When I tell people I study physics, I get a lot of different reactions. Some people think I’m some sort of natural-born genius, while others think I spend hours each day in a room with a chalkboard and calculator.
I don’t mind flattering remarks and jokes that science students are all Einsteins.
But the unfortunate reality is people still see scientists as cold, impersonal and lacking in people skills.
According to a study by Susan T. Fiske, professor of psychology at Princeton University, scientists are seen as competent but cold and unfriendly. Fiske said in the study that “scientists have earned audiences’ respect but not necessarily their trust.”
And, while scientists need to present themselves as friendly, the general public should understand the reality of science.
Science writers do a good job of presenting scientists and researchers as friendly, approachable human beings.
Some famous communicators include neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, physician Atul Gawande and engineer Bill Nye. Physicists like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan have particularly helped shape the image that physicists are charismatic, or so I want to believe.
But scientists themselves should make changes to the way they present their research to the general public.
Transparency goes a long way in the way they present.
The more scientists can let others know their reasons for doing their research, the more the public can trust and respect scientists.
Research on climate change, gun violence and evolution often comes under fire for having ulterior political motives. Presenting the research as a way to inform and communicate, not push agendas, can help solve this.
Researchers can also acknowledge their own limitations when they communicate. When a scientist thinks he or she knows more than others in areas outside his or her expertise, things can get ugly. Tyson recently faced criticism for tweeting an incorrect fact about biological evolution.
PZ Myers, professor of biology at the University of Minnesota Morris, said he was left “breathless” by Tyson’s arrogance and ignorance.
Everyone makes mistakes, including Tyson, and this instance is less about a scientist’s arrogance and more about humility and ignorance that everyone has.
There are many people who know science is cool. The “I Fucking Love Science” page on Facebook has almost 25 million likes. Popular science and nerd culture portrays geeky subjects as hip and intellectually fashionable.
While it might help present scientists as friendly, this popular science perception can be harmful.
Science is slow, deliberate and often unentertaining.
The superficial hype and exaggeration of science can prevent us from realizing the efforts of students laboring for hours in laboratories with microscopes and Erlenmeyer flasks. And these students are warm and friendly just like the rest of us.
Understanding that scientists are people just like everyone else can help us understand each other better.