Our modern society depends on science. It impacts the way we eat, work, communicate and play. And yet, most people take our amazing scientific advancement for granted, and some are even hostile to it. What can we do to spread the love of science through education, outreach and media?
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Transcript: Creating a Sciency Society
Fraser: Astronomy Cast episode 309 for Monday, June 3, 2013 – Creating a Sciency Society
Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts based journey through the cosmos. Where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know.
My name is Fraser Cain, I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me is Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and the director of Cosmoquest.
Hi Pamela, how are you doing?
Pamela: I’m doing well, how are you doing Fraser?
Fraser: Doing really well. Do we have anything we need to let people know to do? Just another reminder, although we’re still past the CosmoQuest hangout-a-thon, if you have some time and/or money by all means let people know about the fact that CosmoQuest is still looking for donations. Go to cosmoquest.org/donate. We’ve had people ask what the difference was between donating for CosmoQuest and donating for Astronomy Cast.
Pamela: Different sets of humans that do somewhat overlap so when you donate to Astronomy Cast you are paying for Preston to edit the show, you’re paying for Nancy Atkinson to prepare the show notes, you’re paying for transcription and you’re helping us with all the random things that we need varying from gears to hard drives to lighting which I’m clearly not using right now. Our attic is still a wreck from the hangout that we did over the weekend. When you donate to CosmoQuest you’re actually paying for us to generate additional science programs that you can take part in and help us discover our solar system. We have noisy astronomer Nicole Gugliucci on staff full time, Cory Lehan is our lead developer, Joe Moore is a graduate student who is a developer on the project, we have an educational team that is working on running a one week teacher development workshop this week and donating to CosmoQuest helps our three people who are our educational coordinators go out. We provide these teachers with things to use in their classroom as well as with content to use in their classroom. CosmoQuest just takes everything a whole lot further in enabling people to learn and do science more effectively.
Fraser: So I’ve got two things to promote. First thing is I’ve updated our phases of the moon app for Universe Today and we put really high resolution images into the phase app which is what people where complaining about. Now it looks really nice, when you zoom in it is really high resolution. I’m really happy with that. The second thing is that I’ve been doing a bunch of short explainer videos on my YouTube channel and I’ve been getting a lot of great feedback. They are like three minutes long and we cover one topic and those are on Universe Today’s YouTube channel which I think you may enjoy.
Pamela: Well if we’re still promoting things I’ve got one more thing.
Fraser: We’re out of time, we’re out of time!
Pamela: One more thing to add… 365 days of astronomy is still going. We introduced two recent series: Space Scoops which is designed for children and Weekly Space Stories. I’m narrating both of those under my narration name which is Pamela K Beyond. For professional reasons I keep the two separate. Please check those out. Enjoy your fiction and your space stories for kids.
Fraser: People always said you should do voice narration for things.
Pamela: And I took them up on it.
Fraser: Awesome. Okay great well lets get rockin’.
Fraser: Our modern society depends on science. It impacts the way we eat, work, communicate and play. And yet, most people take our amazing scientific advancement for granted, and some are even hostile to it. What can we do to spread the love of science through education, outreach and media? This is just non-stop baffling to me and I think you as well.
Fraser: We’re both super-geeks or super-nerds. I know there is some distinction between a geek and a nerd… whatever, I’m both. We have always been interested in science and technology and deeply appreciated the impact and roll that this plays in our lives. I know we’re preaching to the choir here with the people who listen to the show and watch what we do and come to our star parties every Sunday night. Someone said “This is the geekiest thing I’ve ever seen.” And I love it! I hope that you, watching this, understand just how much all of this really means to us and how much we appreciate it. The vast majority of society doesn’t.
Pamela: Does not get it… does not get it.
Fraser: …and yet they depend on it! They’ve got these magical phones… that’s not magic, it’s science that do all of these amazing things.
Pamela: GPS which requires relativity and physics and aerospace engineering.
