12 October 2012

The “relevance” double standard

Scientists are often admonished to make their research “relevant” when talking to non-scientists. Here’s a recent example.

It is important to establish early on why your work is relevant to your audience. If you don’t tell them why it matters to them, it is much harder to maintain their attention.

Why is it always on scientists to keep proving over and over and over again that what scientists do is relevant?

Have you ever looked the number of stories that appear on news websites that have no relevance to people whatsoever?

Is it relevant to most people if Justin Beiber threw up on stage (if you were in the audience, I guess it would be) or if Lady Gaga gained weight or what Paul Ryan’s fitness routine is or how Olivia Wilde’s sex life is going?

The entire freakin’ sports section. Unless you or someone you know is a pro athlete, how is the outcome of some game in another city relevant to you?

C’mon. It mostly isn’t. It’s gossip. Humans are social animals, and we love gossip, competition, and arbitrarily lining up into teams.

“But I’m interested in those!” Yes, and that’s okay. You’re allowed to be interested in those things and many others. But they don’t have to perpetually justify their existence and coverage and attention the way science does. Large news organizations cover a viral video on YouTube and never have to explain the “relevance” of why they’re doing it.

People love all sorts of things that aren’t relevant to them apart from their own intrinsic interest. Why does science have this higher bar to jump?

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ExLabJunkie said...

I believe the issue is comprehension rather than relevance. Many topics in science are not readily understandable without extensive background knowledge. Even as scientists, we have all been to talks outside our expertise that are difficult to follow because the speaker jumps right into the intricate details without providing some initial background information. At such talks, I am not questioning the relevance, but I lose interest because I don't understand the topic. Science has a higher bar because of the complexity of the rungs.

Zen Faulkes said...

On Twitter, a couple of people suggested that scientists are expected to show “relevance” because it’s publicly funded.

While true, that’s a slightly different point. I’m reacting just to comments about how to communicate science, not how that science is paid for.

Besides, all kinds of other events get public support, too. How many tax dollars go into hosting an Olympic event? And they almost never even break even, unlike investment in research, which frequently pays dividends.

muswellbrook said...

I think you make a really good point. And it occurs to me that I've been doing it wrong. Instead of trying to explain why my research is relevant - I should focus on why it is interesting. The difference might be subtle but important.