Lazy science communication

I was doing research for the educational materials for kids that I’m preparing (see here) when I ran across a website with an upsetting attitude. On a website about visual perception, the author said (paraphrasing to protect the guilty and the innocent) “if you’re not a scientist in my specific discipline, you might find my explanations too hard. I’m not trying to go over your head, it’s just too complicated, as is all science. So just sit back and enjoy the pictures.”

There are so many things wrong with this sentiment. Briefly, insofar as I can be brief, it implies that:

  • Understanding science completely is only for scientists
  • Science is inherently opaque or difficult
  • Scientists have no ability, or obligation, to explain their work in a way that is understandable
  • There is a division between two distinct classes of people: scientists who understand things, and other people who don’t and just have to trust scientists for knowledge
  • The public should be grateful for whatever scientific bones we throw them (not literally, unless you are a paleontologist) and even this excuse of an attempt at education should be met with thanks
  • People should be willing to accept that they can’t or won’t understand how things work, even if the way they work is known
  • That understanding science is a matter of innate ability or knowledge learned so long ago its source is forgotten, not something that all of us learned from scratch at some point
  • Sitting back and enjoying the pictures is mutually exclusive with knowing how the science underlying them works

Now, I don’t think that the author of this site intended to condescend. I don’t believe they really do think that non-scientists and proto-scientists (kids) are too stupid to understand how vision neuroscience works, and I don’t think they want to turn science into a walled garden where only the elite are allowed to understand the wonders of modern knowledge. They’ve just fallen for the stereotypes of science as hard and scientists as remote eggheads who can’t interact with anyone outside their field and can’t use their words like a “regular” person. They’ve forgotten that effectively explaining science for a general audience doesn’t require squeezing in every single minute detail.

Perfection is the enemy of progress. Just the gist of it is ok, sometimes. It’s better that the public understands general principles of science and scientific thinking, and knows how to apply them to their lives, than that they think science is scary and too hard and only for professionals.

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