[Note: I put together a second version of my first post, after someone let me know I’d written about popularizing science education close to a recent related ‘holiday’ without mentioning someone relevant. If you've read the first one and just want to skip to the edits, I’ve put them in italics.]
When I first mentioned writing for the Douglas Blogs, a few friends of mine asked me why. I’ve always believed the popularization of science for the benefit of the general public is one of the highest obligations of anyone who works in a scientific field. Although making complex concepts digestible by the public isn’t always easy, it’s absolutely essential to fully realizing the benefits of these discoveries. Here are seven reasons I believe that educating the public about scientific research is important, with a particular focus on the fields of neuroscience and psychiatry (as in the scope of this blog); as a bonus, I’ve thrown in a quote for each point from a famous popularizer of science who would have turned 75 last month, as he puts it much better than I do:
- Protecting the public. Without widespread understanding of the nature of brain function and psychiatric illness, members of the public may fall prey to unfortunate ‘treatments’ not supported by facts. In early human cultures, ‘trepanations’, or crude holes in the skull formed using rocks or other tools, were performed on the mentally ill to allow ‘demons’ to escape from the afflicted person’s head. In the last century, lobotomies were routinely performed without a full understanding of their consequences or mechanism of action. Charlatans constantly exploit the public’s lack of information by selling impossible products with false promises. And disturbingly recently, our own government has supported the forced sterilization of the mentally ill. These and similar ill-advised practices can only be avoided through education. “Skeptical scrutiny is the means… by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.”
- Eliminating stigma; in this context, I’m referring in particular to protection of the mentally ill from stigma. Conventional beliefs among the general public in the past (and, unfortunately, still today in some cases) held that mental illness was a result of inherent weakness on the part of the patient. Today, we know that mental illness is a complex product of how one’s genes and environment interact in brain development and function; we also know that the causes of these illnesses are biological, as opposed to due to personal weakness, and that they are very often treatable. This information, however, would not be (and is not) available to the public without education. “I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble.”
- Influencing public policy. Legislation is written, amended and voted on by legislators representing members of the public. If the public is informed, so are the choices of their representatives. “…that kind of skeptical questioning, don’t-accept-what-authority-tells-you attitude of science is also nearly identical to the attitude of mind necessary for a functioning democracy. Science and democracy have very consonant values and approaches, and I don’t think you can have one without the other.”
- Increasing investment ($) in science. Money for scientific research comes primarily from government sources, and for better or worse, the amount of research that can be done is contingent on the amount of money the government doles out. A well-informed population is better equipped to tell their representatives to support legislation increasing science funding. Similarly, it`s your money; you should know where it`s going. If you’ve ever paid taxes, you’ve contributed to government-funded research and public mental health services; as a result, barring security or privacy issues it’s your right to know what your money funds. “The best way to avoid abuses is for the populace in general to be scientifically literate, to understand the implications of such investigations. In exchange for freedom of inquiry, scientists are obliged to explain their work. If science is considered a closed priesthood, too difficult and arcane for the average person to understand, the dangers of abuse are greater. But if science is a topic of general interest and concern – if both its delights and its social consequences are discussed regularly and competently in the schools, the press, and at the dinner table – we have greatly improved our prospects for learning how the world really is and for improving both it and us.”
- To counter pseudo-science experts. Not all pundits spreading misinformation are malicious; some are just sorely misinformed. To see an example, just look at the debacle over whether vaccination causes autism. Although the science conclusively refutes this myth, without letting the public know about this research thousands of children a year might unnecessarily go without vaccination, with catastrophic results. “I maintain there is much more wonder in science than in pseudoscience. And in addition, to whatever measure this term has any meaning, science has the additional virtue, and it is not an inconsiderable one, of being true.”
- It’s currently lacking. According to a 2009 survey (Pew Research Center), less than half of Americans know that electrons are smaller than atoms, or that lasers don’t work by focusing sound waves; just over half know that stem cells divide into new types of cells, or that antibiotics don’t kill viruses. Similarly, only 32% of the American public (as opposed to 87% of American scientists) believe that humans and other organisms evolved naturally. These results speak for themselves; the public’s education has been lacking, for all the reasons listed above it has frightening consequences. “I can find in my undergraduate classes, bright students who do not know that the stars rise and set at night, or even that the Sun is a star.”
- Fostering a sense of wonder, in the current and future generations. Although great research might be enduring, scientists themselves unfortunately are not; to keep science progressing, we need to constantly replete our ranks with a new generation of aspiring students with a passion for research. And regardless of how boring your 8th grade biology teacher might have been, science presented properly and passionately is pretty cool.
My point is that getting the word out about scientific discoveries and topics, especially (I feel) in psychiatry and neuroscience, is not just important; it’s obligatory. So my goal with this blog is to try to do exactly that.
Thanks for reading, and happy holidays.
“Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works… We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.” – Carl Sagan
Posted in Public Education.Posted on 30 Dec 2009