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Are Scientists Geeks Or Heroes?

Are Scientists Geeks Or Heroes?
The author of a new book about the process of explaining science to the public says the notion that scientists are unattractive and geeky is a corrosive myth.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting is in San Diego from February 18 - 22, 2010. Family Science Days is Saturday and Sunda, February 20 and 21 at the San Diego Convention Center.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. We've been speaking about the meeting this week in San Diego of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


And there are some who might be tempted, with all the scientists in town, to make some jokes. Maybe they'd say things about thick glasses and nerdiness and how many geologists does it take to find the Gaslamp Quarter? Well, that would be a bad thing to say in front of my next guest. Dennis Meredith is the author of the book "Explaining Research” and he wrote the recent article called “Scientists are Heroes, Dammit!”

DENNIS MEREDITH (Author): That’s exactly right.

CAVANAUGH: Dennis, welcome to These Days.

MEREDITH: Thank you, Maureen. It’s a pleasure to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Now you are in town for the Triple-AS meeting. What are…



CAVANAUGH: …you talking about?

MEREDITH: Well, I’m talking about how scientists can use multi-media to advance their research but that’s only one symposium, one seminar, I’m giving. But my major effort is just to be here as a fan of science. I feel intimidated by following these great folks that were on before because I’ve been an enormous fan of the Triple-AS and I’m not part of the Triple-AS so I can say this, it’s a stunning organization. For over a century, they’ve done an enormously effective job of getting science out to the public and helping science communication.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, that kind of goes into the heart of what we’re talking about, the idea of communication and your address to the Triple-AS. There are some people that might assume that scientists by – are inherently poor communicators, they’re not interested in social media. Where does this perception come from?

MEREDITH: Well, when you think about it, scientists don’t have a natural reason to communicate to the public, not like lawyers or doctors. Imagine what would happen to a lawyer, for example, if he or she couldn’t explain the law to clients or juries. Imagine what would happen to a doctor who couldn’t explain medicine to their patients. They wouldn’t have a career. But scientists, by and large, are only judged by other scientists and so it’s kind of a natural tendency for them to restrict their communications to their own colleagues. And my message is that if scientists are to look beyond their immediate needs to the larger issue of what’s important to their research, to their field, to their colleagues, to the health of the nation, then they’ll realize how important lay level communications are.

CAVANAUGH: And in your article, you talk about a meeting you attended where a scientist himself got up and said, well, you know, we’re perceived as being either nerdy or mad or not very well received within the general public.

MEREDITH: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder why scientists themselves think that.

MEREDITH: I’m not sure but I think they may grow up with the feeling that they’re inferior in some way, that they’re nerds or geeks and so forth. But what’s interesting is that this is totally at odds with what the public about scientists. The public thinks of scientists as heroes. Hollywood thinks of scientists as heroes.

CAVANAUGH: Now how do you defend that claim?

MEREDITH: I did a survey. I had this inclination, this hint, that that was true, so I went through 140, more than 140, movies that involve scientists. I just picked them at random from databases, and I measured – I decided which – whether scientists were portrayed as heroes or villains. And I came up with a ratio of about six to one. There’s six times as many heroes as villains, and even the villains were not really evil. Most of them just had character flaws. They were overly ambitious or they – or their science got away from them or something like that. So the ratio is even larger of scientists being heroes. And, you know, the most – the largest grossing movie in history, “Avatar,” has a scientist hero, Grace Augustine played by Sigourney Weaver. And she, without giving too much away, she is really central to the plot.

CAVANAUGH: Remind us of some of the other scientist heroes that you found.

MEREDITH: Oh, Indiana Jones…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, right.

MEREDITH: …is an archeologist. Tony Stark, “Ironman,” there’s going to be an “Ironman II” out there. Sigourney Weaver has played scientists several times. She played in “Gorillas In the Mist.”

CAVANAUGH: Oh, yes. Yes.

