pet peeves? or barriers to scientific literacy?

On Tuesday, I attended a Smithsonian Associates lecture on “The Biological Mind.” I had bought my ticket over a month ago, and I was so excited to hear MIT neuroscientist Alan Jasanoff speak. I expected him to delve into the nitty gritty of the brain and the body; I thought I would spend the evening lapping up each word, voraciously scribbling notes. I was wrong.

As the auditorium lights dimmed: me gripping my pencil, gazing eagerly at the stage, leaping to join the applause as Jasanoff walks onstage. Five minutes later: chin in palm, elbow on armrest, eyes glazed. The MIT neuroscientist endangered my support when he compared glia to “glue.” He lost it when he compared action potentials to something equally elementary. I realize that Jasanoff was merely attempting to render concepts accessible to his laymen listeners. But I can’t stand when people oversimplify science in order to appeal to a mainstream audience. Implicit in their oversimplification is the belief that the average person would be unable to comprehend without it, which is offensive and untrue. I studied glia and action potentials as a freshman in high school. I have little doubt that my fellow audience members, primarily adults in their fifties and sixties, would be able to understand without the analogies that I use to teach middle schoolers.

Alan Jasanoff sinned again when he characterized his views as sensational— as if his was an unprecedented perspective. I do not doubt that Jasanoff is brilliant, but I could never condone the sensationalization of science. It’s a strategy often used by the media to appeal to their mainstream audience, and it is usually accompanied by oversimplification. The two go hand in hand, like jam and butter— and they drive me crazy.

Scientific findings are ipso facto sensational. They do not need glitter or gift wrap; shiny packaging often detracts from the content. I’ve seen science oversimplified to the point where it is near inaccurate. For example, Nessa Carey’s laud of Lamarckian genetics in The Epigenetics Revolution. Lamarck’s theory of use and disuse was not “ahead of his time”; it was blatantly wrong and possessed no evidential basis. It is unfortunate that even scientists find it necessary to adulterate their research in order to publish. Science is exciting in black and white, sans exclamation points, and we ought to treat it as such.

I would like to caveat that my criticisms are not of the presenter. Like I said, I do not doubt that Alan Jasanoff is brilliant. I admire him. He’s one of the most eloquent neuroscientists I’ve ever met. (And I’ve met quite a few; I spent two years working at a neuroinformatics lab.) What I am criticizing are the widespread practices of oversimplification and sensationalization of science. If we are ever to achieve universal scientific literacy, we must abandon these and regard laymen as equals. Only when scientists treat everyone as capable of understanding will people actually strive to do so.