Science has an awkward relationship with the public. There’s a perception that we exist in an ivory tower, and the common media perception (as is evident by shows like The Big Bang Theory) is that we’re somewhat socially inept, with a lack of people skills and an inability to talk about our work in a way that others can understand. So I was thrilled when #overlyhonestmethods became a thing. There have been many little science in-jokes floating around the twittersphere; one of my favourites was the hashtag #middleearthpublichealth which came out right before The Hobbit released in theatres. Tweets like “Craving the ‘Precious’: Gollum, a case study of the public health impact of severe ring addiction, Lancet 2010” abounded, and they illustrated public health rather nicely (for more, check out Brett Keller’s blogpost). However, they only catered to a niche audience: public health professionals, and public health professionals who got the Lord of the Rings references. But #overlyhonestmethods was the first that hit the mainstream. There was an outpouring of support for it – sites such as io9 , the Scientific American blog network and even The Telegraph weighed in. But there were criticisms. Simon Williams posted on the PLOS Blog that:
I cannot help but wonder whether, after the dust (and amusement) settles, the status of, and public trust in, the scientific method will have been challenged.
I disagree with my colleague on this and I believe most of the tweets were exaggerated for comedic effect. But, as with most jokes, there may be an element of truth to them. For example, the picture that leads this piece was my tweet (which has since been retweeted over 200 times, and favourited over 100 times). While I did not know any PhD students who have opened a bakery when I wrote that tweet, I do know PhD’s who have left academia to become photographers and wedding planners, as well as other “unconventional” post-PhD paths, and I’m sure many of my colleagues have similar experiences. Funnily enough, after putting up that tweet, I have since been introduced to Bread Science by Emily Buehler, a PhD in Chemistry from UNC Chapel Hill.
I could go on about how most PhDs no longer want to or are able to pursue academic callings, or how the desire to pursue academic career paths decreases the longer you are in a PhD program as per this study in PLOS ONEto highlight the point. But, to be perfectly honest, I wrote that tweet while I was hungry and craving a donut and it made me laugh. I don’t believe that the tweets were written out as a “scientific confessional.” I do not think that most people would risk their careers and scientific integrity because they were too lazy to get up and pick up a beaker across the lab, or choose a company because they gave away cool USB sticks. And if they did, I really doubt they’d voice those opinions on Twitter of all places. What I think is that scientists have a sense of humour about what we do on a day to day basis, and given an audience, we’d love to share those.
As scientists, we need to actively reach out and engage the public, a topic that is near and dear to my heart. And I don’t mean paying lip service to science outreach, but actively pursuing opportunities. We’re fighting an uphill battle – the media portrayal of scientists is not flattering, but with some awesome, high profile, and most importantly, credible, scientists, we’re gradually changing that stereotype. My personal science hero is Neil DeGrasse Tyson, but others such as Bill Nye and David Suzuki are also making a case that science isn’t boring. Here at PLOS Blogs, we have our own CitizenSci blog, commenting on this very issue. And at a more grassroots level, organizations such as Let’s Talk Science, This is what a scientist looks like and Science Cheerleaders all challenge the commonly held stereotype that all scientists wear lab coats and goggles. And what better way to challenge that stereotype than showing we have a sense of humour?
Reference Sauermann H, Roach M (2012) Science PhD Career Preferences: Levels, Changes, and Advisor Encouragement. PLoS ONE 7(5): e36307. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0036307