The Virgin Mafia
Regardless, I found myself considering public sociology and it occurs to me that we may be jumping the gun a little bit in terms of our approach to the public. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not retracting my earlier statement of support for public sociology, it's just that I wonder if maybe we have a more fundamental problem to solve first. That problem is this: scientists, and science, aren't really well-liked.
Yeah, yeah, I know what all you Po-Mo folks are going to tell me about how science has all this legitimacy, and it's a hegemonic discourse, and blah, blah, blah. Whoopdee-frickin-doo. Let me say that again: scientists, and science, are not well-liked. It's true! Think about the popular depictions of scientists we see in the movies and on television. There's good ol' Doc Brown from the movie Back to the Future who manages to get himself killed, and nearly causes a pardox that could destroy the spacetime continuum. Ooooh... that's not good. Then of course we have an equally ridiculous film like Revenge of the Nerds that depicts intelligent, technically-minded individuals as socially-inept weirdos with few lovable qualities aside from their innate harmlessness. Indeed, science does seem to be perceived as a sort of shadowy organization that dooms its members to a lifetime of social isolation and unpopularity.
Is such a public perception a serious issue? Well, if we want public sociology to be successful, I'd say yes. Science enjoys a considerable amount of legitimacy, but science is not a field of study that enjoys staggering popularity in the United States. It generally seems to be regarded as dry, difficult, abstract, and irrelevant to "real life." More significantly, scientists are assumed to know a great deal about their particular fields of inquiry, but are also assumed to be losers otherwise, who cannot interact normally with other people. I assume that I need not provide a variety of examples in support of my point.
What makes this so relevant for us is that public sociology is attempting to make scientific claims about social life. Put another way, we're attempting to extend the relevance of scientific findings directly into an arena that has long been considered BEYOND the comprehension of scientists themselves. Given the popular images of scientists as out-of-touch weirdos, can we expect the public to respond gracefully to these overtures? If I had to guess, I'd say no. We're trying to assert authority in an area that has always been denied to us and I rather doubt that we will be successful unless we first combat the stereotypes that scientists are, necessarily, social outcasts.
Of course, this may prove difficult since a number of us were, and are, rather... different socially. There's really no way around that since our experiences and achievements put us in a social milieu that differs dramatically from what most people are accustomed to. Hey, I'm not pointing fingers here, people, I ain't exactly Mister Smooth myself, if you get my drift. Yet, still, most of us are comparatively normal, and all of us are human beings with the normal hopes, dreams, and difficulties.
Examples of this sort of treatment of scientists are also, blessedly, available. One example of how scientists themselves can be depicted comes from the movie Real Genius which manages to depict very intelligent physical-scientists-in-training as somewhat awkward and weird, but also as normal people with problems who want to enjoy life. Certainly many of the characters are, in fact, caricatures, but the movie still somehow achieves a treatment of scientists that is fundamentally humanizing. To sum up, Real Genius is the story of one Mitch Taylor, a genius child who goes to "Pacific Tech" (an anaolg for MIT) at the tender young age of 15. While there he meets an older, equally-brilliant student named Chris Knight (played by Val Kilmer, of all people) who introduces him to the joys of college life, as modified by super-intelligent classmates, and the need to step away from work now and then. Oh, and they manage to foil an evil professor's plans to sell a high-powered laser to the Air Force. Don't forget that.
A similar example can be found in the more recent film The Dish which tells the story of a handful of astronomers working in the radio observatory in Parkes, Australia, and their role in the 1969 Apollo mission that first placed Human footprints on the surface of the moon. While much of the movie involves the tensions between the Australian team and the priggish representative from NASA, it also shows scientists as more or less normal people with families, interest in sports and other hobbies, and the desire to mean something and make a difference. This is, perhaps, summed up most eloquently when Sam Neill, arguing for the crew to take a risky gamble in order to capture the broadcast of the first moonwalk for the world, says, "This is science's chance to be daring." Indeed, it seems that we haven't really given enough attention to making sure people realize that sometimes science, and scientists, are daring.
So what is to be done? I honestly don't know. Somehow we have to combat decades of popular opinion about science and scientists, and that just isn't going to be an easy fight, much less a quick one. Still, it is a fight that we can win if we try hard enough. We are aided by the simple fact that, at its heart, science is really damned cool. I'm serious here, scientists are engaged in a constant process of discovery, wresting facts from the very substance of the Universe. Those facts, and their implications, hold an intrinsic fascination for many people if they are just presented right. We need look no further than the late Carl Sagan for an example of a scientist who was able to convey this fascination to the public. In more recent times, we can look to the success of the television program CSI to see the fascination that science can hold for people. At its heart, CSI is a show that manages to intelligently and engagingly convey scientific information, and demonstrate the scientific method, all while showing the scientists themselves as real people. A more perfect example of what we need to do would be difficult to find.
Public sociology is a worthy endeavour, but we have some groundwork to complete before we can expect the public to be much interested in our sociology. We must overcome decades of popular wisdom that would bar actual scientists from commenting with any legitimacy on the social world. We must present ourselves as what we actually are, real people with strengths as well as foibles, rather than accept the presentation that has been given to us. We must labor to show that our science is daring, fascinating, and relevant.
In the next few decades we will no doubt see new forensic scientists who entered their field because of exposure to CSI. Wouldn't it be an ultimate victory for us if something similar were to happen for sociology?
Wouldn't that be a truly public sociology?
[Special Note: Thanks to David Willis of the excellent webcomic It's Walky! for inspiring this post's title. If you want a webcomic that somehow manages to combine sci-fi action, angst, humor, superb characterization, and a dash of ass jokes, check out It's Walky!]