Text of a talk given at the “Open Workshop on Effective Outreach” on 19 September 2018, as part of the INSIGHTS Workshop on Statistics and Machine Learning at CERN, together with the aMVA4NewPhysics Training Network.
I grew up in Southern Utah, the home of red rocks, hot summer nights, and clear skies, and these are perfect conditions for stargazing. I often begin my public talks, my science monologues, these days, with a story about growing up as a curious little kid in Utah, because I have a lot of them.
But I didn’t always do this. A few years ago I was giving a talk about the LHC somewhere in the U.S., and afterward a mass of people rushed the stage to ask follow-up questions, my favorite part of any talk. After about an hour of chatting informally with people about the Higgs and dark matter and quantum black holes, I finally got to this guy and his daughter who had been standing toward the back the whole time. The guy was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and his daughter was maybe about twelve, and the guy says, “Hey man, I just wanted to thank you for that talk. I feel like I almost started to understand physics!” And I said, “Oh, thanks, no, the pleasure was mine, but I don’t like that ‘almost’ because that means I didn’t do my job!”. And he laughed and said, “No, I was always interested in science and stuff but my family didn’t have a lot of money and I had to drop out of high school so I never really learned too much, but I try to watch science documentaries and stuff. And she” — he motioned at his daughter — “is really into it though, and she has a good science teacher”
“Mr. Thompson!” she said.
And the guy continued, “Yeah, and he told us about this lecture, so we came down. And my daughter actually has a question.”
And I’m like, “Ah, great, I love questions!”
And she said, “In your talk, you said that we never feel neutrinos going through our bodies, and also that dark matter is going through out bodies all the time, so I was wondering — can neutrinos be dark matter?”
And my eyes went big and I was like, “Well! That’s a fantastic thought!” and we chatted about it for a while and then eventually the guy was like, “Well, listen, thanks again, this was great, and we hope you guys discover new particles. I never thought I’d get a chance to meet somebody like you.”
And I laughed and said, “Wait, somebody like me?”
And he said, “Yeah, you know, like a big fancy physicist. I’m just a country boy but you’re...”
And I’m like, “Whoa, wait, I’m not some fancy guy. I grew up in rural Utah.”
And he’s like, “Oh, really?”
And I’m like, “Yep. Digging in the dirt, hiking on the rocks, horses and cows and coyotes.”
And he said, “Man! That’s wild! We’re not too different! Then how did you get to work at CERN?”
And I said, “I don’t know. I guess I got lucky and had parents who encouraged me, sort of like you’re doing with your daughter.”
And the daughter smiled and said, “Yeah, I wanna be a scientist!”
And I left that venue very glad that I’d decided to take a break from research to talk to some non-specialists that evening.
So, to first order, I know why I engage with non-specialist about physics: Because I enjoy it. But perhaps the real answer goes deeper than that: Why do we, as scientists, feel compelled to talk about our research with people who are not specialists in our field? Why do we even bother? What’s the point? Why do we do science communication? I can only give you my own, more complex answers to these questions, but my answers are tempered by the fact that I don’t consider myself a science communicator, really. As a full-time researcher, I engage with the public about science sort of as a hobby, as part of the life-of-a-scientist ideal, because I have a overarching view that *science belongs to everyone*. And to be clear, that statement is not an empirically accurate statement about the world, obviously; it’s an aspiration. I *want* science to belong to everyone.
And there’s the key thing: Science as a discipline currently does *not* belong to everyone. But why not? The main reason is structural, because the overwhelming majority of humanity simply doesn’t have the opportunity to pursue science as a discipline. You and I, all of us scientists in this room, are here primarily *not* because we’re super smart or intrinsically better than 99% of humanity, or just objectively harder workers than 99% of humanity — but because of luck. We won the socio-economic lottery to be in the right place at the right time to study particle physics. As a little kid growing up in Utah, in retrospect I can definitely classify myself in ways that we typically associate with standard narratives of people growing up to become scientists. I often describe myself as “a ravenously curious little kid who could never accept ‘That’s just the way it is’ as an answer”, but that’s only half of the story. There’s a hidden dimension here, a hidden structure, too, an addendum to the shorthand description of myself as a particle physicist, which is the following: “ravenously curious little kid who could never accept ‘that’s just the way it is’ as an answer … and somehow found themselves in the right socioeconomic situation to be able to pursue particle physics in a supportive, benevolently challenging environment to complete a PhD and work at the largest and most prominent particle physics laboratory in the world”.
