. The middle answer would earn an “Oh,” (with an implied “Oh dear, how bleh,” and the third answer would get, “Wow, you’re smart,” and an eventual glazing over of eyes and brains, as the person reached for a magazine.

Somewhere along the line we have trained people (including perhaps ourselves), that physics is all about how this observation begat that mathematics with explained this fact that everyone must know or they are illiterate. For instance – we expect people to understand the seasons, and if they don’t their education failed them. This is (as Tyson pointed out a few hours later) a bad way to look at things because the seasons aren’t something you or I can intuit from our observations of our day-to-day world unless all we do is observe shadows and sun positions as we travel around the globe.

Somehow, as scientists, we have gotten in the bad habit of putting truth above clarity. We have, somehow as scientists, gotten into the bad habit of calling people uneducated if they don’t know the specific and non-obvious chains of evidence and resulting facts we deem important. We have gotten into the bad habit of being obtuse and arrogant in our educations. No wonder we have an image problem.

And this has allowed people in other communities – creationism, paranormal, astrology, – to come forward and frame the debate by making it all about controversy and demanding equal time for both sides of the issues. With complete clarity (and often no truth) they state their side and use emotions to compel the audience. Then we come in, and (ignoring wonderful exceptions like Phil Plait), we use complete truth to blast their arguments. We try for clarity but often lose it, and then we say emotions have no place in the debate.

And our audience hears, “I don’t care what you feel, I’m right, you’re wrong, and here is a bunch of explanations: [insert Charlie Brown’s teacher’s voice here]. Got that? If you don’t, then you don’t understand logic.”

What is said and what are heard are two different things. We need to take care to frame our own side of the debate in a way that can be heard, understood, and used to impassion people to follow us and care for our side. Emotions and clarity matter.

And this is where Tyson comes in. He puts humor and clarity and passion into everything he does. On his first slide he provided a whole list of everyday idioms that can be used as a starting point to get people to think and laugh. For instance, “What goes up, must come down.” In response to this phrase, Tyson asked, “Are the things we put on the moon going to fall back down to Earth?” No. No, what goes up doesn’t necessarily have to come back down. Every day observations can in this case be used to get someone to think and laugh about the lack of science in our speech, and to get them to think about what other silly things they may be saying.

For almost 90 minutes, Tyson gave a high energy, large laughter quotient, talk that pointed out the places where scientific illiteracy consistently come up. Many of these examples are things I’ve seen before. What was particularly compelling in his talk was a simple pair of questions he asked his audience of physics teachers and professors: “How many of you don’t have televisions,” and “How many of you have televisions you only occasionally use to watch movies and specials?” Many hands went up. Many people illiterate with regard to mainstream popular culture sat in that room. He remarked, “And I’m guessing many of you who raised your hands don’t know who I am.” The hand raising woman beside me admitted she hadn’t a clue who this author, TV personality, and researcher in front of her was.

Many in my field know their science and cry about its lack of popularity, but don’t know the names of the people trying to get it out to the public. They don’t know who to point their students at and their friends at when they want to promote edutainment.

In Wheelers earlier talk, he listed the people he perceived as the big names in science popularizing: Sagan, Morrison, Dyson, Feynmann. All dead or excessively old. All of them forever out from in front of the cameras and out from in front of the audiences. If these are the big names in science communications, we are in trouble.

I’ve had a lot of people here tell me they have never heard of Bad Astronomy, Astronomy Cast, the skeptics groups I’ve mentioned or many of the other popular groups out popularizing following the facts to the answers.

They’ve heard of Sagan.

Those with TVs have hear of Tyson.

Tyson is making great strides in bringing science to the masses. While flipping channels the other day, I found him on “The Universe,” “Nova Now,” and something random I didn’t recognize and flipped over (I’m a bad human sometimes). He’s out there.

Phil, Fraser, and (to a lesser degree) I are all over the Internet and Phil periodically is on TV. We are the next generation I hope.

And somehow, those of us out bringing science to the public, have to build a bridge between mainstream culture and mainstream science. We need to be ambassadors who speak both languages fluently, we need to be hip to the youth and savvy with the science. We need to speak with the staid grey beards of academe and bring to them knowledge of what the main stream culture cares about and teach them how to communicate. And we need to be clear and passionate with both our audiences.

I think we live in a time when science is at a cultural turning point. The Myth Busters, Skeptacality, and even CSI have made it cool to question. If we can keep that going, and use skeptical thought as our crow bar to open up minds, I think we will be able to make a positive change. We need to use the power of observation, and the fun of forensics, and the excitement of experiments to get people to become citizen scientists. We can do this.