Fraser: And people just take all this stuff for granted. In the worse cases, those of us in the skeptical movement really have to deal with this hostility towards science.
Pamela: Yeah, this notion that if I can’t instantly understand something and instantly understand its application it must be wrong, bad, dangerous, evil or just simply not worth while. That’s something I’ve run into a lot was the “Why should we fund what you do? You’re just an astronomer, you’re not giving back to society.” It wears on you after a while. It makes me think that my life would be more appreciated as a voice actress and it depresses me to no end that the going rate for an average actress is 10x the going rate for an astronomer.
Fraser: And yet there are hundreds of people that attempt to get every single astronomy position. There are a lot of people chasing a lot of jobs. What would a sciency-society (there I go making up words again) look like do you think?
Pamela: On the most simplistic level imagine if every science fiction television show or other form of speculative fiction show had a science adviser who was listened to with the same respect that Kevin Grazier eventually found himself being listened to on Battlestar Galactica. Imagine a society where people thought that it was cool and normal to problem solve how to fix something rather than just buying a new one. It’s that combination of having that respect to go out and find the person who has the know-how and ask and that desire to figure things out on your own like the makers society. If we can combine that respect for intellect and that respect and desire to be part of making things, I think that’s what it would look like. We’re not there though.
Fraser: (Laughs) Yeah and we’re really really fortunate in the science/ space community that we have found on Google+, on Twitter and science online. With these groups there are a lot of women that are actively engaged and when we see the Weekly Space Hangout it’s you, Amy Shira Teitel, Nicole, Emily Lakadwalla and there are just so many really knowledgeable women. That’s fairly rare when you look at the bigger numbers.
Pamela: It’s actually very odd selection effect. One of the things that you find is that by and large, more people that go into the physical sciences and engineering sciences are men. Of those who do, both men and women make it into the field but women are more likely to end up in the education research and the communication paths. What you’re seeing is in the sciences you’ve got lots and lots of men but you preferentially end up with women in the communication rolls.
Fraser: I’ve never really had anyone give me a hard time about my love of science and technology. Even growing up it was always encouraged. I went to engineering at UVC, I got my computer science degree but for you what was it like growing up as a woman who was that interested in science. Did you find this anti-sciency society was working against you?
Pamela: Well it’s not even just the anti-sciency but the anti-intellectual. You get tired of being smart being a curse and you can’t excel in science and try and hide your intelligence at the same time. You’re fighting the fact of “oh crud, I’m getting made fun of because I like science” and the “oh crud I’m getting made fun of because I’m smart”. Then you’re also facing all the gender bias from the physics teacher that gave me a C because he wanted to teach me a lesson about how women don’t belong in science and how it was better to learn young than waste my life trying to be a scientist. I wish this was a joke but this is what happened in my senior year of high school. It’s never ending from the “You don’t look like a scientist” with some shock, with a bit of apaulment when someone finds out. It gets to a point that you either go into a situation ready to apologetically admit that you’re a scientist or ready to own it with the type of self confidence that gets taken as “you’re scary”. It’s hard… it’s really just hard.
Fraser: Did you find that growing up for you that that kind of backlash or that sort of anti-intellectualism go hand in hand? Do you think that that sort of intellectualism and interest in science go hand in hand?
Pamela: I think of the people who fight to make it in science. You have to also at a certain level, at most levels be an intellectual. The pair down project for science is huge. In physics astronomy, in my personal classes, went from 70 people in the first astronomy class I took, most of them weren’t majors but that’s where the majors were. Next semester there were twelve of us. Of the twelve of us three of us got PhD’s. Of the three of us that got PhD’s, two of us are still in the field. I then went to Texas for graduate school. Of the 18 of us that started at Texas, three of us got PhD’s. That’s a huge pair down. Then you look at how many stay in the field after that. It’s just this constant loss of people just because there are not jobs and there are not positions and it is such a long hard flight.
