Monday, January 29, 2007

The "CSI Effect"

In a slightly related post, the New York Times has an interesting article this morning about a man who was wrongly convicted of "stabbing, beating, biting and strangling a social worker in upstate New York." The case revolved largely around bite mark evidence, with a local dentist acting as an expert witness, testifying that the teeth marks on the victim matched the accused perfectly. DNA evidence has overturned many cases (as it did with this one), so that isn't really new. What interests me about this story though is what it says about the perceptions of science in society. Even though most people do not make a living using science, it has real world consequences

Lawyers, for their part, are taking steps to counter what they call the “C.S.I. effect,” when juries become overly impressed by forensic evidence. During jury selection, it is not uncommon for them to ask potential jurors about their television-watching preferences to weed out those who seem unable to separate fact from fiction.

Mrs. Dip-with-a-different-last-name pointed this article out to me last week, which I think is similar in theme. What I really find interesting about this is not that his research is controversial, but how quickly a bastardized version of his research was spread throughout the blogosphere and traditional media. In both of these cases, incorrect versions of science led to serious misunderstandings.

I tend to blame us scientists for this gulf in public understanding. True, most people could spend more time understanding the basics of the world they live in, but that is easy for us to say, it is how we make a living. I get to spend all day thinking about science, and expecting people to become experts would be like expecting me to become an expert in anything else, auto maintenance, plumbing, baking, computer programming....If I instead think of science as something I'd have to learn about after a long day of work, like any of my other hobbies or any other important aspect of life, it seems daunting. This is one of the reasons I think that science blogs can be important, I think we as a community need to become better about getting our messages across. Political junkies have really excelled at using the internet, and blogs in particular, for this purpose. Who knows, perhaps it wouldn't be so easy to cut earth science programs, or to cut funding to the USGS if we were better at getting our messages across? As I mentioned in my first post, we must make a connection between science and everyday life.

This is why public outreach is so important. There are many simple things we can do.

1. Let's support high school teachers and students. After all, this is where most people get the majority of their exposure to science, and their high school science courses will largely determine how they approach science for the rest of their lives. Supporting high school science can be as simple as visiting classrooms, judging science fairs, tutoring, etc., or as involved as providing research experience to students over the summer (one professor in my graduate department was especially good at this). As even easier way is to support the friends and colleagues of ours who decide to teach high school science. It seems a rather thankless task, very hard work that I don't think gets enough respect from the professional science community.

2. Let's support undergraduate survey courses and the people that teach them. Same reasons as above, that is the only chance to introduce earth science to most people. These are future voters, politicians, jurors, etc., we can't waste those chances.

3. Be a salesperson. I don't know how Physicists do it, they must be the best sales people in the world. Somehow they can convince governments to spend tens of billions of dollars on such boondoggles as particle colliders. Seriously, this astounds me. Not that I don't find the science interesting, in a perfect world with unlimited resources I would say go for it. But we all know that competition for funding is tight, yet somehow these projects get funded. Earth Science is very relevant (well, maybe not thermochronology, but you get my point), and we need to sell it that way.

4. Let's all refrain from blaming the public every time science is misused. At least in my opinion, the shortcoming is mainly ours. We are fortunate to be able to spend our lives doing jobs that interest us, and the extra effort it would take to share some of that knowledge really isn't that much.

5. We need to find a Carl Sagan of geology, someone who can take the message to the public. And, when we find him or her, we need to not disparage their work (as happened to Carl Sagan, and to many academics who try to become popular).

There will be more rules, I am sure.


C W Magee said...

Wasn't Stevie J. our Carl Sagan? Unfortunately he's joined the fossil record.

Thermochronic said...

Yeah, I think of Stevie J. and John McPhee. I guess I see Gould as more of a biologist almost, his work mainly focusing on evolution and life, not so much geology. McPhee is up there, I just don't think his writing is engaging enough, well, his geology based writing (I like much of his other stuff). And as far as I know neither of them appeared on PBS wearing turtlenecks.

Yami McMoots said...

Fake trackback! I was wondering what "the message" you're talking about in #5 actually is, or should be, and it turned into kind of a long tangent.

Thermochronic said...

I don't think there necessarily needs to be a message, personally. I think that when science is presented by people with mad outreach skills like Carl Sagan, that even esoteric things can capture imaginations. I think another excellent example is a NOVA I watched once on string theory. String theory really doesn't have a message (well, there are some pseudo-science extrapolations maybe) but everyone in the room at the time was completely transfixed. I was the only professional scientist there, but everyone was into it, even to the point of heading out to buy and read the book written by one of the people on the show. I think it is important to get the importance of earth science across, but I think being the "Carl Sagan of Geology" doesn't have to mean "listen to me or your house will fall off the cliff and your children will run out of oil and roast to death in the overheated earth." Your post (check the link above) is an excellent discussion, I have to think more about this....

C W Magee said...

With the disparaging carl sagan factor, you do need to worry about the danger of press release science, where outreach and flashy conclusions are used to cover up the doginess of the research. Science has a problem in that the best research is generally the most rigorous, and thius the most boring. How do we make rigour exciting?

A lot of the pure vs applied research debate comes in here too- although pure research often has fewer obvious applications, it is often advantageous because it is better quality research. What the public wants science to tell them isn't always easily and accurately determinable by the scientific method.

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