The Fallout From SciComm’s Very Own Bigotgate
A recent incident (previously blogged about but removed after I was told it was adding to an already distressing situation) caused me to reflect on prejudice and its role in effective (science) communication.
In short, a rather vile woman complained, publicly and semi-publicly, about the personal characteristics of staff employed in one of Britain’s Science Centres. She complained about aspects of appearance which it would simply never occur to me to even notice, let alone comment upon. After my initial post, other staff working in similar venues told me of other abuses of feedback, including one centre whose staff were described as gay because they wore pink shirts.
Now, there has been a lot of talk about how homogeneous demographics can impact the publics’ perceptions of science and scientists. If middle-aged white men are the only representation of science to the public, people who do not conform to that stereotype are unlikely to identify with scientists and are less likely to engage with science, whether formally (through education and research) or informally (through public debate and citizenship). In short they feel excluded, and this ultimately is a loss to science.
It’s a loss to science because different perspectives bring new opportunities. The perspectives of people who think differently and have diverse cultural assumptions are going to be richer and more productive than if everyone has come through the same institutional process. In addition, mixing up the stakeholders (for this is what occurs, although I hate that word, sounds like Buffy’s chums) means that the range of problems being address changes: the problems of white, middle-class, heterosexual, non-disabled, conforming to the body-shape stereotype men will not be the same as those of non-white, non-middle-class, non-heterosexual, body-shape diverse people with disabilities.
Not only do such representation mean that science loses out on valuable opportunities, but that people also miss out on valuable opportunity to contribute to science. Speaking as a gay man, I can’t think of a scientist in the public eye who is a fellow man-hugger; this hasn’t stopped me (not least because I only did a first degree and I’m not in the public eye), but can a young gay person (male or female) see themselves as a scientist if there are no role models? Or larger people? Or black people? Or Hindus? Or people in wheel-chairs? Or people who have just moved to the country? There will always be the odd ones who break through, but these will be the exceptions too the rule.
And it’s true that the appearance of the communicator contributes to or detracts from the effectiveness of communication. As does the situation in which communication takes place, the medium used to communicate, the language used, the enthusiasm of the presenter and a whole range of other factors, including the reaction of adults to the communication. Children and young people are very good at picking up on non-verbal cues from adults – particularly parents – and using this to modify their social behaviour. For example, this is how children generally learn that eating out of a dustbin is socially frowned-upon.
If a communicator is malodorous, poorly dressed or heavily tattooed, this itself sends messages – which can be constructive or destructive. After all, someone who it’s talking about the science of sewerage may well use smells as a key communication skill; talking about living in poverty whilst poorly dressed may give a sense of authenticity to the message whilst body art can show how intellect isn’t defined by fashion-choice.
However, if If a parent is sending a signal based on irrational prejudice which inhibits the reception of the messages by the child, the problem is with the parent, not with the communicator.
And this is why the response of the science communication community to the original incident was, for me, so heartening. They condemned the bigoted message being sent by the original incident, and spoke in glowing terms about the importance of diversity to the nature of the role, not only in the different ways science is presented, but in attracting different demographics to careers in the science industries.
I want a science (and a society for that matter) where the opinions and perspectives of everyone are valued. I welcome that Science Centres employ a diverse range of people, and are focussing on their knowledge and communications skills rather than skin tone, ethnic origins, height, sensory abilities or sexual predilections. I welcome it because young people who see that all these people who have something to say about science will see that they too can make a contribution, and the breadth and depth of science will benefit immensely.
After, science, if it’s ‘for’ anything, is for the whole of society, not just the few who meet a set of stereotyped criteria.