Fraser: Then we look at what’s on popular television and you get… I don’t want to make this a rant about how bad society has gotten to kids these days and so on. You get Jersey Shore and you get all of these terrible reality shows and…
Pamela: It doesn’t have to be that way. It’s possible to have positive thought processes, it’s rare but it’s possible in these reality shows. One of my guilty pleasures is I watch on Hulu this SciFi channel reality show called Face Off which is about doing special effects make up. They’re forever saying “that you can’t do because that is not anatomically correct” and that’s people looking through anatomy books and looking at what exists in the natural world seeking inspiration and they are getting down-graded for not having things that are not physically realistic.
Fraser: So we also see situation where if you look at the Mythbusters which is a huge success. Mentally popular with people and that really crosses lines. Y get this situation where people are blowing things up and testing things that are gross and weird but if you peel that part of it back, there is a really good science lesson going on there. About testing, about putting in controls, about how science really works and people can really watch it unfold in front of them.
Pamela: One of the other things that is kind of awesome is the shows that are either speculative fiction or science fiction that incorporates science realistically are often, not always, but often more successful. People are forever panning Armageddon because it had really bad science. Deep impact had its science somewhat better but gets ignored just because it wasn’t a great movie. Then you look at the modern wave of post-Armageddon on television right now. There is revolution, defiance and falling skies. Revolution has about the worst science of them and it’s the least critically acclaimed of them. It’s that scientific realism that you have falling skies in defiance that really adds something to the shows.
Fraser: Now is it just western culture that has a problem with this? Canada and the United States are very similar in this situation and I’m assuming that England and Australia are very similar as well. If you’re in Korea or Japan they take it pretty seriously right?
Pamela: Oh they take it very seriously. Especially in China where they see it and much of the developing world they see their intellectual students as people with the chance to better their society and their own lives. The phrase “tiger mom” is largely derogatory here in America and it refers to how Asian parents work so hard to see their children succeed. It bothers me at a certain level that parents who fight too hard to see their children succeed is something that is that harshly looked down upon. Yes, you can go way overboard in helping your children succeed, I see that.
Fraser: But the point being that the person that’s good in science in Korea or Japan or China…
Pamela: Grades are celebrated
Fraser: That’s not seen as a weird thing. Do you think maybe that’s where you get this situation where science has made such a difference and science has been so ingrained into the culture that you take it for granted and now suddenly you aren’t directly connected to the value that you’re getting from the science.
Pamela: I’m not sure where it is but one of the things that I want to find a sociologist to talk about is you see in countries like Finland where education is highly regarded. School teachers are highly paid, about the same as they pay their doctors. Here in the US that is not true. I’ve heard Brittany Schmidt who is an amazing researcher. She’s the one who figured out that hydraulics play a roll in the ice motion on Europa. She is a brilliant woman. I heard her talking about how here she is in her early 30’s and is so proud to finally be living in an apartment without roommates while she watches her friends from high school buy houses. The reason that she if finally now able to have an apartment without a roommate is because scientists are so poorly paid by in large. In academics, that’s not true in industry but in academics it is. When you have post-doctoral positions which is what most of us have for 12 years, I escaped that but most do, that often pay $40,000. You have starting faculty positions at universities that pay $30,000. That says something about how society values science.
Fraser: Do you think that the tide is shifting a little bit? I see things back 20 years ago and there was no reason to be into video games and comics books and science and all of these kinds of computers. For a lot of the mass majority there was no social value to be into those kinds of things. Things like roll playing games. I organized roll playing games clubs in my various school classes.
Pamela: I did D&D basic back in the day.
Fraser: Socially that was seen as weird but now everyone plays video games. Everyone has a computer. Everyone uses a smart phone. That’s considered normal.
Pamela: There are still those delineations where not everyone does World of Warcraft. That’s the new D&D. Not everyone does D&D still. I think the social games are still escued where as Pac Man and Donkey Kong was played by everyone. Everyone had an Atari it seemed like. It was the multi-user games that were always escued. It’s that weird “It’s okay for a jock to be totally into playing the arcade style games but not totally okay to play the World of Warcraft style games”.
