Why Science Needs Help Talking About Itself

Star Trek. Star Wars. Blade Runner. Total Recall. Filmmakers cross over into science with great success. We need scientists to take the same fantastic voyage, passing through the semipermeable membrane that divides their world from pop culture.

Let’s get past the idea that there are still people who believe that climate change science is a hoax. Let’s get past the notion that evolution might be a mere theory that has to compete with creationism in some schools.

I am taking a deep breath and setting both of those things aside for a moment, because I want to talk to the scientists out there who are doing world-shaking work. Hello? Does anybody know your names?

Well, sometimes. If you’ve done a TED talk recently or aTEDx, like Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, or if you’ve written a landmark book like Frank Wilson, and can give provocative talks about human intelligence, yeah, ok, some people know about you. If you are Kate McAlpine and make a rap video about the Large Hadron Collider and it’s really good, seven million people will watch it on YouTube. Yes: Seven million. A rap video about physics. It was good enough to make me laugh and cry at the same time.

If you’re a charismatic superstar astrophysicist like Neil deGrasse Tyson, you can pull some guest appearances on Colbert and Stewart – so I’m not all that worried about you.

What about the rest of you guys doing great work that not enough people know about? Who’s helping you communicate what you do?

A few years ago I produced a pop science series for the Reelz Channel. We had J. Richard Gott explaining time travel, and NASA scientist David Batchelor talking about the science of Star Trek. The series was called For Real? It worked the semipermeable membrane separating science and pop culture.

Adam Savage and the Mythbusters crew, Louie Psihoyos, director of the Oscar-winning The Cove – you’ve shown the way to traveling between science and pop culture – traversing the semipermeable membrane without damaging (m)any facts in the process. You’ve helped more people see the value of science.

We need the solutions science offers, not only the architectural design solutions that are capable of solving the world’s most challenging social problems, not only the product design solutions offered by Apple that can revitalize a corporation and an economy, but also the social sciences, the pure sciences, the science thinking and intuition that has its greatest value when it helps us see the world most clearly.

There are people doing great work to communicate great science. RadioLab brings a spooky intelligence to scientific investigation. Nathan Yau visualizes science in his brilliant blog Flowing Data, and David McCandless combines data and journalism every day in Information is Beautiful. ScienceOnline is creating a conversation about science that we all can access. ScienceSeeker collects the best science news. Scientific American is still there, even better online than it it in print, thanks to Bora Zikovic lending it a lively blog presence. (He’s also a partner in ScienceOnline.). Seed Magzine and its Science Blogs march on.

But only a few pass through the membrane, just a few make that Fantastic Voyage. We need more brave travelers like that.

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