Insect Carl Sagan and science communication

The latest buzz going round the online science community is an article that suggests that scientists might not be doing enough to communicate with the public.  Scicurious wrote an excellent reply. I struggled to find an excerpt that I could quote here, because the whole thing had me jumping up and down and shouting “AMEN, SISTER.”  Here’s one bit:

“…all this emphasis on these BIG names bothers me more than that. Big names are fine. Everyone wants someone to look up to. But small name researchers make great communicators too. I know I’m not winning any big prizes soon, but I’d like to think I write a witty, educational blog post now and again. Why is fame the most important thing here? Why do we need a big scientific name? Why can’t we make our names, say, through the outreach we do (and some solid, but perhaps lesser known science)?

If no one knows who these big name scientists are anyway (as the article implies), then why is it necessary that they be the ones to do the outreach? After all, many of the science communication success stories the author cites GOT THEIR NAMES through their outreach. Who were the Mythbusters…before Mythbusters? No one outside his field knew who Neil deGrasse Tyson was before he started doing outreach. These people made their names THROUGH their outreach. The emphasis on Big Names that are ALREADY big seems really elitist.”

I’ve said this before, but it’s especially relevant to me now, as I’m in what seems to be the twilight of my career:

ehrmahgerd bertles!I will write this shit even if no one but me reads it.

I love insects, I love to write, and I love to find ways to get people to share my OMGBUGZ moments.  I’m busting my ass here and on social media every day, not because I am getting famous, and certainly not because it makes me any money. I do it for love.

We know, from decades of research, that what makes a good teacher is passion.  Why were Sagan, or DeGrasse Tyson, Nye, or Attenborough successful? Because they love what they do, they love their science, and it shows. (Also, they started in a completely different media environment. And are dudes. But let’s not go there right now.)

There are people out here online with me, passionately writing, podcasting, or videocasting their hearts out. A few lucky ones make a living at it. But just because I don’t have name recognition, that doesn’t mean that I’m not successful. I measure success one comment and one retweet at a time.  I don’t have a klout score as high as John Cusack anymore, but that’s not the point.

One person says they changed their mind about hating spiders.
I said something kind to a graduate student and encouraged her.
A local newspaper corrects a mangled insect factoid.

That?
That is what online science communication success looks like now.

With the advent of the internet, ideas or passions bring people together, rather than physical locations or media channels. Scientists that do outreach online–even when it’s looked down upon by fellow scientists? We are modeling positive deviance.  It’s not so much what we write that is important, but THAT WE WRITE AT ALL.

We are creating a model for a new kind of science communication.  And we are having a bitchin’ time doing it, which invites new people over to have fun with us. We are modeling different ways to share science online to our friends, our friends’ friends, and to the random strange people who keep searching my blog for “sex with insects.” (You know who you are.)

It’s personal relationships that really change the world. I was inspired by Sagan and Attenborough…but it was my not-famous teachers and mentors that helped me get through school and believe that I could be a scientist too.  Small individual creative acts (tweets, blog posts, or just chatting on Facebook) can become a thing of lasting value.  Shared and random effort can produce useful and meaningful results.

The beauty of the web is that we don’t all have to have the same motivations or professional level of skill. We don’t all have to be working toward the same goal.  We can still make change happen simply by putting our ideas out there. The beauty of the web is that scientists can get online and screw around together, playing with ideas.

Who cares if we’re “doing it right.” We’re doing it.

Which is exactly how Insect Carl Sagan Happened. Enjoy.

And then things started to get really awesome:

Related Posts:

How to become a social media goddess in 4 not very easy steps

25 thoughts on “Insect Carl Sagan and science communication

  1. So true – for example, I knew to email James Trager of Missouri ants, who was able to help me with some species identifications from recent collections on Konza Prairie, because I knew about him from comments on Alex Wild’s blog.