MEREDITH: And so there’s just tons and tons and tons of them out there going all the way back to – I went all the way back to the fifties in some cases. And in those 1950’s horror movies, monster movies, scientists saved the world, you know, all the time. In the “Andromeda Strain” it was a group of – in both the older and the new “Andromeda Strain,” it was a group of scientists who saved the world. So what I – my message to scientists is when you walk into a room full of people to talk to them about science, whether it’s advocating for funding or debating this nonsense about not vaccinating your children or debating creationism, you do so as a hero. The public sees you as a hero.

CAVANAUGH: Well, there is this image of the mad scientist, though. I mean, where would Dr. Frankenstein fall on your scale? Was he a good guy with a flaw?

MEREDITH: He had a deep flaw. He was ambitious.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, that’s true.

MEREDITH: He didn’t really create the monster, you know, I’m talking about the movie and not…


MEREDITH: …necessarily the book. But he didn’t create the monster in order to unleash something on society. He created the monster to – as being overambitious, being over – push – overdoing his science. Now, “Young Frankenstein” is slightly different. He also did that, too, in a very funny way, by the way.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I – Before I – When I knew I was going to speak with you, I went online and I Googled some scientists, evil scientists, mad scientists.

MEREDITH: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: And a group of people came up in lists that you wouldn’t necessarily think were evil people. Dr. Robert Oppenheimer came up on the list.

MEREDITH: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: A person who was involved in giving us the nuclear bomb.

MEREDITH: Yeah, exactly.

CAVANAUGH: And there were also some other people that I thought were perhaps strange. Dr. Kevorkian came up.

MEREDITH: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: I don’t know if you could say if he was an evil man or not. Do you think it’s too easy for people to label scientists who are on the edge as evil? As crazy?

MEREDITH: Well, these people pop up and they’re most prominent examples but if you taken Oppenheimer, for example, he did help create the nuclear bomb but he also campaigned against nuclear weapons later in his life. Kevorkian, I do not consider him a scientist…

CAVANAUGH: Yes, yes.

MEREDITH: …in any sense of the word.

CAVANAUGH: I was surprised to see him.

MEREDITH: He – he’s a mur…


MEREDITH: …a convicted murderer. So there are a very few that are not – are evil but I think they are – they’re very rare exceptions. And as I said, Hollywood – when a Hollywood producer’s looking to cast a hero, they say, oh, let’s make him a scientist. And the public immediately accepts that.


MEREDITH: When they want to cast a villain, they have terrorists, they have, unfortunately, businessmen and so forth, so they – Hollywood goes along with the popular belief so it reflects the popular perception, it doesn’t necessarily lead that. So that’s an even more powerful argument for scientists as heroes.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Dennis Meredith. He’s the author of the new book, “Explaining Research” and also the author of the recent article called “Scientists are Heroes, Dammit!” And I wanted to ask you, you say that this idea, that perhaps some people in the public have, lots of scientists seem to have that scientists are viewed warily and as perhaps fringey…

MEREDITH: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …evilish, nerdy…

MEREDITH: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …kind of people, is a corrosive myth. Why is it corrosive?

MEREDITH: Well, it’s corrosive both to the public and to the scientists themselves. Kids, if they see scientists as distant, you know, distant people, as people that are not somebody you’d want to get to know then young people are less likely to want to go into science. And the scientists themselves, if they see themselves as, when they go into the public arena, as going in with some – carrying some baggage, then they’re less likely to do that.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder how this research that you did ties into the theme of your book, "Explaining Research?" Is it – When scientists go before the public to explain their research in ways that the public can understand, is the perception of them and what they’re doing crucial for that communication to take place?

MEREDITH: That’s part of it. It’s very crucial for them to have that attitude but I also, in explaining research, I also wanted to give them the tools to do websites and blogs and e-mail, you know, e-mail newsletters and all the tools that they need because, frankly, scientists don’t get much, if any, training in communication when they’re in school. And I completely understand that because science and engineering are very hard subjects and, as I said, there’s not been a natural inclination to – toward, in science and engineering to emphasize communication training. So with this book, with "Explaining Research," I wanted to give them at least the beginnings of a set of tools that they could use, and use easily.

