• The challenges for Cosmos

    I’m writing this from a metro platform, after a conversation with astrobiology colleagues about concerns we have about Cosmos, despite our appreciation for it getting science out there… and about the challenges faced by all science communication. The thoughts below were largely spurred by that conversation.

    One of the big challenges we face is that science is an endeavor that requires great specialization. That results in a community of people that each know a tremendous amount about a tiny area of study, but usually lack an understanding of other areas of work. Our experience, to flip a common phrase, runs an inch wide but miles deep.

    This is a problem, because in the public’s eye, we are viewed as ‘scientists’ that know everything about anything having to do with science. But the truth of the matter is we are more often than not clueless about major discoveries in our own field if they are outside our specialty area.

    For example, I know a little bit about the discovery of echoes of the big bang announced earlier this week, and slightly more about the (misleadingly trumped up as a NASA-led) paper on how and why western civilization will come to an end. In both cases, I study related things, but didn’t have the experience or the time to give a sound assessment of either study. Yet I’m the one my friends and family turn to make sense of that stuff… because they know me and trust me. Whatever I say will likely advance their understanding of the subject in question, but it will also do that subject injustice.

    This is a good analogy for public science communicators. Both the public, and the television producers that bring science to our televisions, develop a level of trust and understanding of popularizers line Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox. So that’s who they turn to when they need an explanation of something scientific. I suppose these guys (and yes, they’re mostly guys) could turn them down, but I’m not sure if that helps anyone. The producers might just turn to someone else they trust, and that person may be even less qualified. Or, absent a figure they know people will watch, the producers may scrap the segment/project altogether. Instead, these guys say yes, do a decent job representing someone else’s science, and make an error or two along the way.

    And this brings us to the major complaint scientists have about science popularizers: they implicitly take credit for work that is not theirs, and ultimately do an imperfect job explaining that work to the rest of the world. (For example, consider our complaints that cosmos incorrectly claiming it only rains on Titan). And that stings, especially when you’re talking about people that obsess over details to ensure everything we write in papers is as accurate as possible. Getting things wrong is a major, major no-no.

    But we have to see the bigger picture here. People aren’t likely to remember that it rains on Titan, but not on Pluto or Venus… they’re going to remember that it rains on some planet other then earth, and they probably find that amazing! In that context, does a correction even matter?

    So what should our approach be? We have the means for direct communication now – through Twitter and Facebook and blogs. That means we can bypass the producers, and develop our own level of trust with the world. So let’s do that. I say we leverage the wonder that the cosmos series will instill in others… and use that to advance the story beyond where the series takes it. If you know about cool stuff related to a topic on but not specifically talked about on the show, tweet our blog about it! If the show says something horribly wrong, let the world know! And when the show inspires you as it has me, give them the kudos they deserve.

    (Of to sleep now. I’ll try to add some hyperlinks and spell checking tomorrow.)