    The only thing that scicurious and Schneider seem to agree on is that, as scicurious put it, “science is not popular”, a sentiment that always doesn’t sit quite right with me. Sure, you have some politicians banning science they don’t like, but in the main, I’ve found that most people I’ve met, from working scientists to young earth creationists, are fascinated by scientific discovery in general and like to talk about the wonders of such and such recent finding. From what I understand, even public funding of research has gone up over the past couple decades. Is science really so unpopular?

  2. Dear Bug Girl: If one of your criteria for success is a Comment, then allow me to contribute. I love reading your posts, and while observing and photographing insects is merely a pastime for me, your blog and others like it that I follow add so much more to my appreciation of the natural world. As a kid, I was irrationally and needlessly afraid of so many insects, but fear is based on ignorance, and every blog or article I read helps me push that fear behind me and replace it with curiosity and wonderment. Thank you.

  3. Great post. I agree on the ideas, and you’ve said it so well, I’ve got nothing left to say.

    I read regularly. I just don’t comment. But here you go!

  4. I too love reading your blog! As a former high school science teacher and researcher, I love your enthusiasm and share your curiosity. You’ve inspired me to write more about science on my own blog. Keep up the great work!

  5. So, here’s a thing: I don’t know if it’s because I didn’t grow up in the US or some other random factor but I have never read or seen anything by Carl Sagan.

    I have, however, heard of you, read your work, talked to you online and offline, and enjoyed all the above. Because passion.

    So, FWIW, you’re a much bigger influence on me than Carl Sagan is, and that’s pretty much symptomatic of the way the sci-comm ecosystem works right now. And fuck anyone who thinks that’s not good enough.

    E

  6. Love it! Well said. Especially this: Who cares if we’re “doing it right.” We’re doing it.

    I write a blog and for me and I find it amazing and wonderful that people like it too. Communicating science is a journey for the writer and the reader. Some weeks, more for the writer, sometimes the reader is the more of the reason. Sometimes it is difficult to know the ‘reason why’ but it’s enough to know it feels right, and writing ‘beyond’ the a peer-reviewed pub is, well, a pretty amazing way to rethink, retool, re-evaluate what we do, and why. (what I do, and why).

  7. What Ed said. What you’ve written means more to me than anything Carl Sagan, or that Neil guy, has ever done. This makes me think about why I bother to write for my own blog, and not worrying about selling broadly or attempting to have a big effect for no good reason.

  8. Great post, I will never be Carl Sagan, nor a big name in science to be call upon to enlighten the masses. But I love what I do and I love science, and I want to share it; online, personally, and every day. Hopefully for the rest of my life. Thanks!

  9. Too right – I blog away in a dark corner with 50 hits per day because I love it. Sometimes I write something that is (a) interesting to a wider audience, and (b) ends up being pushed through the right social media channels at the right time (thank you Reddit!), and suddenly I have 1,000 hits per day for a few days. That makes me smile :-)

  10. This is such a fantastic sentiment! You know, you should consider posting to a new science communication site I just launched: thepeoplesscience.org. The idea is just this: for all sorts if scientists to have a platform for talking about why their work is exciting.

    Thanks for this great post!

    Jamil

  11. Heck, you even helped Promega Connections answer a question from one of our blog readers about the fate of Toby the wooly bear caterpillar (http://promega.wordpress.com/2011/09/29/woolly-bear-caterpillars/ ). Now of course, we all are curious about what actually happened to Toby, but apparently we will never know… Social media are about building relationships, not getting large groups of people to mindlessly chant “I love science”. A love of science (or at least interest in science) has to come from the heart–and that only happens one person at a time. Great blog post.

  12. Yup. We don’t all need to be SPECIAL, we can just be special. I think you’re both, but lower-case is good enough. And as we know, good enough is good enough.

  13. I’d disagree with the idea that science isn’t interesting to anyone but “scientists.” In a broader since, anyone with a more than general interest in sciences. I’d say a majority of people ARE interested, it’s just not always explained well or goes over their head in one way or another. On top of that it is much harder to understand the significance of certain scientific pursuits when the base of the whole field isn’t understood well. The more educated people get in the near future, the more significant this all will seem. At least that’s what I’d like to believe!

Comments are closed.