Science: it’s not a PR thing – by Elmar Veerman

The EC has just launched a new campaign to get more girls into science. ‘Science: it’s a girl thing’.

Perhaps you have already seen the official teaser. If not, here you are:

Note: apparently the EC has made the video unavailable to the public, but you can still view it here.

Let me quote a vivid description of the video by Martha Gill, New Statesman:

‘Three women march towards the camera, immaculate in high heels and mini dresses. They pause to smoulder in an end-of-the-catwalk way at a man in a lab coat, who looks up from his microscope (startled? In awe?) at these confident young minxes. The camera focuses in on one of their shoes. The video continues, cutting between a fashion shoot and “science things” (which include a big letter H with the word ‘hydrogen’ next to it) really really fast. Look girls, they’re basically the same thing!’ (Read the rest of her story here).

Why do so many people (check the twitterstream with the hashtag #sciencegirlthing), me included, hate this video so much? Because it’s sexist? Because of the suggestion that you can wear open-toed shoes in a lab? Perhaps, but I think it’s more basic: science is about finding the truth, while PR-stuff like this is about creating a positive image, with little regard for the truth. And boy, (or girl) has this video little to do with reality!
It’s not just this one video that has a problematic relationship with the truth. There is a multi-million euro industry growing around this sort of – how can I say this in a polite way – this sort of nonsense.
Science has a popularity problem, and the reaction of policymakers is: let’s spend more money on efforts to build a positive image of it. Show people how important science is to their lives, how scientists can solve our problems, how satisfying it can be to be part of that great effort.
All true statements. But if this was science, this approach would be called ‘cherry-picking’. You highlight the evidence you like and ignore the rest. To scientists, that’s just wrong. Not allowed. Don’t do it or lose the respect of the scientific community.
My point is: if you look at the core values, the PR approach doesn’t fit science. Science is based on openness and honesty and telling the truth, whether you think your audience will like it or not. Lies are not allowed, not even small ones. So real scientists, and smart young people that may become scientists, will probably not appreciate it if they are being told half-truths and outright lies. (And indeed, look at this)
So what CAN be done to make science more popular? Well, it is actually quite obvious. Pay people to communicate about science, under two conditions: it must be true, and it must be relevant to the audience. Should they be positive about science? Not necessarily, just when the facts give them reason to be. Should they show that science is fun? Sometimes, but they shouldn’t avoid telling that it can also be boring or frustrating. Show the great promises of science? Yes, but also the dangers, and the trouble scientific discoveries have caused.
What would that look like? Perhaps you guessed it: that is a description of science journalism. So dear EC, please find a way to fund science journalism instead of propaganda that gives people a false image of science. If you want to catch more scientists, the truth is your best bait.

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