For the past two weeks, we’ve been hosting Matt Nisbet as an Osher Fellow to the Exploratorium. Matt is well known in the blogging community for his Framing Science site on ScienceBlog and his cross-country speaking tour with Chris Mooney. They’ve been talking about science controversies and about ways that scientists can reach the public by framing or contextualizing their work in ways that are meaningful for different audiences. An example he gives is that of the religious community embracing global warming as an issue that needs to be addressed for moral reasons.
Of course, this is something that the museum world is also interested in, especially in ways to reach audiences that don’t traditionally come to science museums. Much of our audience is well-educated, middle-class adults, families, and even senior citizens who have time and money to come to the Exploratorium. Like all museums, we would like more diversity in our audience and to make science appealing to girls, minorities, and other underserved audiences. Matt’s dance card in his residency here has been filled with staff interested in talking to him about ways to communicate to broader audiences and to increase the appreciation for science through “incidental exposure” essentially taking advantage of science angles to popular topics like entertainment or sports. For instance, we were recently featured in a front page article in the San Francisco Chronicle, coinciding with the All Star Game, about the science of baseball. One of our educators demonstrated the physics of pitching and the story was linked to a Web site that we developed as part of our Accidental Scientist series (which also included gardening, music and cooking).
There’s been a backlash though from some bloggers and science communicators that accuse Matt of distorting science, of advocating manipulative tactics similar to that of political operatives. One online comment in a piece by The Scientist says that under no circumstances should anyone “spin” science which is how he interprets framing. The poster, Earl Holland of Ohio State, goes on to say that scientists should stick to their work, running experiments and distilling the facts, and leave the communication to the professionals. I think this shortchanges the abilities of many scientists to tell compelling stories about their work and make it understandable and relevant to everyday people. Science is multi-dimensional and the implications of the enterprise go well beyond ”the facts” and into realms of politics, policy, culture, education, the economy, and everyday life. Wading into these realms may make some scientists uncomfortable, but it is the right of citizens in a democracy to know what their tax money is supporting and its relevance to their lives and interests. The Exploratorium has a long tradition, beginning with our founder Frank Oppenheimer, of working with scientists fully capable of explaining their work to public audiences and discussing its implications and context in a larger world. The more scientists there are who embrace this more public role, the better we are as a society.