Fraser: Now if I could grant you unlimited political power to effect policy in the US and Canada, what would you do to encourage an interest in science. One of these big risks and I think it’s an existential risk that a lot of people are worried about in the US is where you’ve got this situation where the US falls behind in terms of science to the rest of the world. What would you do if you had a few billion dollars, could affect policy and make changes, what would you do?
Pamela: A few billion…
Fraser: A few hundred billion… whatever you want. I’m opening up the US coffers to your disposal. What will you do to help and make science more of a priority in the US society.
Pamela: At the couple billion level I think what we really need is a society that is better able to understand how cool and awesome science can be. One of the best ways to do that, I hate saying this, is through robotics. You get kids learning how to program and build both on the software and hardware side of robotics to solve various problems. You get adults free maker space. If we had maker centers in every town and free courses that people can engage in so they can celebrate their own technical solutions. Low cost 3D printers. Introduce people to the power that comes from knowing how to do problem solving. Then on the other side of this, free up our ND budgets so that there is more money for innovation, there is more money to discover on the basic research side then on the applied research side. We don’t have significant money being spent on our ND rate now and that’s frankly terrifying. You have to engage people in the process. It’s not enough to simply teach facts and figures. You need them doing science and I think that the best and most effective way is often through robotics. Robotics can get tied in to astronomy and aerospace. There are programs to build artificial intelligence, sub-orbital gliders, there is the moon bots program with the Google lunar x prize to build robots that have capacity to rove over moon like surfaces. Then maker space is if we can get… imagine, if the way post WWII the way sons worked with their fathers on the car and fixing the television and everything else. That was such a powerful experience both for the family and for learning. Imagine if it became maker spaces where moms and dads took their children to build things for fun instead of sitting around watching movies on the sofa while playing on their smart phones.
Fraser: You really want a maker bot don’t you?
Pamela: I really do.
Fraser: I can tell. I want one too, that would be awesome. This is funny because I think you are always the grim realist and I’m the breathless optimist. I think you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. You can’t push a string. The tremendous accomplishments in science and technology in the US has given your culture so much of a head start and an advantage in the world economy that it’s only natural for people to be taking it for granted and that their coasting. I think that you’ve having this situation where… how to do you compare and contrast where most people turn their nose at science and they don’t really care, don’t understand how it works and they aren’t contributing to their taxes and so on. Then you look at a place like Japan, China or Korea… especially China, and they take it super seriously. It’s a life or death race to the top.
Pamela: I think putting Japan and China in the same boat is a very poor thing to do because they have completely different motivations. Japan is a first world nation. It is technologically far more advanced than we are. Going there suddenly I realized how little technology has infiltrated my life. China on the other hand is a nation that has great extremes across the country. America has that too but not to the same level. We do have issues in the Ozarks and issues in the Leeward island where there are communities that are really third world. They are small fractions of the nation. In China that’s turned on its head where you do have vast areas that are still very much developing and it’s in those areas that for a smart child they will give up anything including giving their child to a state-run schools in order to see that child be able to join this first world nation of the technologically elite. Japan is actually a really interesting example of a place that because of the smallness of the nation and the need to mechanize things and also because they have a very inverted population where they do have so many older people. They have had to turn to technology for things like reading books to children to providing companions for the elderly. It’s a country where robots are an answer. I wish we could emulate that.
Fraser: I wonder if it’s going to be a situation where the technology is going to to continue advancing and people will be more and more disconnected from people and they won’t understand and won’t be engaged with it. The people who are will become more and more specialized. You will become a warp field coil engineer and all you understand is warp field dynamics. It’s from the Star Trek universe.
