25 March 2009

Explanation and evangelism

I was reading a review of Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True in the new issue of Current Biology. Reviewer Tom Tregenza writes:

Like many biologists, I occasionally panic that if the appeal of religious dogma can prevail over such a well-supported and rigorously tested theory as Darwin’s, then it can only be a matter of weeks before we’re all wearing sandals and the next breakthrough in oncology is expected to come from making offerings to a parsnip with a resemblance to the Virgin Mary. At such times, I vow that I will drag myself out of my ivory tower and try to explain what I do to the (surely fairly rational?) man in the street. Similarly, reading the manifestos of those seeking election to offices of the European and American Evolution Societies, there is universal agreement that evolutionary biologists need to do more to explain their work to the public. The fact is, however, that we’re still not very good at delivering on these good intentions.

This reveals a lot about why good intentions don’t deliver. People think the problem is that people outside of science don’t know. That’s not the problem. The problem is that they don’t care.

To use a wacky Zen metaphor...

I enjoy Australian Rules Football, for a lot of reasons. Those around me... don’t.

I might think that this is just due to their lack of information about the game. So I should go around and explain to them the rules and how it’s played. Then they will automatically become more interested, right?

Not necessarily. They may understand the game on an intellectual level, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to start bugging me to set up a footy tipping competition, start checking the AFL website on weekends, adopt a team and learn the club song. In short, they won’t care.

Getting someone to care is complicated. Marketers spend all day and all night trying to work it out. It isn’t just about explanation. It requires evangelism – not in the religious sense, but in the general sense that Guy Kawasaki talks about is always talking about. The sort of evangelism that sales and marketing people talk about. Going out there and connecting with people and demonstrating passion, solving peoples’ problems, engaging with them.

A lot of scientists are out there explaining Aussie rules football and wondering why people don’t show up for the games. The people who don’t show up for the game are not necessarily ignorant or uneducated about how the game is played. It takes more than explanation to create a fan.

We might be better off if we ditched phrases like “public outreach” and thought about “building a fan base.” We should create science fans.

(I’ll bet this post didn’t head in the direction you thought it would from reading the title.)

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