The ivory tower and its casualties – Part 1

Once upon a time… someone decided the public had the right, even the need, maybe even the duty, to know what was going on in science. Well, probably it has been “decided” upon multiple times, but a striking example was when the Royal Institute of London started Christmas lectures for the general public. In these lectures, starting in 1825, scientist like Michael Faraday gave demonstrations of scientific experiments in their respective fields. This was a time when scientific collections (aka: museums) were only for the eye of other scientists and organized education for the general public wasn’t really a thing. Apparently, it was a hit, the Christmas lectures continue to this day.

Science seems to have a very rigid, authoritative name and is often referred to as an ivory tower. I’d like to believe it was worse in history than it is now. Even the Urban Dictionary gives the following statement to exemplify the term: “Let those scholars criticize our beliefs from their ivory tower; we all know how the world really works”. Communication is essential to avoid or amend the divide between “those scholars” and “how the world really works”.

Luckily for us, museums are accessible by, and even made for, the general public nowadays, and there is so much more! Other classical forms of science communication are, of course, general teaching, various forms of arts and books, everything from dry accounts of knowledge to exciting, nearly science-fiction-ish works. The digital boom and rise of the internet have brought about a whole new world for science communication. Documentaries, podcasts, blogs, apps, games,… Whole YouTube channels are devoted to science communication nowadays!

The great thing about communicating science on the internet is that more people seem to have access to internet than means and time to study in universities around the world. This is reflected in these same universities offering online courses, often even free or, or in case you want an official diploma for a fraction of the price of face-to-face courses. It will have to be seen if online courses will ever reach the same social status classical education enjoys right now. Also non-official education, even leaving behind the classroom-like teaching methods spring up all around the internet. I’ve already mentioned YouTube video’s, often combining “did you know”-type of knowledge with the addictive format of the internet. Try saying “Just one more video and then I’ll go so sleep…” and you get what I mean.

The danger of disconnecting information from recognized, authoritative institutions is the opportunity for – dare I use the words? – alternative facts. But the bad-news-show will be for another day, in Part 2 of this post…


Additional notes:

Are you in Stockholm? Check out the KI DEVREG Salon event for Science Communication here! Free registration before August 25th here.

More on the Christmas lectures:

Header picture: main entrance of Naturhistoriska riksmuseet in Stockholm, taken from inside the entrance hall.

2 thoughts on “The ivory tower and its casualties – Part 1

  1. I beg to differ. An that said, I don’t ”beg” to “differ”, I just happen to disagree with the sentiment expressed in the most profound way possible.

    The idea of “communication” in science is an artefact stemming of two phenomena – first, a (misguided) desire to treat anything connected to a University as a “science”, be it sociology, linguistics or psychology; second – a peculiar assumption that a layman cab gauge an intricacies of a scientific theory as well as anyone skilled in the art, provided is has been explained the right way. Maybe Richard Feynman is to blame there, with his “if we can’t explain it to the undergrad, we don’t understand it ourselves.” But I don’t quite subscribe to that. Feynman had a deep understanding of science-layman relationship, exemplified by his cargo cult essay. If anyone want to argue they understand complex concepts without rigorous training, pick up Leo Sisskind’s Quantum Mechanics and see if you can make head or tails out of it. Trust me, it is REALLY simple. (Only it’s definitely not. And dumbing it down is not an option.)

    The rise of digital media is the worst possible thing that could happen to “rigorous science” as a notion as could be imagined. Now everyone has an expert opinion. Matters not if that opinion is based on one’s own perception of facts that often lie in the outer reaches of imagination and often in the realm of outright delusion: “Climate change” – “a Chinese hoax”, “evolution” – “an alternative theory”, “concentration camps” – “You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons” (sic!).

    The PC “I-know-it-all” society needs to wake up to a single, simple fact. They have not a clue what is happening around them. No more than a peasant in the times of Leonardo could comprehend his drawing of the flying machine. CRISPR, Higgs boson, climate change – the buzzwords are meaningless. Throwing them into a conversation is nothing more than an attempt to bullshit someone who you perceive as dumber than yourself.

    Real test of what you think science is and what it means to the humanity comes in subtle and difficult to perceive ways. And it is those things that will teach humanity to treat science with due reverence. You want an example? I have one for you. Post. Antibiotics. Era. Imagine the world where all the money a hedge fund manager has can not make bloody difference simply because there are no drugs capable of treating an antibiotic-resistant bacteria him or his child has caught. That’s science for you. It was not “sexy”, it was not “popular”, the very same hedge fund manager could not make a killing on it, and no one cared about it, because hey, we all “knew” (from a blog or Youtube channel or whatever) how pharmaceutical companies were making loads of money off us, poor ignorant saps! Weren’t we all so smart!?

    Science is not about being superior to anyone; it is about having a spark that makes you want to understand. Not for profit. And even not for benefit of mankind (sometimes, granted, yes, that is included). But for the sake of understanding. For better or worse. Moral superiority comes into play too. Being a scientist carries an obligation of being responsible for you actions. Not in the way of Hippocrates “do no harm” to a single patient, but in the way of “my children will have to live with my judgement on this” for generations to come.

    Science is not about endless discussion of what is “acceptable” or “right”. It is about “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”

    A quick glance at the history of science and you get the idea of who a scientist is. Socrates, Plato, Giordano Bruno, Isaac Newton, Gerolamo Cardano, Ettore Majorana, Albert Einstein, Edward Teller.

    “Demons run when a good man goes to war.”

    Are we, the scientists, the good men? Or are we the demons, waiting to be cowed into submission by an ignorant average man with a majority-supported view expressed via a Youtube channel?

    1. This was a great reaction, thanks for that!
      I share your opinion on virtually all points, and I hope you can appreciate that this does not need to be in disagreement with the original post. I would hope that any communication of science is not to impress or play on sensational topics, neither in “we just cured cancer” nor in “the world is ending” kind of ways. Rather to shed a light on everyday things that are so vital but get overlooked, like the antibiotics you mention. And to show that science is not just in a classroom, not just a topic to be scared of, but an endless source of new, interesting questions. I am in no way trying to say that all research topics can easily be broken down and fed to a non-specialist (that includes scientists in fields other than the one in question). Rather that I find it valuable to share.
      Though I think internet is great for these things, I do feel your fear of anyone being able to proclaim anything as facts in the current social media situation. Just posted some thoughts on that in a follow-up post to this one, wished I saw your reaction before so I might have included some of your great points. But does it then mean that these channels should be left solely to conspiracy theorists? Is outreach by default in vain? Are the side effects worse than any good it might do?

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