My loves of science, art, literature were nurtured and supported due largely to where I happened to have been born. Other kids weren’t so lucky. So my goal is to always find new ways to not just communicate science or engage with “the public” or “give knowledge to the world” — like a high priest with a monopoly on wisdom — but to construct a world where the line between scientist and non-scientist dissolves because this is the world I want to live in.
And because I trained as a filmmaker before I became a physicist, I’ve experimented with a large number of ways of accomplishing this including music, art, and film…
…in addition more traditional science talks or monologues. Because doing this, dissolving this line, is hard and requires innovation. But to me it’s one of my obsessions, because after this line dissolves, we’ll be in a better place. We’ll be left with a huge, passionate, hyper-inquisitive group of humans, each of which contributes to our ability to explore the world, achieve discoveries, extract new knowledge, and make reliable empirical conclusions about the universe that everyone can appreciate and that everyone is a part of. Because every human, in a real sense, is involved in scientific inquiry.
There’s currently a huge privilege associated to being able to study science at its highest echelons and to be able to call oneself a “scientist”, but the distinction is far sharper in the social mindset than it needs to be, and is likely doing a disservice to the entirety of the scientific pursuit, and acknowledging it is just the first step. And unfortunately few people around the world are lucky enough to be able to respond to “That’s just the way it is” by going to a library or going to college like I could.
And as a result, when I give talks around the world, I frequently have the opportunity to talk to people who don’t really have a good sense of what science does and doesn’t do, what it is and is not, and I talk to a decent number of people who are skeptical of the methods of science, and who view scientists, more or less, as elitist high priests insisting that they have a monopoly on knowledge. And this is one of the key challenges I’ve run into when doing appearances: Not giving facts from on high, but diving into conversation with anyone about any science topic and digging down with them, until we find the place where we connect, where we can both agree that logic and reason have value, and then using this connection, via fits and starts, to build up a chain of reasoning that brings them along with our thought processes as physicists and, with hopefully increasing frequency, compelling them to realize that there’s not that much difference between them and me, and that they are secretly scientists, as well.
And one of the challenges we face as particle physicists in discussing our research is a very practical and visceral one, because the real things we’re studying — these questions being explored at the edge of human knowledge itself — can never be directly experienced by humans, only indirectly.
I remember being a kid who was skeptical about the indirect nature of science and discovery, of statements being made about things I couldn’t interact with directly with my five senses. And I remember the series of lightbulb moments, also as a kid, of reading the descriptions of experiments, of the methods used to come to conclusions about the world, the very controlled ways in which the literally unseeable-by-humans realms of the universe could be explored. And I very much remember the extreme pleasure of going to libraries and science museums and learning centers, to interact with the thoughtful and carefully curated book lists and exquisitely prepared exhibits. It was a sublime pleasure to follow along with the thought processes of scientists, so much so that I became one myself. But what about those people who don’t have a chance to follow along in such a way? Could this be a part of why we find ourselves in a contemporary political moment when irrational science skepticism is rampant?
Could this disconnect in the logical chain of empiricism, exacerbated by powerful people who know exactly what they’re doing and who are exploiting this irrationality for political and monetary gain, help explain why France, despite an overall high level of education, is the country with the highest percentage of citizens who express skepticism over vaccine safety? Why is the concept of reliable evidence being so aggressively undermined by some authorities right now?
I don’t have a magic answer to these questions, but one way I address it in my hobby as a science-talking-guy is to not just provide non-physicists with facts and numbers about particle physics but to bring them along with our thought processes as physicists — our passion, enthusiasm, and directed curiosity — and to remind them that the logic they use in different ways all day long is the same kind we use to come to meaningful and robust conclusions about the world and that they don’t need to accept “that’s just the way it is” as an answer, either.
If someone comes away from one of my talks and the only thing they remember is the numerical median value of the measured Higgs boson mass in GeV, then I’ve failed. But if they come up to me afterward and say, “Hey, I’m not a scientist, but, you mentioned something about neutrinos and you mentioned something about dark matter so I was thinking ... could neutrinos be dark matter?” Then — THEN — then I know that seed of curiosity and inquisitiveness is still alive and worth nurturing.
So these are some of the reasons I engage with the public. But again, I do this as a hobby. I do it because it’s important to me and because I’m not satisfied with simply complaining about structural inequities in society. I engage with non-specialists about science because I want to construct the kind of world I want to exist *and* because I think it makes me a better scientist.
