TITLE: Science Superstars for an Unscientific Audience AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: April 04, 2007 5:57 PM DESC: ----- BODY:

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.
-- Carl Sagan

Sometime ago I remember reading John Scalzi's On Carl Sagan, a nostalgic piece of hero worship for perhaps the most famous popularizer of science in the second half of the 20th century. Having written a piece or two of my own of hero worship, I empathize with Scalzi's nostalgia. He reminisces about what it was like to be an 11-year-old astronomer wanna-be, watching Sagan on TV, "talk[ing] with celebrity fluidity about what was going on in the universe. He was the people's scientist." Scalzi isn't a scientist, but he has insight into the importance of someone like Sagan to science:
... Getting science in front of people in a way they can understand -- without speaking down to them -- is the way to get people to support science, and to understand that science is neither beyond their comprehension nor hostile to their beliefs. There need to be scientists and popularizers of good science who are of good will, who have patience and humor, and who are willing to sit with those who are skeptical or unknowing of science and show how science is already speaking their language. Sagan knew how to do this; he was uncommonly good at it.
We should be excited to talk about our work, and to seek ways to help others understand the beauty in what we do, and the value of what we do to humanity. But patience and humor are too often in short supply. I thought of Scalzi's piece when I ran across a link to the recently retired Lance Fortnow's blog entry on Yisroel Brumer's Newsweek My Turn column Let's Not Crowd Me, I'm Only a Scientist. Seconding Brumer's comments, Fortnow laments that the theoretical computer scientist seems at a disadvantage in trying to be Sagan-like:
Much as I get excited about the P versus NP problem and its great importance to all science and society, trying to express these ideas to uninterested laypeople always seems to end up with "Should I buy an Apple or a Windows machine?"
(Ooh, ooh! Mr. Kotter, Mr. Kotter! I know the answer to that one!) I wonder if Carl Sagan ever felt like that. Somehow I doubt so. Maybe it's an unfair envy, but astronomy and physics seem more visceral, more romantic to the general public. We in computing certainly have our romantic sub-disciplines. When I did AI research, I could always find an interested audience! People were fascinated by the prospect of AI, or disturbed by it, and both groups wanted to talk about. But as I began to do work in more inward-looking areas, such as object-oriented programming or agile software development, I felt more like Brumer felt as a scientist:
Just a few years ago, I was a graduate student in chemical physics, working on obscure problems involving terms like quantum mechanics, supercooled liquids and statistical thermodynamics. The work I was doing was fascinating, and I could have explained the basic concepts with ease. Sure, people would sometimes ask about my work in the same way they say "How are you?" when you pass them in the hall, but no one, other than the occasional fellow scientist, would actually want to know. No one wanted to hear about a boring old scientist doing boring old science.
So I know the feeling reported by Brumer and echoed by Fortnow. My casual conversation occurs not at cocktail parties (there aren't my style) but at 8th-grade girls' basketball games, and in the hall outside dance and choir practices. Many university colleagues don't ask about what I do at all, at least once they know I'm in CS. Most assume that computers are abstract and hard and beyond them. When conversation does turn to computers, it usually turns to e-mail clients or ISPs. If I can't diagnose some Windows machine's seemingly random travails, I am considered quizzically. I can't tell if they think I am a fraud or an idiot. Isn't that what computer scientists know, what they do? I really can't blame them. We in computing don't tell our story all that well. (I'm have a distinct sense of deja vu right now, as I have blogged this topic several times before.) The non-CS public doesn't know what we in CS do because the public story of computing is mostly non-existent. Their impressions are formed by bad experiences using computers and learning how to program. I take on some personal responsibility as well. When my students don't get something, I have to examine what I am doing to see whether the problem is with how I am teaching. In this case, maybe I just need to to be more interesting! At least I should be better prepared to talk about computing with a non-technical audience. (By the way, I do know how to fix that Windows computer.) But I think that Brumer and Fortnow are talking about something bigger. Most people aren't all that interested in science these days. They are interested in the end-user technology -- just ask them to show you the cool features on their new cell phones -- but not so much in the science that underlies the technology. Were folks in prior times more curious about science? Has our "audience" changed? Again, we should think about where else responsibility for such change may lie. Certainly our science has changed over time. It is often more abstract than it was in the past, farther removed from the user's experience. When you drop too many layers of abstraction between the science and the human experience, the natural response of the non-scientist is to view the science as magic, impenetrable by the ordinary person. Or maybe it's just that the tools folks use are so commonplace that they pay the tools no mind. Do us old geezers think much about the technology that underlies pencils and the making of paper? The other side of this issue is that Brumer found, after leaving his scientific post for a public policy position, that he is now something of a star among his friends and acquaintances. They want to know what he thinks about policy questions, about the future. Ironic, huh? Scientists and technologists create the future, but people want to talk to wonks about it. They must figure that a non-scientist has a better chance of communicating clearly with them. Either they don't fear that something will be lost in the translation via the wonk, or they decide that the risk is worth taking, whatever the cost of that. This is the bigger issue: understanding and appreciation of science by the non-scientist, the curiosity that the ordinary person brings to the conversation. When I taught my university's capstone course, aimed at all students as their culminating liberal-arts core "experience", I was dismayed by the lack of interest among students about the technological issues that face them and their nation. But it seems sometimes that even CS students don't want to go deeper than the surface of their tools. This is consistent with a general lack of interest in how world works, and the role that science and engineering play in defining today's world. Many, many people are talking and writing about this, because a scientifically "illiterate" person cannot make informed decisions in the public arena. And we all live with the results. I guess we need our Carl Sagan. I don't think it's in me, at least not by default. People like Bernard Chazelle and Jeannette Wing are making an effort to step out and engage the broader community on its own terms. I wish them luck in reaching Sagan's level and will continue to do my part on a local scale. -----