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Fruits of Labor: what’s wrong with the government’s science outreach drive?

With limited resources, the right approach is imperative. Madilyn Peiper

To its credit, the Australian Government is making a concerted push into science outreach with the tritely-named Inspiring Australia program. This includes $5 million in funding through the equally tritely-named Unlocking Australia’s Potential grant scheme – intended to “inspire people with science”.

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 arsenal for understanding the natural world around us doesn’t understand the scientific method.

I don’t believe anyone should leave school without proficiency in literacy, numeracy, history, etcetera – but they also shouldn’t venture out into the world without being fully versed in the spirit of the scientific method.

As such, I’m an advocate of two broad streams of science education, depending on each individual’s skill and level of interest, with the first being compulsory for all students and the second an elective:

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

2) Science for aspiring scientists. This should focus more on the practice of science, including in-depth knowledge of the scientific method, the details of state-of-the-art results of science, and related tools such as maths, experimental design and so on. This is how science is taught currently from high school onwards. It’s hard work, and it’s focused on doing science, hence a lot of disinterest and drop-outs from those not intending to be scientists or who don’t see the relevance of valency or epigenetics to everyday life.

But even if the education system were to enjoy a radical overhaul tomorrow (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 spreading the word of reason and science to the world at large.

So, you’d think I’d be excited about the government’s new grants – and to a degree I am. But I’m a little wary about the approach the grant scheme is taking.

The stated objectives of the grant are “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. But 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”.

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.)

Low-hanging fruit

The first audience is people who already love science – they just don’t know it yet. These are people who are positively disposed to appreciate and digest science: 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 (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 on ABC.

They have all the hallmarks of someone interested in science, but 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 – which can be problematic. 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 the low-hanging fruit description includes a huge number of people in the general public. Maybe not a majority, but a sizeable chunk.

High-hanging fruit

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: “people who may not have had interest in or access to science engagement activities.” 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 someone and expect them to take it on board if they don’t understand or respect science. You ultimately need to instil in them the basic principles of science to make them even receptive to scientific content. You need to till the soil to let the seed grow, as it were. That’s hard, but important, work.

I believe science outreach should target both audiences, but do so in very different ways. And I firmly believe 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. This helps to lower the social and perceptual barriers to engaging with science.

And the more people interested in science, the greater the demand for science-related products and events. This increases supply, lowers prices and increases the visibility of science, 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, such as combating negative attitudes towards vaccines, or dogmatic climate sceptics.

This is palliative science outreach. It isn’t explicitly aimed at changing 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.

Thus, I believe that if a good chunk of the grants went to those who reached out to the low-hanging fruit, the $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.

A version of this article first appeared on Ockham’s Beard.

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