So, back to my title: Why, then, do I want to abolish all of this? I don’t. I don’t want to abolish science as a public good and scientists interacting with non-specialists. I want to abolish outreach, because language matters.
I sometimes use the language of outreach, as well, but such language ends up reinforcing an artificial barrier based upon the prestige and status of Big Science™, and “outreach” for me constructs an us vs. them othering rather than a continuum of curiosity.
So why do we do outreach? Perhaps we do it because it’s a stated priority of the field.
Why do we prioritize it? Perhaps we prioritize it because some funding bodies mandate it.
Why do some funding bodies mandate “outreach” and others do not? Perhaps because some are more focused on what will be gained by outreach programs than others.
But what will be gained? What do we gain by doing “outreach”, as physicists? Perhaps we gain a reminder that our research is supported by public funds and thus that we have an obligation to share the outcomes of our research with non-specialists. In this sense “outreach” is often either seen as a chore or a rare treat, depending upon your attitude, but it’s still framed in terms of being separate and distinct from doing research itself.
What do we gain by treating it as this thing — either a chore or a rare treat — that is distinct and separate from our research?
Why is it separated? By categorizing it as this thing, “outreach”, the implication is that when you are doing it, you are not doing research, and vice versa. And if you disagree with that, then why do such pursuits — research and outreach — have separate budgets and line-items on grant proposals? The implication seems to be that we used a lot of public funds to both get to where we are right now, this far into our careers — and we continue to use public funds for operations and maintenance — that it’s our obligation to “reach out” to taxpayers, to bestow this knowledge on them in some way, to distill the complexities of particle physics into less complex language and concepts. And that, on the face of it, is indeed an excellent challenge, and seemingly very noble! It also runs the risk of being a bit arrogant, because it’s far too easy to allow it to reinforce, rather than break down, the distinction between scientist and non-scientist, between elite knowledge-haver and supplicant, and it does so in such a subtle way, so effectively, that it may end up revealing our unconscious desire to keep it that way, to retain our privilege.
So a few questions to us all:
So what counts as outreach? And what does not?
What is your goal when you “do outreach”? Is it to give knowledge to the uninformed, to make yourself feel good about your privilege? Or is it to engage with other curious humans who use logic and reason just like we do but perhaps haven’t had the chance to do it in a controlled way like we have? Are you paternalistic and hierarchical when you should be collegial and horizontal?
When you are *reaching out*, what are you *in*? Is it a real place or is it an acculturated attitude or perspective on science and learning that unconsciously shapes the way you view and execute both your research and your engagements with the public? Should you even be *in* there?
I advocate that you should not. I encourage all of us to deconstruct this attitude in our brains, this unconscious self-regard, this addiction to status, and pivot toward one that results in all of us being better public scientists in our communities.
And I’m really only picking on science because we’re here at CERN, but this unconscious — and sometimes explicit — addiction to status is everywhere in society. A Vacheron Constantin watch costing thirty thousand francs does not report time in any objective way more accurately that humans can use day-to-day than a five dollar Sears watch.
A multimillion dollar metal sculpture that resembles a gigantic balloon dog is in no objective sense making an artistic or cultural statement that is many, many orders of magnitude more profound than your daughter’s clay pots from middle school art class. And there is literally no such thing as a self-made billionaire.
Hierarchies beget inequality, and inequality, non-equitable access to resources — money, food, shelter, knowledge, science — and the prevalent attitude toward scientific research vs. interacting with non-specialists, even though we like to think that it is not, is still quite hierarchical.
And in the context of science, the concept of “outreach” runs the too-high risk of reinforcing an othering, an us vs. them attitude, that is antithetical to the overarching view — my overarching view — that “science belongs to everyone”.
You’re not really “a researcher” when you’re down in one of the LHC experimental caverns servicing some electronics or spending ten hours trying to fix a bug in someone else’s code — you’re just a scientist, thinking critically about the world around you and applying the tenets of science to solve a problem. And you’re not really “an outreach person” when you’re talking to high school kids about the LHC at a science fair. You are, again, a scientist, having conversations with people who don’t know exactly what you do, so you have to try one method of explanation, and if that doesn’t work try another, etc., until you arrive at a good method of communication that’s right for this person. Engaging this way is a form of science, too. My favorite parts of my own talks and appearances are not so much the talk part but the Q&A afterward, or the mass of people who rush the stage with follow-up ideas, forcing the venue to stay open later and eventually kick us out onto the street to continue talking until the wee hours. I adore that part, the Q&A or Ask Me Anything part because that, to me, is where one of the most crucial parts of the scientific endeavor takes place — that’s where a bunch of inquisitive humans think about things together.