The way to get the public into science is not to teach them lunar phases and the reasons for the seasons. The way to get the public into science is to get them noticing the crescent moon at noon and to get them asking, “How did that get there?” and to get them trying to logic it out and search for the answers for fun.

Looking, asking, exploring, answering, empowering and impassioning. These are the verbs of science. Let these be the words to guide us as we look to be clear in our communications of science to the folks living in a mainstream culture.


  1. One of the big problems I have found is that to the “mainstream media” science news isn’t “cool.” It doesn’t belong in the “if it bleeds, it leads” way of thinking in today’s “got to beat the other station, we need ratings” mindset.

    Case in point: I try the best I can to get publicity for our astronomy club’s events. Twice a month we open our observatory to the public, and we have meetings open to everyone (and would love Dr. Tyson, Dr. Gay, and Dr. Plait to give talks). But we aren’t “news.” Sure,we can get listed on internet calendars, but unless there’s a big astronomical event, we won’t get play on the television.

    But I digressed for minute. My point is that one station here, when asked to give us a small amount of publicity for an upcoming public event at our observatory, said – and I quote – “we can’t do that all the time…there are other venues that cater to more people (fairs, etc.) that we have to mention that are more important.”

    Until the news media comes to realize that science, and educating the public about science, is interesting, it’s going to be an uphill fight. But it’s one we can’t stop fighting.

    One last thing: the same television station who “can’t bother with us” has local blogs on their site, so readers can see “what’s going on in the area.” I have a blog for our astronomy club (to try to educate the local public about us and astronomy), but they don’t want to have anything to do with using our blog. They have blogs about kittens, and photos, and local politics (with no experts, mind you) but no science.

    Sometimes I feel like Sisyphus. :

  2. Interesting corollary to the “bleeds, leads” note – my research is largely about how we all might get dead from various astrophysical catastrophes… and I’ve had at least one popular press article every year since starting this work, and a TV documentary on the show “Mega Disaters” coming up this fall on the History Channel.

    So, you can combine science and gratuitous violence… but of course not all science fits that, nor should it!

  3. Dr. Tyson is a regular (roughly every 2 weeks) on the Daily Show. It’s always an awesome interview. I think most scientists wouldn’t fit John Stewart’s interview style (which is pretty much Improv comedy,) but Dr. Tyson always does an excellent job.

  4. Kevin wrote

    One of the big problems I have found is that to the “mainstream media” science news isn’t “cool.” It doesn’t belong in the “if it bleeds, it leads” way of thinking in today’s “got to beat the other station, we need ratings” mindset.

    That’s the same mindset that gives us the “New scientific breakthrough!” style of science reporting, too. The PR departments of universities bear no little responsibility for that.

  5. When I was at Fermilab, K.C. Cole gave a talk titled “Lost in the Translation: Writing About Science for the General Public”. She hit on some of the themes here.

    You can watch the talk streaming at

    Scroll down to March 27th, 2002.


  6. Kevin, somehow I get the feeling that “the same television station who “can’t bother with us”” has daily articles about the local Garden Club, horoscope, and revival preacher, am I right?

  7. I attended Pamela’s 8-hour workshop on Sunday at the AAPT. She was as informative (and entertaining, though in a technical context) as Dr. Tyson, I thought. And she managed her time better:)

  8. Hmmm. Sounds like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applied to speech! I have found that in dealing with the general public (I’ve been working in the planetarium field for 10 years) It’s always best to correct wrong information than to say no your wrong. More of a “I can see why you would think that” approach.

  9. Pamela,

    I am not a scientist, I am an engineer and entrepreneur with some experience teaching in my college days. I would like to add something from my own experience that may help.
    One of my major challenges as I was growing professionally was to get people on board from a leadership perspective. Most of the times, telecom and electronic engineers. And let me tell you it was ( and still is)a major challenge. Clarity and passion always worked, but not delivering “the answers” and associated knowledge, just trying to address the set of questions that may lead to achieve the goal and let people to be part of the creative process. Is more like “we are all doing and learning science” instead of somebody teaching and the rest listening and learning.
    People that think and like to be creative also want and need to be part of the process.
    Hope this helps at least a little bit.

  10. Pamela,

    I wanted to drop you a quick note to tell you how much I’ve been enjoying your podcast. I have only recently gotten into astronomy, courtesy of Death By Black Hole by your partner is this picture. I’ve jumped in with both feet and have been catching up on the back episodes of Slacker Astronomy. I love your sentiment that astronomy is a gateway drug to education. I’m a math teacher by vocation and passion and I’m always looking for ways to get my students to understand the practical applications. I should make listening to your podcast a required assignment.



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