The Boring Parts of Science
A recent conversation with a friend brought up a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about – science communication using social media. It was sparked by seeing a tweet from a science communicator who asked the question “are science communicators who only discuss science that boring in real life, or is it a choice?”.
140 characters isn’t nearly enough to discuss this topic, but it did make me consider how I feel about this. Bear with my jumbled thoughts as I attempt to sift through them.
First, scientists are real people – this means we have personal lives outside of our work. We have hobbies, interests, pets and families. We frequently write about our gardens, our culinary adventures, our personal trials and our accomplishments. Part of the challenge that comes with making science accessible to the public includes making scientists themselves accessible to the public. Scientists are not alien, unreachable creatures, isolated in the ivory tower, hiding away in a laboratory peering down a microscope. I mean, sure, we do that, but that’s not all we do.
The question of how much of that ‘other stuff’ we choose to share on social media with the public obviously varies on a case by case basis. When I choose to follow someone like Neil Shubin or Carl Zimmer, it’s because I am genuinely interested in reading what they write about their area of expertise – I really don’t care to know what they ate for breakfast that day. I’d much rather learn about a new species of Amazonian catfish than see a hasty photo of their half-eaten breakfast bagel. I am not bored reading about science, assuming of course that the author knows ‘how to write good’ 😛
I understand and agree with the importance of showing the other side to our personalities, as it ‘humanises’ us as scientists. Whether this is a conscious decision or a subconscious side-effect depends on the individual – some people just write whatever because “eh who cares”, while others coldly calculate ‘social media strategy’ because they view it as a job. The problem I see with labelling the ‘science posts only’ approach as boring is the implicit message that science is boring. It’s not! It’s fantastic and exciting and humbling, and there is absolutely no monotony to break up with forced personal oversharing. Worse, it gives the impression that science must be truly boring if even scientists themselves say it’s boring. Again, not true.
I want to finish by sharing this excellent comic by Cyanide & Happiness. Science includes the study of tedious little details, not just the flashy newsworthy bits made of up memes and pretty pictures. Most of the time there is rage and frustration that comes from doing science. I’ve lost track of how many empty gels I’ve seen that had me forlornly asking an empty darkroom in the middle of the night ‘Y U NO AMPLIFY?!’. It’s part of the weird, twisted charm that science has, that makes those rare victories all the more rewarding when they happen. Sharing that with the world is what makes science, and therefore myself as a scientist, accessible.
I know I am biased, but I stand by it; science is not boring and scientists are not boring.