Midpoint Series: Sarah Scoles on Doodles + Communicating Science to the Public: The Bigger Picture

This guest post from Sarah Scoles is part of the 2012 Midpoint Series. See all of the posts in the series here.

My name is Sarah Scoles, and I work in science education and science communication. The goal of my job at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, WV, is to create experiences and content that help students and the general public connect to science and engineering. At the observatory, we work to change science education to be more inquiry-based, we work to make scientific results more accessible to everyone, and we work to show the public who scientists are and what they do.

But science education, in general, is fact- and memorization-based, scientific results are often both hard to find and hard to understand, and in 2011 66% of Americans said that they could not name one living scientist (and of those who could, 15% named Stephen Hawking) (Your Congress, Your Health Public Opinion Poll, 2011).

Maybe Google’s Doodles are trying to change that. By highlighting different scientists and innovators, they are attempting to introduce people to . . . well . . . scientists and innovators. And they are succeeding: of 17.4 billion internet searches made in April 2012, 11.4 billion of those were made on Google (Wall Street Journal, 2012). That’s a lot of opportunity (billions of opportunities) to influence people’s knowledge, awareness, understanding, and appreciation of science, scientists, innovation, and innovators.

But when Google Doodles feature people who fit the scientist stereotype–specifically, old and male–Google is not using its power to affect public opinion. It’s using its power to say, “Hey, look! One time the zipper was invented! One time someone discovered how to make music electronically!” And while I am all for synthesizers and not having to button my jacket, I am also for social responsibility and using your influence for good, rather than for the status quo.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to focus on how Google could improve which STEM-related people it features, because I work in a field dedicated to making STEM topics accessible. But the majority of the comments are valid for other fields. In fact, I think of STEM and the humanities as not all that different–both require people who are creative and innovative to make leaps forward, both challenge us to look at the world in new ways, and both are dedicated to interpreting our experience of the universe and making it better. So while the comments below are directed at Doodles’ lack of featured women in science, the reasoning behind the comments applies also to the arts and humanities.

As an educator and public outreacher, I encounter several challenges with which Google Doodles could help, but don’t.

1. Scientists and scientific research are not perceived as accessible (and sometimes truly are not accessible). Scientific discoveries are hard to find out about unless they are on trendy topics that make the NYT science page, or you work at an academic institution that has subscriptions to scientific journals, and/or you know all the lingo for the subfield about which you’re reading. It’s difficult to discover what is going on in the world of science, and it’s even harder to learn more about who is doing the science.

No, it’s not.

With its wide demographic reach, Google could highlight more recent discoveries (while still highlighting discoverers who have died) with more diverse scientists, thus demonstrating that discovery isn’t something that used to happen when Leonardo da Vinci was around or when the Industrial Revolution was big news and also demonstrating that many different kinds of people, including some people who are women, discover things. While changing the image of science and scientists, having Google Doodles about modern discoverers would also allow the public access to scientific information that they don’t normally get from the popular press, or from journals that are not meant for non-specialist eyes.

If people who Googled (aka “everyone”) saw themselves represented in Doodles–“Hey! That person who was a girl who grew up in the inner city like me!” or “Hey! That person was young, like me, when they made their discovery!”–they would feel connected to scientists and innovators. They would be able to relate to those featured, and would be less likely to feel that scientists in a mythical, otherworldly category.

2. Science is often taught as a set of facts that were discovered long ago and which now need to be memorized. This method of teaching is completely divergent from what science actually is–a rational way of investigating the world, asking questions, gathering  data, analyzing, and trying to interpret observations.

Google Doodles do often highlight the process of coming to a discovery, rather than merely the discovery (the “fact”) itself, which is awesome for those of us who are interested in public understanding of the “nature of science.” It would be even better if this creative, process-oriented approach were combined with more relatable characters, fostering a full understanding of, interest in, and connection to the discoverers.

