The Danger of Dumbing Down Science

'Dumbing down' is a very different kind of threat to scientific sensibility. The 'Public Understanding of Science' movement, provoked in America by the Soviet Union's triumphant entry into the space race and driven today, at least in Britain, by public alarm over a decline in applications for science places at universities, is going demotic. 'Science Weeks' and 'Science Fortnights' betray an anxiety among scientists to be loved. Funny hats and larky voices proclaim that science is fun, fun, fun. Whacky 'personalities' perform explosions and funky tricks. I recently attended a briefing session where scientists were urged to put on events in shopping malls designed to lure people into the joys of science. The speedier advised us to do nothing that might conceivably be seen as a turn-off. Always make your science 'relevant' to ordinary people's lives, to what goes on in their own kitchen or bathroom. Where possible, choose experimental materials that your audience can eat at the end. At the last event organized by the speaker himself, the scientific phenomenon that really grabbed attention was the urinal that automatically flushed as you stepped away. The very word science is best avoided, we were told, because 'ordinary people' see it as threatening.

I have little doubt that such dumbing down will be successful if our aim is to maximize the total population count at our 'event'. But when I protest that what is being marketed here is not real science, I am rebuked for my 'elitism' and told that luring people in, by any means, is a necessary first step. Well, if we must use the word (I wouldn't), maybe elitism is not such a terrible thing. And there is a great difference between an exclusive snobbery and an embracing, flattering elitism that strives to help people to raise their game and join the elite. A calculated dumbing down is the worst: condescending and patronizing. When I gave these views in a recent lecture in America, a questioner at the end, no doubt with a glow of political self-congratulation in his white male heart, had the insulting impertinence to suggest that dumbing down might be necessary to bring 'minorities and women' to science.

I worry that to promote science as all fun and larky and easy is to store up trouble for the future. Real science can be hard (well, challenging, to give it a more positive spin) but, like classical literature or playing the violin, worth the struggle. If children are lured into science, or any other worthwhile occupation, by the promise of easy fun, what are they going to do when they finally have to confront the reality? Recruiting advertisements for the army rightly don't promise a picnic: they seek young people dedicated enough to stand the pace. 'Fun' sends the wrong signals and might attract people to science for the wrong reasons. Literary scholarship is in danger of becoming similarly undermined. Idle students are seduced into a debased 'Cultural Studies', on the promise that they will spend their time deconstructing soap operas, tabloid princesses and Tellytubbies. Science, like proper literary studies, can be hard and challenging but science is - also like proper literary studies - wonderful. Science can pay its way but, like great art, it shouldn't have to. And we shouldn't need whacky personalities and fun explosions to persuade us of the value of a life spent finding out why we have life in the first place.


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 Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Dawkins, Richard (2000-04-05), Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder, Mariner Books, Retrieved on 2011-09-21
Folksonomies: evolution science