This is a post I’ve been thinking about for a while, and my thoughts are still not fully fleshed out, but I’ll have a go at writing it anyway. You sometimes encounter a suggestion that academics regard themselves as living in some kind of ivory tower from which they rarely emerge, and from which they can look down – disdainfully – on everyone else. I don’t, however, think this is generally true; there are clearly some arrogant academics who think they are better than everyone else, but that’s probably true for most professions. Most academics that I know are just trying to do their jobs to the best of their abilities, and typically feel quite lucky to have ended up where they have.
However, I think there is an element of truth, but not in the way most would expect. I’ve now worked in five different universities in three different countries, and although I’ve had some bad experiences, it’s mostly been very positive. You get to interact with interesting people; you get to do interesting and challenging things; you get to visit, and live in, interesting places. What also helps is that you mostly interact with people who speak the same language and have a similar background; although I should probably explain what I mean by this.
Although academia can be very culturally diverse, most will have undergone a similar training and will speak the same scientific language; they will understand the terminology and will have the relevant background knowledge. This means that you can have interesting (and often pleasant) discussion that don’t degenerate because someone misinterprets some terminology, or doesn’t understand the basics. Also, many discussions aren’t really arguments; someone isn’t trying to win – all those involved are often quite happy to just learn something from others.
However, when academics venture out into informal settings, like social media, what they encounter can be very different. They will encounter those who claim to understand a topic, but don’t. They’ll encounter those with little research experience, who claim to know how it should be undertaken. What start off as friendly discussions can turn sour when someone misunderstands some terminology, or doesn’t understand the basics. They will encounter people who think the goal is to win some kind of argument, rather than to simply have an interesting discussion. I can easily see why some might look at this and simply decide that it’s not worth venturing out.
Having said that, I have found venturing out very interesting. I’ve learned a lot about myself; I’ve learned a lot about other people; I’ve learned a lot about the public understanding of science; I’ve even learned a lot about science, and the scientific method – I’ve read things I wouldn’t otherwise have read. I think, mostly, it has been a positive experience. However, it has been very time consuming, stressful at times, and – in some cases – very unpleasant. It’s not something I would necessarily recommend, even if I think it can be a net positive experience.
As I said at the beginning, my thoughts on this are not fully formed, so I’m not entirely sure what I’m trying to get at. I guess one thing that does cross my mind is that public engagement should be about more than just discussing science, and presenting scientific results. What would be useful is if there could be a better understanding of the scientific method/process, so that maybe there can be a better understanding of why scientists/researchers engage as they do and a better understanding of the importance of terminology and what underpins some research areas. On the other hand, maybe academics also have to try and understand how they can interact publicly without running into the kind of problems that they sometimes encounter.
What partly motivated this post was this article which makes some interesting suggestions as to why science often gets shot down in the public domain.