As a scientist, I am sometimes shy to talk about what I do in social groups. I’m not a constant science communicator, although I do try to be a better one. Yes, I love my job. Yes, I am happy to talk about it. But I don’t always. Some of this is that I can have shy tendencies and can be shy to talk about myself in general. That shyness sometimes extends to talking about what I do and being a scientist is more than a job. Being a scientist is who I am and is fundamental to how I look at the world, so it can sometimes feel pretty personal. I’m not one to call attention to myself, I’m happier chatting with few people than speaking up in a big social circle. However, if the conversation steers to certain topics, I can’t help myself from putting in a few words no matter what the size of the group or how well I know them.
Of course, not surprisingly, topics that fall under my expertise make the list of ‘won’t keep mum to misinformation’. So when anyone talks about bee colonies collapsing, especially in North America, I feel it is important to talk about how honeybees are managed farm animals like cows or chickens and there are a lot of really important native pollinators (that also pollinate crops). Like Jeff Ollerton, I don’t want to only point out misinformation about pollinators, but it is so important to me that I won’t let it slide. Evolution is another one of those topics that can be touchy depending on the group but I can’t help but go there if it comes up. I also have no problem saying I am an atheist but I don’t usually volunteer this to people I don’t know. I try to keep any evolutionary discussion away from religion and on the evidence, although people who engage on this aren’t always aiming for the same. When a conversation leans towards plants, flowers, and the like, I’m always happy to share interesting stories, facts or my own research (plants are cool, people!). So in these small ways I communicate about the science I work with to the people around me.
There are also a number topics that I’m not an expert in but as a scientist I often feel the need to at least say something when it comes up: vaccines, homeopathic medicine and the like*, climate change, and others fall under this umbrella.
When asked directly by a neighbour: is climate change real? I was honest in saying that I’m not an expert myself on the science but the current consensus is yes the evidence points to climate change cause by humans. And we talked about the fact that predicting the future is tough, so there is a lot more uncertainty surrounding what will happen than what has.
In conversation this summer, I could let the ‘dangers of sunscreen’ comment basically slide** but the conspiracy theory that the cure for cancer exists but isn’t available because cancer makes so much money was something I couldn’t keep quiet about. Basically because the foundation of those conspiracies is that scientists are really ‘evil scientists’ I couldn’t help but put a real face to the stereotype. I’m not sure the person knew I was one*** but they certainly did after our conversation.
So what are those topics that push your science communication buttons? Are they always in your field of expertise? When do you have to speak up and what can you let slide?
*I touched on homeopathic medicine before when discussing teaching ecology and how these ideas can colour people’s perception of ecology.
**OK, by ‘let slide’ I mean I still had to say that I was pretty sure that the evidence for the dangers of not using sunscreen are much higher than any side-effects of using it.
***by ‘one’ of course I mean an evil scientist! ;)