April 2010

Engaging the Public

Dear Editor,

Darwin ApeA recent article in the Texas Tribune reported on a survey revealing that 51 percent of Texans don’t believe in evolution, and 30 percent believe that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time. Ignorance of basic scientific principles has been a national problem for generations, and it isn’t getting any better. Willingness to embrace the mystical to explain natural phenomena seems to be on the increase.

I think that we scientists are to blame for much of this lack of scientific understanding. We take the taxpayers’ dollars and have a lot of fun doing great science, but we seldom take the time to tell the taxpayers what we have learned in language that they can understand. Most people do not understand what science is, let alone what it is not, and they do not understand the fundamental difference between scientific and religious thought.

I feel that we should be doing something to engage the public, to let them know about the excitement and fascination of science. If every college and university in the country were to develop a lecture series focused on science for the public, it would advance our cause enormously.

Here, in inland Southern California, where I landed 18 months ago, religious conservatives make up a significant percentage of the population. Shortly after arriving, I challenged our faculty members to develop a five-lecture series on the science of evolution. The faculty members initially were concerned that the public would either torch the campus or just not show up. They wanted to hold the lectures in a small classroom since they were sure that no more than 20 people would attend. I insisted that we use the university theater, which seats about 500. As it turned out, the series was standing-room-only— people literally filled the aisles— at all five lectures. No creationists made grandstand appearances. Our only demonstrators were a group of atheists who showed up expecting a fight (wanting to help us, I suppose).

The series was so popular that it is being replayed this year at our Palm Desert campus. I went to one lecture; once again, the room was completely full of people wanting to learn. It was inspiring. This spring, we are doing a series on global climate change. Again, we will have five lectures on topics ranging from “how we know what we think we know” to “how will agriculture adapt to the changes that we predict.”

The core of these series is the science. No magic, no big words, just simple logic. Intelligent but uninformed people can understand this stuff. We are particularly trying to draw in science teachers from the local school districts, to give them the information they need to make science current and relevant to their students. I believe that it is incumbent upon us to engage the public in this dialogue. In our experience, the faculty members are elated to engage in this sort of outreach, and, in our neck of the world, at least, we are having great success.

Thomas O. Baldwin

Dean, College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences

University of California, Riverside

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