Should it be "embarrassing" for scientists to do public engagement?

In a recent thread there was extensive (though repetitive) exchanges about the fact that @evograd’s blog is anonymous. A comment by @Herman_Mays caught my eye:

My question is on the culture of science, not on speculating why @evograd specifically decided to keep his online presence anonymous.

I agree that there is definitely some level of unstated cultural assumption in science that doing anything else with your time other than thinking, writing, and researching about the latest, cutting edge science is not the best use of a scientist’s time. If we do it at all, it must be done because of obligation, or in hopes of supporting one’s research efforts. This applies not only to blogging against creationists or other skeptics, but also any sort of non-research activity, such as teaching, public outreach, advocacy for graduate students or underrepresented minorities in science, etc.

This culture is even felt at the graduate level. I feel that there’s an unspoken assumption - try to avoid teaching assistantships if you can in favor of research assistantships. If you really want to do TAs, that must be for utilitarian reasons, such as to increase your chances of getting hired in the future with your teaching skills (and thus being able to keep doing research in academia). Similarly, you can sometimes do public outreach, not primarily because it’s an important thing to do in itself, but because it might help with your visibility, getting funding and fellowships, and padding your CV, again in the hopes of getting that coveted tenure-track job at an R1 university, which is the supreme level of success for a PhD student.

I personally feel this unstated assumption (that research is supreme) extends in even more insidious ways, including in one’s personal life, namely the unstated assumption that ideally, one should be thinking and reading mostly about one’s specialized field of science even during free time. I often feel embarrassed to admit that I have other intellectual and personal interests, too. (Which shouldn’t be that surprising, seeing that I got educated at a liberal arts college.)

With all this in mind, I’m not surprised at all that even though something like what @evograd is doing is a public service (and one that demonstrates his competence as a scientist and teacher by being able to effectively refute mistaken views), it can still be viewed as embarrassing by fellow scientists to spend one’s time doing that, instead of trying to think up the latest cutting edge research ideas in evolutionary biology. Another real-life example is physicist Sean Carroll, who felt that even writing Spacetime and Geometry, a fairly popular, completely rigorous graduate-level textbook on GR negatively impacted his tenure case at University of Chicago.

But my question is: why should it be that way? There’s nothing inherently wrong if a scientist really loves the idea of doing pure research and wants to do nothing else. But that sort of Platonic pursuit of pure science does not apply the same way to everyone. For me, while certainly part of my passion in science is driven by the thrill of the act of research itself (namely, measuring a fundamental quantity of nature at a level of precision no one has ever done before), another motivation that I’ve had for pursuing science is the prospect of getting some training and competence that allows me to talk about science and physics in an informed and semi-authoritative way with everyone, not just fellow scientists, but also laypeople and people from other disciplines.

Why should this be viewed as embarrassing? Why should outreach and advocacy count as nothing, or even a negative, in one’s scientific CV? What I’m saying is that the situation @Herman_Mays identified should not be viewed as a feature of the scientific profession - it should be viewed as a bug.


If you are Sean Carrol or Jerry Coyne or even me (I have tenure) it’s a lot easier to do this sort of stuff than if you are a student just starting your career. I would not advise graduate students to get too caught up in this stuff. It’s better for them at that stage of your career to focus on the research.

Also I would draw a distinction between outreach and education and debunking science denialists like creationists. The two aren’t necessarily the same thing.


What would be the reasons for that advice?

If you want to be a scientist the research is what gets you there not arguing with flat earthers and creationists on the internet

Of course I understand that. My point is to question why there is unstated assumption that if someone is using their free time to educate the public (within reasonable time limits, of course), this means that their “regular” research is going to suffer.

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It depends on what you are calling educating the public. Arguing with science denialists on the Internet is in my opinion a pretty ineffective way to educate the public. I think a lot of people, and I’m guilty of this too, jump into this sort of thing without really knowing anything about how to be an effective educator.

Graduate school requires a lot of focus and I think you have to be judicious in how you allocate your time. For my students I would encourage them to spend more time for themselves and with their families outside of their careers than arguing with people online, which is mostly what this boils down to.

So, if I understand you correctly, you allow the possibility that there are other forms of “public outreach” (other than arguing with science denalists) that can be legitimate for even people who are not senior tenured scientists to engage in? (Again, not saying that research isn’t the most important.)