CAVANAUGH: Now, during the last decade, science was in some disfavor in some very high political circles and even last week former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin called climate change snake oil science.

MEREDITH: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: Now what impact does that have on the public’s perception of science and scientists?

MEREDITH: I think those kinds of epithets are not productive. If Sarah Palin had gone into a reasonable discussion of what was going on in climate science rather than to just calling names, it would’ve been a much more productive kind of dialogue. And what Ms. Palin didn’t pay attention to was that the vast majority of climate scientists, who spent their entire professional lives studying climate science, have come to the conclusion that global climate change is real. I think one of the problems is that the media tend to give equal weight to opinions that are not of equal validity and they feel that they have to show both sides of an argument so if 98% of climate scientists believe that climate change is real and 1 or 2% of people that are not necessarily expert believe it’s not, then you’ll see a more – you’ll see a fifty-fifty mix in the media where there doesn’t deserve to be a fifty-fifty mix of coverage.

CAVANAUGH: I’m interested, there are so many aspects of science that have become political footballs in recent years, I wonder if that doesn’t enhance a scientist’s perhaps natural tendency to just clam up, not get involved.

MEREDITH: It’s an easy thing to do because what the scientist has to do is to just retreat to the laboratory where they’re having actually a lot more fun than they are out, you know, testifying before congress or dealing with the public. So I understand that but they – but I hope scientists will also understand that if they just use a little bit of their time and effort to get out and talk about these issues that it will help a great deal.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, as you prepared your book, "Explaining Research," do you take into consideration how the media explains research?

MEREDITH: Oh, yes, absolutely. I was – Actually, I was very shocked and rather stunned when I went and looked at the statistics. There’s one major survey that shows that the mainstream media cover – their coverage of science is only about 2% of their total coverage. They cover all the other things, sports, you know, politics and so forth much more. And while there’s a lot of science coverage out there, you know, specialty programs and specialty media, what I call the gateway media, that is the morning talk shows, the national television news, they just ignore it, and so there’s this gateway that is closed to the public and so you have, you know, the average joe or their family watching the nightly news and they see no science so they tend to discount its importance or its value and that’s critical. I worry about that deeply.

CAVANAUGH: So after your talk at the Triple-AS meeting this week, are we going to see a lot more scientists with Facebook pages?

MEREDITH: Well, I would hope so. I would hope they’d do videos.

CAVANAUGH: Twittering.

MEREDITH: Twittering. There’s just a lot of – the nice thing about being in this century is that there are a lot of media out there now, websites and Twitter and Facebook and a lot of social media sites and a lot of – there are a lot of opportunities for scientists to get out, to get their word out that don’t cost them a thing, costs them some time.

CAVANAUGH: In fact, I’m reminded there was this breakthrough sectioning of a brain that happened here in San Diego just recently and it was the sectioning of an entire frozen brain and it was on the internet.


CAVANAUGH: People watched it. Every…


CAVANAUGH: …single – for hour after hour after hour that it was on.

MEREDITH: It got huge viewership, massive viewership. It was as big as the lady who sang that great song on – I forget what her name was…

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh, it’s just…

MEREDITH: …but it got huge viewership.

CAVANAUGH: …amazing. I guess we’re going to see more of that in the future.

MEREDITH: Well, I hope so. Scientists, I hope, have discovered the webcam and will put, you know, interesting things on the web, and one of my emphases in explaining research is that there are a whole bunch of outlets there for videos, for pod – podcasts and so forth that scientists can take advantage of.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for speaking with us. It was really delightful.

MEREDITH: My pleasure. Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Dennis Meredith. He’s the author of the new book, "Explaining Research” and the recently article, “Scientists are Heroes, Dammit!.” We have been speaking about the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science which begins tomorrow in San Diego. And I want to remind you once again Science Family Days is a free event this Saturday and Sunday. The AAAS is providing free transportation for people in the South Bay. You can call the Sweetwater Unified – Union School District for more information, that’s 619-691-5500. And if you would like to post your comments about what you’ve heard today on KPBS, Thank you for listening. You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.