By proportion, Americans believe in creationism just as much now as when I was born. Research funding has diminished enough to threaten scientists’ ability to work and our nation’s competitiveness in science and engineering. These trends reflect a deeper issue in the public’s sentiment about science. A recent Pew trust poll found that whereas about half of Americans felt that scientific and technological advancement represented the US’s greatest achievement of the last 50 years in 1999, by 2009 that number had fallen to about a quarter of Americans. Political leaders and pundits do little to improve the marginalization of science, often leveling ignorant and damaging attacks against whole scientific disciplines (including psychology, my own field).
It’s for these reasons that I think scientists should consider public communication to be part of their job description. Too often, experts speak to only each other, and, worse, disdain colleagues who translate their work for the public as “dumbing down” scientific ideas. The alternative is much dumber: public perception of science based on the opinions of non-experts who are often driven by irredeemable motives. So for a while I’ve viewed public science communication as a moral responsibility, outreach through which scientists can help their communities. I even started a website devoted to helping scientists engage in this service.
But recently I was reminded of a different, more private reason for scientists to share their work publicly: doing so offers unique opportunities to grow our thinking. As Steve Pinker put beautifully in his book “The Sense of Style” (and condenses here), writing often boils down to an exercise in perspective taking. Good writers inhabit the mind of their reader and overcome the “curse of knowledge” by understanding what readers do not understand. I often encourage scientists communicating with the public to imagine themselves at a holiday dinner, explaining what they do to a very astute aunt who is totally uninitiated in their (the scientist’s) field.
Sometimes, though, your aunt might surprise you with an insight you haven’t had. People in the trenches of research often train their focus on important but narrow questions that are “local” to their discipline, sub-discipline, or sub-sub-discipline. This is how progress happens, but in going local, scientists risk losing site of both the big questions and the big enthusiasm with which they began their work. Novices have no such issues. Having thought little about a scientific topic, they want to understand what it is all about and why they should care. Because of this, writing for the public—and taking the perspective of a naïve reader—offers a way back to the beginning, an opportunity for scientists to rekindle excitement for their own work, and to think about it through a fresh and often surprising lens.
Let me illustrate this through an experience I had recently. In the process, I’d like to dub a new term: The Reverse Popularizer. Its more well known cousin, The Popularizer, entails what I’ve described so far: translating one’s work into “pop” science by blogging, giving public talks, and so forth. About a year ago, I was working on a grant proposal about empathy, an old and familiar topic for me, and found myself writing the sentence “Empathy is a choice.” Interested in that assertion, I wrote a blog post titled (with perhaps uncreative rearranging) “Empathy as a choice.” Briefly, the idea is that people tend to believe empathy is automatic, something that happens to a person uncontrollably (think of your reaction to watching someone sustain a gruesome injury), but this belief is often wrong. Instead, empathy is a motivated process, something we choose to engage in or avoid. This makes sense because empathy is sometimes useful, for instance, when you want to help someone in need. Other times it’s less useful; a rugby player who “feels the pain” of his opponent pain might not do a great job tackling. My claim in this post was that people—even if they’re unaware of it—use empathy strategically, heeding motives that drive them towards or away from connecting emotionally with others.
Unlike most popularizers (at least of mine), this post didn’t describe a completed piece of research. It just served just an opportunity to riff about an idea I found interesting. But blogging made me realize this idea could be more interesting than I had realized. A “motivated view” of empathy could, for instance, help in understanding illnesses like autism and psychopathy, or thinking up techniques to “grow” empathy. I figured it’d be worth sinking some more effort into it, and wrote a long form academic article on the subject. After much work and a long (but productive) peer review process, that article was published just last week! More importantly, the ideas in that piece—taken over by my students—now drive much new work in my lab that might not have happened otherwise.
I tell this story not just so you’ll read the paper (though you can if you want, nudge nudge). Instead, I want to highlight that oftentimes writing for the public isn’t just a service. Beyond translating our old ideas into popular language, communicating science can be a fount for new ones.