Science was my first love. I was raised by two scientist parents in a household where father-daughter bonding time involved diagrams of pathogens and antibodies. There was never a time that I remember wanting to be anything other than a scientist, and my favourite childhood fantasy consisted of hanging out in labs, curing various diseases and winning the Nobel Prize. As I got older, though, I realised maybe there were areas outside of discovery and research where science could do with a bit of work. My present day ultimate fantasy is to be instrumental in a paradigm shift in society’s perception of science. I don’t want to live in a world where politicians that do not comprehend the basics of climate science make catastrophic decisions, where the average citizen lacks the skills to distinguish between pseudoscience and the real thing, and where young people are scared or pushed out of studying science or considering it as a career. I’d much rather these problems weren’t around for me to try and solve, so that I could get back to more important scientific pursuits, like curing cancer or tracking down the last unicorn. But since they are, in my last column as science editor for Lot’s Wife, here are just a few of the problems I hope to play a part in solving (should I ever manage to graduate from this place):
Science should be the most exciting thing ever for kids. Science contains the answers to their questions, the constant thrill of learning something new, the sense of wonder at the world and universe. And while there are some fantastic extracurricular programs for kids, it’s a testament to anyone involved in science that they didn’t have all enthusiasm for the subject smacked out of them early by the school system. Learning science should be fun and exciting, not dull and rage inducing.
Science education in schools is a massive and complex issue. At the heart of it, I think it’s vital that we acknowledge the fact that the majority of school students do not study science in VCE. While it would be great to change that, there’s little reason for students to take it at year 12 unless they plan to study a science-based degree afterwards. So, let’s just work with the assumption that most students will stop studying science for good at year 10. That gives us up until then to give each student the skills required to understand scientific issues in society and the media, to be able to determine scientific fact from fiction, and even to feel comfortable voting on these issues. I don’t believe the current curriculum can achieve this.
The immediate reaction to science as a subject is often that it’s just too hard – that it’s a field consisting only of geniuses and the average person need not apply. I wish I could tell people who feel this way just how many morons I’ve come across in my science degree, but I digress. A teacher who’s scared of teaching science to a classroom of students who are scared of learning science does not exactly make for a magical learning experience filled with wonder and joy. The risk of not adequately educating school leavers is far greater than people just not understanding how super cool science is. The endgame is where a person who refers to carbon dioxide as “weightless” is elected as Prime Minister.
I don’t want to blame the so-called singular entity of ‘the media’ for perpetuating myths and shitty pseudoscience, since it can only reflect what’s already around and what people want to see. It’s a vicious cycle when those reporting science in the media do not generally have a science background, and those reading it do not generally have the skills to determine what is reliable information and what is bullshit. It bothers me a little when people (both in science and in the media) are pleasantly surprised that I am studying science and journalism because I want to be a science journalist. It’s more standard practice for someone to start out in one field and slowly merge into the other. With that in mind, I think we really do need to push harder for quality science journalism, to benefit both the science community and the general public.
The main issue I have with the mainstream media’s reporting on scientific issues is that of false balance. In journalism classes, it’s drilled into us from the beginning that we should always give equal weight to all sides of a story. For the most part, this is the essence of fair reporting, but when it comes to science, all sides of the story do not necessarily have equal veracity. When the overwhelming consensus among climate scientists is that climate change is driven by human activity, and you find one crazy loon with a PhD who disagrees, giving both sides equal time is not balance – it’s misleading. When immunologists agree that vaccines are beneficial and very rarely harmful, and one mother believes they cause autism – without any evidence to back her up – giving that one person a platform from which to give their baseless opinions is genuinely harmful to the community. It is part of a journalist’s job to determine whose opinions are valid and deserve to be heard by the wider community. It’s their job to distinguish between truth and fiction, not to perpetuate absolute lies under the guise of journalistic balance and integrity. The only way to improve this is to improve the general standard of scientific literacy, both in the media and throughout the general public.
This is not an issue I want to dwell on, since anything I have to say about it has probably been said before. There does seem to be the general idea floating around that, simply because it’s the year 2013, sexism in science is no longer a thing. This kind of thinking is a logical fallacy if there ever were one.
An observation: in first year laboratories, female students tend to doubt themselves. They ask their supervisors if they’re doing the right thing at every step. They double, even triple check their measurements. If something goes wrong, they blame themselves. Male students tend to be overconfident. They don’t read the entire practical before starting, they rush their measurements, and if they’re unsure, they just try it anyway. If something goes wrong, they blame anything – the equipment, the materials, the practical, the demonstrator – but themselves. I don’t think this is surprising in the least. Whether you notice it or not, multiple studies have shown science is a gender biased subject. Teachers and parents tend to encourage boys in maths and science, believing they have some natural aptitude in those, whereas girls get more encouragement in English and the arts. Given the amount of pressures and social cues telling young women that they are not naturally talented at science, it stands to reason that even those who have chosen to study it at university have internalised these ideas – in stark contrast to young men, who have never had their natural scientific ability questioned.
Growing up, I felt a distinct lack of the presence of a female role model in science. Any woman whose work I did admire seemed to get screwed over, anyway – Rosalind Franklin as a prime example. The more I learn about the history of science, the more I see that there actually were a number of absolutely brilliant women doing incredible work over hundreds of years – it’s just that their presence tends to be erased in the way history is remembered.
Science is not an easy field for women to enter. It is inherently difficult, for example, to return to research after a woman takes any considerable break to have children. This is due to the nature of how science works and not any kind of insidious action by the patriarchy, but it’s enough to put many brilliant women off. Whether we like it or not, we also have to realise there is still a general culture of sexism within the scientific community. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes less so, but I do believe nearly every woman in science will have felt it at some point. Indeed, the next guy to imply I’m only where I am because I want to find myself a ‘rich husband’ is getting a test tube to the face (as if a research scientist is going to be raking it in, anyway).
It is absolutely vital to me to do my best to become a visible, positive female role model for other young women thinking of entering science. Whilst there are some amazing women doing fantastic work in science communication, I think it’s high time one of us achieved the mainstream success and recognition of people like Dr. Karl, Brian Cox and David Attenborough. I want a future where being female is not any kind of barrier to becoming involved in science.
Finally, I want to thank any readers that I may have had over the year, everyone who’s contributed their fabulous stories, and the amazing team at Lot’s Wife I’ve gotten to know and love during my time as science editor. It’s been an amazing experience and I’m so, so grateful for having been able to share my passion with you all.