this guy who sat down next to me on the train about a month ago found out I’m doing my phd in pharmacology and started talking to me about his mother dying of cancer and why he thinks marijuana should be legalized because it “cures cancer.”  personally, I agree with him that marijuana should be legalized for pain management, but it does not cure cancer. it does ease her pain, it improves her quality of life, it does not cure cancer. what does treat – not cure – cancer are the drugs that he thinks are poison. they are in fact poison, they are supposed to kill rapidly dividing cells which is what cancer is. unfortunately so are the cells in your stomach and your hair follicles which is why people lose their hair and can’t eat.

every scientist, whatever your field, knows this. and none of that is hard to explain to someone who wants to know. and therein lies the flaw of the communicating science approach. having scientists as communicators doesn’t make the public any more interested in  science. by the same token, convincing the public they need to understand science doesn’t make scientists better communicators. there is in fact a wealth of well-written science for a general audience out there for those who are interested. no one is reading it because a) they’re not interested if it doesn’t affect them and b) they are scared of science.

while these sound like daunting hindrances, they are surmountable. we can make science engaging to the next generation and we can make them less scared of scientists. but we need to stop rolling our eyes at the general public, stop isolating ourselves, and start making science approachable. how many of us graduate students have advisors that are too busy for us? how neglected and small do we feel when they look at us like we’re stupid and they suggested a super complicated experiment like its the easiest thing in the world? how do you think the general population feels when when we look at them like they’re morons for not knowing that mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell? no one likes feeling dumb or rushed. it takes patience to explain all the nuances of your work. but if someone asks you a really basic question, remember how your advisor/committee member/other arrogant scientist looks at you and just try not to cycle that down.years of teaching have taught me that if you show someone that you’re interested in them learning what you have to say, they will try to learn it.

and we need to encourage great scientists to be teachers. not professors, teachers. elementary, middle, and high school science teachers. teaching the lower levels is looked at like a failure, but how can we engage the younger generations if we give them our “failures”? kids can tell when someone hates their job. my 5th grade teacher was an alcoholic (she eventually got fired when they caught her many years after I graduated) and even at 10, I knew that woman hated children. but if you’re excited about science, they will be excited! and then they will learn.

I think this is a HUGE step in getting people to stop being afraid of science. it would require training scientists in a different way. my advisor (who is actually a really kind man and does take time out to be appreciative) says that most scientists were those kids who got picked on in grade school. and they grow up to be bullies with egos. I was not picked on as a child even though I’m the child of immigrant Muslim parents (rare in my small town), wear glasses, dressed funny, and graduated top of my class. Shockingly, in my town it was expected that children (smart, dumb, pretty, ugly, whatever) be well-behaved so I was horrified at how flat-out rude any scientists (great or just faking) can be. James Watson of Watson and Crick is racist. that is a shameful waste of power and intelligence.

I’m not saying that the general public is great, but I feel that as people with more education, it is our duty to inform them. I know its frustrating to argue with someone closed-minded, its ok to walk away, but be polite. let them make whatever decision they want, at least you tried. make science engaging to the next generation so that they want to learn about what we do. otherwise, we’re perpetuating a vicious cycle that will not end well.