Science Outreach: Plucking the Low Hanging Fruit

17 01 2012

To its credit, the Australian Government is making a concerted push into science outreach through the tritely-named Inspiring Australia programme, including $5 million in funding through the equally tritely-named Unlocking Australia’s Potential grant scheme.

Now, I’m all about science outreach. (In fact, I’m also all about philosophy outreach too. You might call it reason outreach, all up. But let’s stick to science for now.)

I firmly believe the greatest existential challenge faced by humanity is the spread of unreason, for unreason makes every other problem harder to solve. And a crucial foil in the fight against unreason is the genius of the scientific method. After all, anyone who doesn’t recognise the scientific method as the best tool we have in our epistemological arsenal for understanding the natural world around us doesn’t understand the scientific method.

I’ve said before that I don’t believe anyone should leave school without proficiency in literacy, numeracy, history etc – but also not without being fully versed in the spirit of the scientific method. In fact, I’m an advocate of two broad streams of science education, depending on each individual’s skill and interest, with the former an elective and the latter compulsory for all students:

1) Science for aspiring scientists – including in-depth knowledge of the scientific method, the details of state-of-the-art results of science, and science practice, including maths, experimental design etc. This is how science is taught currently from high school onwards. It’s hard, and it’s focused on doing science, hence a lot of disinterest and drop outs from those not intending to be scientists.

2) Science for aspiring citizens – including understanding of the scientific method in comparison with other approaches (intuition, revelation, authority, emotion, etc) for understanding the natural world, the limits of science, the problem with pseudo-science, the history of science and the process involved in solving long standing problems, and knowledge of the state-of-the-art results of science. This is a course intended to equip everyone to live in a scientifically-informed society, even those who don’t intend to pursue a career in science.

However, even if the education system were to enjoy a radical overhaul today (sadly unlikely…), there are still a great many people who already lack an appreciation of science, and of reason in general. How to bring them into the fold? Science outreach! This is one of my primary motivations in becoming a science journalist (and philosopher) myself: my belief in the importance of getting science and reason out to the masses.

So, you’d think I’d be excited about the government’s grants. To a degree I am. But I’m a little wary about the approach the grant scheme is taking, as I’ve mentioned to Dr Bronwyn Hemsley and Dr Krystal on Twitter.

The stated objectives of the grant are listed as follows:

The principal objective of Unlocking Australia’s Potential is to increase the engagement of Australians in science. The program targets people who may not have had interest in or access to science engagement activities.

The first sentence is great. The second sentence has things all backwards, specifically in its explicit targeting people “who may not have had interest in or access to science engagement activities.” Now, I can understand why such an objective would be set, particularly by a government keen to demonstrate its commitment to solving hard problems.

But targeting the high-hanging fruit – those who either haven’t expressed an interest in science, or who haven’t had access to science engagement in the past, suggesting low scientific literacy – seems like one of the last steps in an ongoing programme of science outreach, not one of the first. Let me explain:

I believe science outreach is ultimately targeting two broad audiences, and it needs to carefully discriminate between them. (There is a third: those already passionate about science, but they don’t need science outreach – they should be doing the science outreach.)

The first audience is people who already love science, they just don’t know it yet. These are people who positively disposed to appreciate and digest science, but they just aren’t exposed to it often, or they don’t self-identify as someone interested in science. They might have read a few books (probably had a crack at A Brief History of Time, for example), they watch David Attenborough documentaries, they read with interest stories in the paper about newly-discovered planets or the Large Hadron Collider, they listen to Dr Karl.

They have all the hallmarks of someone interested in science, but they might lack the time, the inclination, the knowledge or the access to science-related information and activities. They might also have gaps in their knowledge, and fall foul of enticing alternatives to science; after all, inquisitive people are prone to seek out answers to the questions that confront them, and without sufficient training in discriminating between science and pseudo-science, anyone can easily be lured into spurious alternatives.

These are the low-hanging fruit. To reach them, all you need to do is let them know that they already are interested in science, provide them with the content they desire, and lower barriers to their accessing it – including lowering social norm barriers to the perception of science as geeky and exclusive (one reason I’m a little wary of the Dr Karl and Adam Spencer ‘geekification’ approach to science outreach).

I believe this category includes a huge number of the general public. Maybe not a majority, but a sizeable chunk.

The second audience consists of those who are negatively disposed to appreciate and digest science, whether through ignorance, active disinterest, dogmatic/religious indoctrination, perceived self inadequacy/lack of intelligence, or perceived social stigma. These are the ones mentioned in the grant objectives above. They’re the high-hanging fruit.

To reach these people is a very different endeavour to reaching the first audience. Where the first need only become aware of stuff that already interests them, the second audience need active convincing that they should bother with science at all. Their disinterest in science probably corresponds with a broad ignorance of science, what it means, how it works – and why it’s important at all.

You can’t just spout a scientific fact to such a person and expect them to take it on board if they don’t understand or respect science at all. You ultimately need to instil in them the basic principles of science to make them even receptive to scientific content. That’s hard, but important, work.

Now, of course I believe science outreach should target both audiences, but do so in very different ways. And I firmly believe that the initial push in an ongoing science outreach programme ought to be directed towards the low-hanging fruit, and let things grow organically from the bottom-up. This was my philosophy when I was editor of Cosmos magazine.

If you have finite resources, you first pluck the low-hanging fruit, you win over more than if you target the high-hanging fruit, and as a benefit, you suddenly have a great many more people in the community from all walks of life who express active interest in science, thus helping to lower the social and perceptual barriers to engaging with science.

And the more people interested in science there is, the greater the demand for science-related products and events. This increases supply, lowers prices, and increases the visibility of science in the public, encouraging the perception that science is popular – that it’s the norm rather than an elite pursuit only for socially awkward geeks.

This, in turn, extends a ladder to the high-hanging fruit, making them easier to reach.

While this represents a long-term approach to science outreach, it doesn’t preclude targeting the disinterested audience in parallel. But that approach ought to be quite different. Outreach to these individuals ought to be mainly on a case-by-case basis focusing on specific problems, like combating negative attitudes towards vaccines, or dogmatic climate sceptics etc.

This is palliative science outreach. It can’t hope to change those underlying negative attitudes towards science writ large. But it can prevent proximate problems. In the long term, it’ll take a lot more to sway such people over to a scientific worldview – but that’ll be a heck of a lot easier if there are even more of the general public on your side, i.e. the low-hanging fruit.

So, while I’m pleased the government is doling out cash to people to engage in science outreach, I’m concerned the grant scheme is going to be funding programmes that will ultimately see limited long-term benefit, and instead will only reach a few of the high-hanging fruit, and if lucky, perhaps sway only a handful. If, however, a good chunk of the grants went to those who reached out to the low-hanging fruit, I believe $5 million could go a lot further and have significantly greater lasting benefit to science literacy.

In fact, you know what I’d do if I had $5 million to spend on science outreach? I’d buy every high school student a copy of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and The Demon Haunted World. That’d be one heck of a start.

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