Eure(e)ka! An epiphany that came through long hours and a sudden burst of creativity combined with a lot of background knowledge led me to a discovery!

Inquiry-based science teaching is when you give students a problem, and they figure out and justify an answer using their heads and using data. It’s just like doing real science and being a real scientist! Science in schools is so far removed from what “science” actually is that by the time students would have the educational opportunity to do real science, they are no longer interested because they’ve been staring at textbook glossaries for fifteen years. While changing the prevailing educational tactics would be ideal, that kind of change is slow–Google could, and often does, show students that science is a process and a way of understanding the universe, and they can show students in thousands of school districts at the same time, using individual examples. And if students could connect more to individual examples–for instance, if there were some women, the message would sink in even more, as identification with scientists is the most important factor in determining whether a student has positive feelings toward science (Tai, et al., 2006).

3. Some scientists believe that people in general are not interested in or capable of understanding what is actually going on. In a recent study about why scientists aren’t always invested in reaching out to “the public,” 25% said that the public presented the largest problem; of that quarter, 70% believed the public to be scientifically ignorant and 30% believed that the public did not care (Ecklund, et al., 2012). These scientists are unlikely to attempt to engage the public either with their research or on a personal-professional level (as in, presenting themselves as scientists in social situations). If scientists don’t want to connect–as scientists–to the public, the public will not know who scientists actually are or what they actually do. As I said above, 66% of Americans couldn’t name one living scientist, though many of those surely know one!

Only a few of the scientists I know look like this, and even they are pretty cool.

If Google Doodles said, “Hey, here’s this person who lived in a neighborhood and went to work every day and taught classes and also happened to discover clouds of pre-biotic molecules in space,” Doodles could influence who is perceived as a scientist. Then, perhaps more people would feel connected to scientists (“They are just people like me who sometimes discover things!”), and scientists would feel more comfortable “coming out” to their communities.

[Not that I am absolving scientists of the responsibility to interact publicly–I think they can do that without Doodles, of course. But Doodles could help smooth the way.]

4. Non-scientists often believe that scientists are people who are secretive, male, and mystical. In the same way that scientists don’t really trust the public to appreciate or understand them, non-scientists often think of scientists as something “other.” I’m sure many of you have heard of the famous Draw-a-Scientist Test, which is just what it sounds like: subjects are asked to draw a scientist. Overwhelmingly, they draw white dudes in laboratories. Despite how there are many scientists who are not white dudes, and how many sciences don’t involve laboratories at all, the image persists. Stereotypes have to be actively opposed if they are to be excised from public consciousness. Google Doodles have the potential to present alternate images of scientists. If mass media present different kinds of innovators–women, people with social skills, people with interdisciplinary interest, etc.–over and over,  those images will begin to seep into the cracks in the stereotype. Eventually maybe 50% of the scientists that kids draw for the Draw-a-Scientist Test will be women, and maybe 90% of population will be able to name a living scientist.

In order for people to form a connection to science, they have to be able to connect not only to the information, but also to the people who create the information. That’s what Google Doodles try to do–highlight the people behind the innovation and not just the innovation itself–but Doodles are selective in whom they choose to highlight. When there are many equally great choices for each day, and many equally great choices that could have a sociological impact, Google chooses men over women almost all of the time, exacerbating rather than ameliorating the challenges enumerated above.

The point is, not all of us have the kind of reach that Google does. Google has more power to make statements and points than almost any other company, because every day, most of us search the internet, and most of us use Google. If Google started featuring more women (just an equal representation), it could start undoing stereotypes about scientists instead of perpetuating them, which would allow more people to feel that they can relate to scientists, and thus to science, discoveries, and discovery in general.

— Sarah Scoles


Sarah ScolesSarah Scoles is a Public Education Specialist at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, WV. She works to connect people to science using her backgrounds in both Astronomy and Creative Writing. She writes for the blog Smaller Questions, which brings scientific journal articles to the non-subscribing public. (Twitter: @Smallerquestion).

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