Pamela: It’s interesting how we’re ending up in such a cliquey society. You and I live in circles where we consume science focused music, we read books from authors who take time to find PhD’s to advise them on science, we hang out with people who are solving some of the great software problems out there and developing amazing new hardware. We have self selected to live in this sub culture, counter culture, I don’t know, that is focused more on being fact based, living more science inspired realities. We are imbedded in cultures where that is not uniformly true. I ride horses and I’m seeing this rift between those of us who choose to live connected lives and those who rescue that as improper and unnecessary. I worry about the cultural biases about diving into technology and intellectualism are going to lead, at least in America, to the digital divide between those who are connected and those who are not growing stronger and stronger even though the cost of being connected is dropping. There is now digital access for almost anybody but you need to intellectually decide to be a connected person and accept that this is a source of information that can allow me to live a better life.
Fraser: Yeah and I feel that the changes that are happening in our society and our technology are happening so fast that I’m having trouble keeping on top of it. I’m constantly surprised and you and I do this to each other all the time. I’ll be like “Hey have you seen this thing yet?” and you’ll be like “No, this is the most useful thing that has ever been presented to me. This is going to change everything.” Then a week will go by and you’ll be like “Hey remember that thing you showed me last week well now I’m making it do this”. This is people who are constantly on the look out for it. Who are attempting to incorporate it into our lives as fast a possible and still I’m completely overwhelmed by this science and technology. I see people who are just disconnected from it and they are in many cases just slipping behind. Maybe the oldest is then on the technologist to make things more accessible, to make things here for people to use. That’s very specifically saying “Don’t worry about the science that’s going on here”.
Pamela: And that’s not the answer we need to teach people. The problem solving skills. I had a rant with one of my staff earlier today because he and I live on the cutting edge of technology and we have to figure every bloody thing out for ourselves; I know you’re in the same boat. Then we turn around and we have people asking us “I need you to explain this to me”, then getting very… like we’re morally required to explain all of the… huh?
Fraser: No I know but you can’t expect everybody to dive in as deep as we like to go with this technology and with the science. It’s funny, I experience this with my kids by teaching them to be skeptics and rational thinkers as just a baseline. Where they go with that doesn’t really matter but I’m…
Pamela: You didn’t say it but you’re teaching them problem solving too which is a third step to it.
Fraser: I watched Man of Steel just yesterday and we loved it but there was a ton of product placement in it. It was very subtle. It included product placement for LexCorp which is awesome. There is a point where someone gets smashed through a 7 11 and my son goes “Product placement”. There is this kind of skepticism and rational thinking that is going on all the time. If we could just get people to learn those skills…
Pamela: I really think that problem solving plays just as much as a part of it. I know you hand you or I a new piece of technology and we start figuring out on our own how to use it. You or I break something and we can’t always fix it but we can always figure out what direction we broke it. That ability to look at your reality and see how pieces fit together and how to problem solve solutions to basic problems to figure out how to problem solve how to use a new piece of software, to ask questions to figure out how to engage in new situations. That is an additional skill that comes out of the basic scientific method. You have hypothesis, you test, you figure out if it’s right and that I think is just as necessary. I imagine all the hours people are going to waste if they wait for someone like you or I to teach them how to use a Google Hangout. Just do it. JUST DO IT.
Fraser: Just do it till you break it. Again I’ve taught my kids that 90% of their troubleshooting issues have gone away because it’s like “Did you restart it? Did you reboot it? Did you retry it? Have you reinstalled it? Now Google it because that’s what I would do.” Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s the heart of it that if we could somehow give future generations time to just really learn and internalize the scientific method and use that to study their lives around them that that would become a tool set that they could use the rest of their life. If everything they could see they could bring into the filter of the scientific method.
Pamela: Right. Learn, understand and imagine how different television would be if you got to watch people learn how to solve their problems instead of always waiting for people to solve their problems.
Fraser: Cool well this is great. Thank you very much Pamela.
Pamela: It’s been my pleasure.
This transcript is not an exact match to the audio file. It has been edited for clarity.