But what about the obvious objection to this characterization? “This is great, James, and very idealistic, but the reality of the situation is that research *is* dependent upon public money and career advancement *is* more dependent upon doing research — designing detectors, publishing papers, coding for ten hours — than it is talking to supermarket shoppers about black holes. Those who can *really* ‘do outreach’ effectively are rare, and are those who have the time to develop and hone really good ways of communication and reaching non-specialists — those people who, really, have the luxury of doing science communication full time.”
This seems to be the attitude of celebrity scientists, people who don’t do research anymore. It is indeed a lucky thing to be able to construct an existence that allows one to spend all one’s time ostensibly interacting with the public — that is, doing outreach or science communication — but this is a *terrible* way to arrange a society and a global scientific endeavor, because it tricks us into maintaining the status quo, which is broken. It tricks us into thinking that, since someone or a few people are doing this full time, then I, as a working researcher — a real thinker solving problems all day long — don’t need to engage in innovative ways, and I don’t need to connect as much with my community. Why should I break my neck setting up a series of conversations about dark matter at the retirement community down the block from me when I can just assume they’ll watch a TV show with Bill Nye in it? This is bad. This is lazy. And this does a disservice to scientists, too, because the corollary to this — that those who do outreach full time have a better connection to the regular public, non-specialists, because they interact with them all day long — is totally wrong! Celebrity scientists who spend all day making smug pronouncements on Twitter and shooting high-budget historical re-creations of great moments in science with famous actors can in no way say that they’re better connected to humanity.
And this bleeding over of celebrity worship culture into science communication has even worse consequences. If we’re really, truly interested in increasing the representation in science of marginalized or socially and economically disadvantaged communities around the world, we’d be *much* more concerned about why, for example, a celebrity like Neil deGrasse Tyson is a member of something called the Defense Innovation Board of the U.S. military, an organization whose actions routinely terrorize and decimate disadvantaged communities around the world, and we’d be much more concerned about why, for example, a celebrity like Bill Nye is partnering with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, a climate change skeptic who, while already being a part of the racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, homophobic, ableist, authoritarian and proto-fascist Trump administration, has worked toward these same anti-civil-rights and anti-science ends himself, including calling for the dissolution of the U.S. Department of Education.
The organization 500 Women Scientists explicitly opposes this setup. So why aren’t we demanding someone like Nye dissolve this partnership and actively call for Bridenstine’s removal? Do we just assume that someone else will do it? Do we convince ourselves we don’t have time? And is this the same urge that prevents us from starting that series of dark matter conversations at the retirement community down the block, because, “That’s just outreach”? And maybe — maybe this is because we unconsciously hope that the status quo maintains, either because we constantly benefit from it ourselves — and as a straight, white male, I benefit from it all the time — or because we don’t feel the urgency and threat of such a setup because we don’t happen to be a member of a targeted community right now. This is not what I want science to be, a tool of the wealthy, powerful, and privileged to maintain their status, to facilitate sociopathic demagogues to dream of building a military force in space or for billionaires to send fellow billionaires on a tourist trip around the moon. I want science to change. I want science to belong to everyone.
So my main point is this: Your attitude toward talking about science with those who are not already experts in your field, and the language you use to describe this act, reveals an unconscious attitude toward science itself, what perhaps your cultural context has convinced your brain of what you want science to be. Maybe that’s not your stated attitude or desire. But learned biases lodge themselves in deep and are very difficult to examine and extract. But we’re scientists; we should be able to examine and experiment on ourselves, as well as on 13 TeV proton-proton collisions.
