28 May 2013

Tides and doldrums in science communication

Sometimes, you feel tired. Or small. Or both.

Last week, I went after a claim about “immortal lobsters.”

No, lobsters are not immortal. Lobsters have shorter lives than humans. But there is a tiny little sliver of truth that gets mangled somehow into a bigger claim that “lobsters are immortal.”

I’ve spent quite a bit of time working on the post (which has been updated several times), tracking down references, making pictures, and editing Wikipedia. I was gratified by the response to my post. It was one of my most popular blog posts in a long time. But then, I was dishearted to see that my posts didn’t even have 1% of the reach of a silly lobster picture. And I probably shouldn’t have searched Twitter for “immortal lobsters” to see how many people were accepting this and retweeting this claim.

Last night, I realized I had it easy. At least I don’t have to put up with the stuff the real marine biologists have to deal with, like a cable television network promoting the idea that mermaids are real.

Seriously. What the hell.

Because it apparently needs saying... mermaids are not real.

You want to make a dent in the foolishness. But sometimes, you just wonder if you can. 

And then we scientists get told we are not doing enough.

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

Sigh. You mean besides blogging non-stop for eleven years as of this week?

Scicurious has a long response to that, which says a lot of things I would probably say. I guess I’ll just add here that I can’t compete with viral memes and entire television networks. Even if I wasn’t trying to teach students and do actual original research, too, how far could I go when the tide seems so relentless and so fast?

This is not to say that I am going to give up. This is a good fight. But sometimes, you wish there was a lull in the fight instead of a never-ending battle.

Additional, 29 May 2013: Apparently, this week’s “mermaids” show gave the network that aired it its biggest audience ever. Hope for humanity fading...

More additional, 29 May 2013: If my post is one of fatigue, Bug Girl's post bookends mine with wonderful enthusiasm. Hope for humanity rising...

External links

Why Science Needs Help Talking About Itself
Calling all Brave Travelers
Insect Carl Sagan and science communication

Related posts

All lobsters are mortal
I want to be Carl Sagan, but can’t


Glendon Mellow said...

This is so true.

And while I'm coming at science communication from an arts background, (and 6 years of blogging) I have to remind myself of the limitations many scientists who blog feel when communicating.

With the internet being the most powerful tool in history for sharing visual media, all too often science communicators ignore or are blind to how easy it would be to enhance their message with visuals. It's frustrating.

And yet I know that when research budgets are slashed and burned, all too often good visuals are treated as an unnecessary frill simply because they can cost money.

There is a middle ground - image-makers passionate about scicomm willing to share or charge minor fees abound. (See here and here).

But yes, you said it: frustrating. staying motivated out of "someone is wrong on the internet" isn't sustainable, though it can be galvanizing in the moment.

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