Here’s a shocking statement:
"the words 'science' and 'scientists' are now actively avoided at the Discovery Channel because 'they are perceived as elitist.'"
Discovery Channel will have taken on that attitude after focus-grouping their viewers. And if the viewers of the science-friendly Discovery Channel think science is elitist, something has gone badly wrong.
The above quote comes from a fascinating discussion that’s ongoing at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. If you are interested in how people view and interact with science, I recommend you read it.
For my money, a large part of the “elitist” problem comes from scientists focusing on trying to convince the world that they have a better way of gathering useful knowledge than any other. I happen to think they are right, but I also think it’s a message that is difficult to receive gracefully.
Here’s what Royal Society bigwigs were saying to the BBC about science coverage in the post-war period: “Can we sometimes forget war and atomic weapons, industrial advance or productivity ... and say something more of the history and growth of science, of the great solution wrought by the introduction of the experimental method?’ (That's taken from Timothy Boon’s book Films of Fact: A History of Science in Documentary Films and Television, a treasure trove of material on science’s relationship with broadcasters).
Science saw itself as the “great solution”. The Royal Society was able to exert some influence in getting this message across by controlling the supply of scientists for the cameras. During the 50s and 60s, the public image of scientists, on the BBC at least, was of upbeat and optimistic scientists who trumpeted that their work would make the world a better place.
It’s a message that scientists are still trotting out today – Channel 4’s recent series Brave New World with Stephen Hawking had Hawking’s trademark Voice of Wisdom declare “we will show you how science is a force for good” at the beginning of every episode.
Few people doubt science is a force for good. But scientists repeatedly telling us this does smack of elitism. And every time science feels under threat, or undervalued, we hear the refrain again: “we’re making a bigger contribution than anyone else – why does nobody appreciate us?”
Re-imagine it as a husband talking to his wife: “You don’t seem to appreciate how much I contribute to this household.” It sounds awful, doesn’t it? Even if it’s true, there’s little to be gained from saying it out loud.
Scientists and the public are, in many ways, trapped in a bad 1950s, Mad Men-style marriage. This may be one problem that scientists are not qualified to solve. Does anyone have the number of a good marriage guidance counsellor?