Matt Thurling is the founder of science.TV. He studied jazz trumpet at the Guildhall School of Music before becoming involved in digital media. Matt co-developed the ground-breaking online community gorillaz.com and is now based in Bristol’s Pervasive Media Studio.
I run science.TV. When someone with as little scientific background as me finds himself in such a position, it’s clear something is wrong. I think that the role found me because science does a terrible job of promoting itself and, if you don’t mind, I’ll use this site to share my ideas why.
Have you ever been to see a film that everyone is raving about? Slumdog Millionaire springs to mind. Not a bad film in the grand scheme of things - but I hated it. Why? Because people were so keen to tell me how brilliant it was. It is human nature to be sceptical of evangelism. This scepticism is particularly true in kids. As adults, we’ve mostly given up on honesty and accept a level of positive spin as the norm. Kids haven’t, so when we lie to them we shouldn’t be surprised when they react negatively. There are, it seems, two main lies in science communication. Firstly, science is ‘exciting’ and secondly science is ‘good’.
Ok, so the first isn’t a lie. Science is, of course, exciting, but not in the same way that penalty shoot-outs or casual sex are exciting. Bits of it are painfully tedious, mind-numbingly slow, difficult, threatening. But the rewards of applying the scientific method to a problem are huge. The excitement of finally getting data from the LHC, for example, must be immense - but a hundred times more so if you’ve put the effort into constructing the experiment. Most kids understand this. Things are exciting in different ways and have different patterns of effort and reward. There’s really no sense in explaining one in terms of the other. This leads on to another favourite of science evangelists which I think does more harm than good: expecting a positive reaction when telling a child that his or her iPod wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for science, that everything is made by science - isn’t it wonderful..? This is a patronising and very boring thing to say and I don’t understand how anyone could expect a positive response for this pearl of banality. What’s the logic?
The second lie about science - that science is ‘good’. The example given is almost always medicine. As a child I remember thinking that keeping old and diseased people alive was a stupid thing to do. That was a while ago, but the World was already overpopulated. The consequences of overpopulation are much clearer now. Fortunately, my thinking is less clear so I am not so rabidly pro-euthanasia. My point (bear with me) is that whether science is ‘good’ or not is a complex issue. Trying to argue that it is good because a human life has been saved is a pathetic lie which kids can see right through.
Science is neither good nor bad, it is morally neutral. What science is - undeniably - is powerful. So my tip for getting young people into science: remember the brutal honesty of your audience. Calmly - and without spin - demonstrate the power of the scientific method in tackling the unknown and there will be no need for people like me to be involved in science communication.