Furthermore, I can see why extended, repetitive internet arguments with creationists is not a productive use of one’s time (which is why I rarely do it either), but are you also saying that the extended blog posts @evograd made debunking Jeanson aren’t worthy of his time and should never have been written? Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you.

Sure, but some people really like doing this stuff as a hobby which refreshes and energizes them in the same way that say, spending time with one’s family is refreshing and edifying.

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It shouldn’t be that way. In an ideal world, we would be professionally rewarded for competent public engagement, even when it was at a level lower than that of the celebrities.


I’m saying do what you want. If you want to be a science journalist who focuses on public outreach through popular articles, books and blogs then do it. I think that’s great. But a research PhD is maybe not the best track to get to that place.

Part of the responsibility of a scientist is education and we all should be committed to that but your time is likely better spent making a really good course, maybe a non-majors course even, and not writing a blog.

@evograd did an amazing job on his debunking of Jeanson’s book and he should be congratulated for it but I get why he doesn’t necessarily want to put his name to it and understand why there are probably limits as to how much time and patience he may have for that sort of stuff.

Science outreach and education is great but I think we may want to think about how much oxygen we are giving science denialists by giving them the appearance of taking them seriously.


I think on average this is definitely true. That said, as a college drop-out with no science background whatsoever, I got interested in science from reading arguments with creationists on (now defunct) message boards, and it completely changed my life. I will hopefully finish my PhD next year.


I’ve been doing this for a very long time and frankly it’s not very refreshing. It’s damn frustrating and something I would be thrilled not to feel the need to do. I would say, for me at least, there’s way better hobbies than this.


I would say dealing with people who think the science should agree with them that the earth is 6,000 years old because they think it says so in the Bible is about on par with dealing with people who think NASA faked the moon landing. I find neither refreshing or energizing at all but draining and demoralizing. The fact anyone has to have these sorts of conversations over and over again in the 21st century is maddening.


Why do you engage @Herman_Mays? If it is maddening, why not just walk away?

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I think that’s absolutely fantastic. I really do. For me however I formed these interests long before the internet so it was books. I often think how much printed text from actual books I could’ve read at the expense of all those creationist posts on Facebook and chat rooms.


There is certainly a place and function for science journalists, but I’d say the function of a public-engaging scientist is different. Most science journalists are only in a position to report what professional scientists say to them. They are still an outsider to scientific culture, and don’t have the intellectual authority to evaluate and answer specific concerns about the science that the public might have. (Unsurprisingly, they are often also criticized mercilessly by scientists who feel they get things wrong.)

It seems to me that’s why people are more excited to read popular books by actual scientists rather than science journalists. Certainly when I grew up the popular science authors I read which ultimately got me on the path of in pursuing science were professional scientists in some capacity - Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene, Francis Collins, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, etc.

I understand that extended debates with stubborn people are not refreshing and are often frustrating. But there are some other things we do on this forum which is very interesting to me - Joshua’s GAE theory, for example, seemed quite novel to me and thus interesting to explore, which is how I got onto this forum in the first place. In general reading stuff exploring the intersection science and theology fascinates me, because it was a huge part of what got me into science in the first place, similar to @davecarlson. (Although in my case, it’s less about debating creationism and more about finding creative ways to fit science and theology together.)

I can’t speak for anyone else but I spend the time and energy fighting against the anti-science charlatans because I love my country and understand a scientifically literate electorate is critical for the U.S. to compete effectively in the 21st century world marketplace. Someone has to fight against the willful ignorance and stupidity being pushed by the religious Fundamentalist RW.


I often do walk away. I recently left every creationist Facebook group I was in and only got sucked into this group the past couple weeks because of being made aware of Jeanson’s ridiculous attack on MacMillan and Duff. It’s not healthy to keep this stuff up constantly.

I’ve also turned down a couple of requests for YouTube debates. Once you’ve talked to Kent Hovind once there’s no point in doing it again.


Well, we are glad you are here. Much of our time, we spend discussing interesting scientific findings. So stick around for the fun part too.

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For that matter, I’m glad @BenKissling is back too. I hope there are going to be some ways to connect around areas of common ground, not just going back and forth over our disagreements.