It turned out that Matt and I had quite similar thoughts on the purpose of public outreach. I started with pointing out we most often have two different aims, inspiration and education, that sometimes conflict with each other. To this Matt added a third aim, “activation,” by which he meant that we sometimes want people to react to our outreach message, such as maybe signing up for a newsletter, attending a lecture, or donating to a specific cause. Dagomir explained that making movies with sexy women is the way to better communicate physics.As I laid out in an earlier blogpost, the dual goals of inspiration and education create a tension that seems inevitable. The presently most common way to inspire the masses is to entirely avoid technical terms and cut back on accuracy for the sake of catchy messages – and heaven forbid showing equations. Since the readers are never exposed to any technical terms or equations, they are doomed to forever remain in the shallow waters. This leads to an unfortunate gap in the available outreach literature, where on the one hand we have the seashore with big headlines and very little detail, and in the far distance we have the island of education with what are basically summaries of the technical literature and already well above most people’s head. There isn’t much in the middle, and most readers never learn to swim.
This inspiration-education-gap is sometimes so large that it creates an illusion of knowledge among those only reading the inspirational literature. Add to this that many physicists who engage in outreach go to great lengths trying to convince the audience that it’s all really not so difficult, and you create a pool of people who are now terribly inspired to do research without having the necessary education. Many of them will just end up being frustrated with the popular science literature that doesn’t help them to gain any deeper knowledge. A small fraction of these become convinced that all the years it takes to get a PhD are really unnecessary and that reading popular science summaries prepares them well for doing research on their own. These are the people who then go on to send me their new theory of quantum mechanics that solves the black hole paradox or something like that.
The tension leading to this gap is one we have inherited from print media which only allows a fixed level of technical detail, then often chosen to be a low level as to maximize the possible audience. But now that personalization and customization is all en vogue it would be possible to bridge this gap online. It would take effort, of course, but I think it would be worth it. To me bridging this gap between inspiration and education is clearly one of the goals we should be working towards, to help people who are interested to learn more gradually and build their knowledge. Right now some bloggers are trying to fill the gap, but the filling is spotty and not coordinated. We could do much better than that.
The other question that came up repeatedly during the panel discussion was whether we really need more inspiration. Several people, including Matt Leifer and Alexei Grinbaum, thought that physics has been very successful recently to reach the masses, and yes, the Brian Cox effect and the Big Bang Theory were named in this context. I think they are right to some extent – a lot has changed in the last decades. Though we could always do better of course. Alexei said that we should try to make the term “entanglement” as commonly used as relativity. Is that a goal we should strive for?
When it comes to inspiration, I am not sure at all that it is achievable or even particularly useful that everybody should know what a bipartite state is or what exactly is the problem with renormalizing quantum gravity. As I also said in the panel discussion, we are all in the first line interested in what benefits us personally. One can’t eat quantum gravity and it doesn’t cure cancer and that’s where most people’s interest ends. I don’t blame them. While I think that everybody needs a solid basic education in math and physics, and the present education leaves me wanting, I don’t think everybody needs to know what is going on at the research frontier in any detail.
What I really want most people to know about the foundations of physics is not so much exactly what research is being conducted, but what are the foundational questions to begin with and why is this research relevant at all. I have the impression that much of the presently existing outreach effort doesn’t do this. Instead of giving people the big picture and the vision – and then a hand if they want to know more – public outreach is often focused on promoting very specific research agendas. The reason for this is mostly structural, because much of public outreach is driven by institutes or individuals who are of course pushing their own research. Very little public outreach is actually done for the purpose of primarily benefitting the public. Instead, it is typically done to increase visibility or to please a sponsor.
The other reason though is that many scientists don’t speak about their vision, or maybe don’t think about the big picture themselves all that much. Even I honestly don’t understand the point of much of the research in quantum foundations, so if you needed any indication that public outreach in quantum foundations isn’t working all that well, please take me as a case study. For all I can tell there seem to be a lot of people in this field who spend time reformulating a theory that works perfectly fine, and then make really sure to convince everybody their reformulation does exactly the same as quantum mechanics has always done.
Why, oh why, are they so insistent on finding a theory that is both realist and local, when it would be so dramatically more interesting to find a theory that allows for non-local information transfer and still be compatible with all data we have so far. But maybe that’s just me. In any case, I wish that more people had the courage to share their speculation what this research might lead to, in a hundred or a thousand years. Will we have come to understand that non-locality is real and in possible to exploit for communication? Will we be able to create custom-designed atomic nuclei?
As was pointed out by Matt and Brendan several times, it is unfortunate that there aren’t many scientific studies dedicated to finding out what public outreach practices are actually efficient, and efficient for what. Do the movies with sexy women actually get across any information? Does the inspiration they provide actually prompt people to change their attitude towards science? Do we succeed at all in raising awareness that research on the foundations of physics is necessary for sustainable progress? Or do we, despite our best intensions, just drive people into the arms of quantum quacks because we hand them empty words but not enough detail to tell the science from the pseudoscience?
I enjoyed this panel discussion because most often the exchange about public outreach that I have with my colleagues comes down to them declaring that public outreach just takes time and money away from research. In the end of course these basic questions remain: Who does it, and who pays for it?
In summary, I think what we need is more effort to bridge the gap between inspiration and education, and I want to see more vision and less promotion in public outreach.