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Do not engage the public at any cost

October 4, 2013

Vast swathes of the unwashed public think some very strange things, like: the power of positive thinking alone can magically cure diseases or that the mind and brain are completely different things.

Whatever. Let’s ignore them. They’re never going to listen to us anyway, and we have nothing but utter vomit-inducing contempt for them.

But what about more refined, science-friendly plebs?

Well, they may know little bits and pieces of neuroscience: such as, they might know that serotonin makes you happy, and that taking prozac or eating chocolate increases serotonin and so makes you happy.

All horribly simplistic to the point of being completely wrong.

And even the most informed lay-people: well they’re looking for simple (*cough* wrong) stories too; that single genes explain complex multidimensional behavioural traits; that specific neurotransmitters ‘do’ a single specific function; that brain regions can be neatly mapped onto other functions.

All a bit silly when you think about it, but very strongly entrenched in what advanced lay-people think they know.

So public engagement is needed isn’t it? As much as possible, all the time?

Well no.

We have to try to communicate with other neuroscientists (which is hard enough) because otherwise the university/grant-bodies won’t give us money to buy things like food and shelter.

But, reaching beyond that, to any of public? Well, it’s going to have to involve simplifying the science to the point where it corrupts. Since we can’t reach inside the public’s heads to scrape them back to a state of neuroscience tabula rasa, we will have to engage with their wrong, well dug-in prior believes. And the public don’t have the patience to let us do that in a way to make them learn anything meaningful.

So, instead, most scientists and science journalists simplify massively, horribly: all the way down, down, down to the level where they can engage with the public’s prior simple beliefs. What this means is that public engagers end up perpetuating massively simplistic ideas. In the end, this public engagement may, therefore, make the public less informed, and make doing science harder, than if we scientists just shut up, and left the public alone.

Either way, why bother. Neurorant doesn’t (and that’s not because the media people ignore us completely, honest).

Anyway, here’s Kurt Vonnegut in Cat’s Cradle:

‘The trouble with the world was,’ she continued hesitatingly, ‘that people were still superstitious instead of scientific. He said if everybody would study science more, there wouldn’t be all the trouble there was.’

‘He said science was going to discover the basic secret of life some day,’  the bartender put in.

He scratched his head and frowned. ‘Didn’t I read in the paper the other day where they’d finally found out what it was?’

‘I missed that,’ I murmured.

‘I saw that,’ said Sandra. ‘About two days ago.’

‘That’s right,’ said the bartender.

‘What is the secret of life?’ I asked.

‘I forget,’ said Sandra.

‘Protein,’ the bartender declared. ‘They found out something about protein.’

‘Yeah,’ said Sandra. ‘That’s it.’

So it goes.


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  1. I would just like to add that in one sense I profoundly disagree with myself. What is the point of discovering amazing things about the world if we keep them all to ourselves? It’s like climbing Mount Everest and then not telling anyone about it. To paraphrase the Simpsons, “A (slightly) deeper/wider understanding embiggens the dumbest man”.

    Most scientific findings have a very simple overarching purpose, a question that is answered, and communicating this can be very easy indeed. You can explain that DNA allows physical traits to be passed on without explaining the whole milieu of molecular and cellular processes that make it so, or even what DNA actually is. You just have to zoom out enough to find that basic question. Zoom further and further. Probably to the point where you’re no longer actually explaining the scientific finding itself. Which was my original point. I think.

    • Look at this, we are happy talking to ourself. What do we need to engage the public for?

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