You work at CERN, and you’re in rarefied company. And I’m sure each person’s experience is different, but often when you show up here you feel like you get your badge of honor and then you walk around the world with this badge of honor attached to your shirt. It seems very cool, and you get to tell your friends and loved ones around the world where you work, and they get to brag about it to their friends, too — and since these people are likely of the same social and economic privilege as you, it ends up echoing around and not so much spreading the joy of science around the world as compelling privileged people to feel good about their privilege. It’s a privileged place to be — and as much as we would like to think, however consciously or unconsciously, that we’re here because we’re smarter or worked harder than somebody who is not here, the fact that you are here is overwhelmingly the result of really good luck. And now that you’re here, you’re still not safe! There are huge challenges on the horizon, because most of us won’t be able to remain in the field; there are simply too few permanent positions, and a surplus of equally competent physicists that pass the minimum bar to hold those positions. And those who do remain have the most profound challenge, that of constantly fighting and beating down the urge to consider yourself intrinsically better, smarter, or more deserving of being able to study such wonderful things full time instead of remembering that you’re here because of luck and privilege — and because privilege is an addictive hallucinogen.
Now that seems extremely dour and rude, I know, but it’s only supposed to be a sober analysis of the situation: You are indeed awesome! You get to be here and study particle physics for however long you can! That’s fantastic! That’s a great privilege! And while you’re here, for as long as you end up doing particle physics at the highest energies ever, at the very edge of human knowledge, never ever forget that you are here as a representative of basic, curious, inquisitive humanity — and never allow yourself to become separated away from the rest of us in some kind of privileged, hierarchical haze to the point that you unconsciously forget that you’re a connected member of humanity.
If we’re calling it outreach, we’ve already failed at science communication, because you, as a working scientist, shouldn’t consider yourself inside or outside of anything. You are the unfathomably lucky member of our collective humanity who was in the right place at the right time to be able to pursue science for the sake of curiosity — and it’s not your chore to “do outreach” and it’s not your obligation to “talk to the public”, but it’s your duty maintain your ability to ask and answer questions in a scientific way — to make mistakes, to admit ignorance, to try things in a controlled way — to do science — *along with* the rest of humanity, including those who don’t have the privilege to do particle physics as an occupation.
And that means being embedded in humanity, always.
So I’m not simply proposing the abolition of the concept of “outreach”, because my objection is not to interacting with non-specialists about physics, obviously, but with the current social and economic structures that make it necessary to even do outreach as an endeavor. I don’t want to only abolish outreach. I want to abolish the Nobel Prize and all antiquated vestiges of the cult of personality in science; demolish funding structures for basic science research that depend, weakly or strongly, upon the whims of politicians; and get rid of the PhD as a credential, so that the sources of all unconscious pressures that lead all of us toward a Scientist vs. Non-Scientist divide will be removed. I don’t simply want to abolish outreach. I want to construct a world where outreach is no longer necessary, because there will be no in and no out, and there will be no need to reach anyone, because there will be no separation to begin with.
One of the longest-standing challenges for outreach programs — and with the physical sciences in general — is to increase engagement with people from marginalized and underrepresented groups. A lot of time and effort is put into innovating new ways to “reach” these communities, which can lead to the continual reinforcing of this separation — now with racist and imperialist overtones — between elitists with a monopoly on knowledge and everyone else. But such measures wouldn’t even be necessary if our field contained working scientists from these communities already. We are all humans, and everyone in humanity loses out — socially, scientifically — when we exclude certain voices from our conversations.
And speaking of which, right here, right now, is another object lesson in how privilege blinds us and limits us and how we all have work to do. By my count, ten out of the eleven speakers at today’s event are men, which is a definitive opportunity for improvement in the future, because these percentages not only don’t help us with our stated objective of increasing the visibility of underrepresented groups in science, they also don’t represent the current percentage of male vs. female scientists I know who have the most experience, have thought most critically about effective science communication, and with the most vital nuance, most of whom are women! And I just found out a few hours ago that a large number of them hadn’t even heard about this event until I tweeted about it late last night. And that’s not only a critique of the organization, it’s a self-critique. I didn’t notice, I didn’t think about it, and I didn’t say anything — this is privilege at work, and it’s a necessary opportunity for change.
You are a human with the tools of science, and the tools of science belong to everyone. You’re not a priest making unprovable, contentless, ontological, existential, and moral decrees from a pulpit or walled temple. You’re a curious human, and you’re one of the lucky humans who gets to explore the mysteries of the universe full time, and your amazing luck in being here to do so demands that you remain a human embedded in humanity — fallible, curious, driven, subject to frustrations and triumphs — and demands that you simply stay connected to the rest of us, so we get to share in the wonder of scientific discovery — and demands that you use language that maintains that inextricable sense of collective humanity, not language that reinforces destructive barriers between the most curious, inquisitive, scientific people in the world — and those lucky few of us who are fortunate enough to do it full time.