Vanquishing the evil mad scientist image

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Scientists aren’t all like this.

There is a palpable mistrust of science in the wider public and we scientists are largely to blame. Almost everyone uses the products of research everyday and yet trust issues against scientists have spawned and nurtured anti-science movements. Great efforts have been made to improve the scientist image, most notably the highly recommended Super Science Friends vimeo clip, but there is still much more we can do.

Mistrust of science is not ill-founded. Epic failures of ethics and the dearth of safety assessments in the past have left lasting legacies on many families as well as the environment. The atom bomb, chemical warfare and the repercussions of thalidomide are but a few events that have shaped public perception of scientists.

Enduring fictional mad scientists like Frankenstein and Moreau are also bad for our image. Although, in fairness, research scientists are a bit mad. I always maintained that is a direct product of having to do a PhD to become a research scientist. My hair was never this grey before the PhD, I’m sure.

The time has come for us scientists to change our image. Regulations for safety and ethics have improved exponentially to prevent the repeat of past disasters, and there have been monumental advancements across all areas of science, including health, ecosystem protection and food production.

Here are a few simple things that we can do to reclaim some trust in science:

  1. Teach scientific processes

Not everyone was taught how to assess data and weigh up evidence. These critical skills are the first port of call for getting a broader audience to engage with science. Improving the level of understanding about how scientists draw conclusions will make them more convincing.

  1. Be bold but accurate

Whenever results are presented to a broader audience, be bold in your statements but also accurate. Remember that common science terms like “this suggests…” and “this may cause…” just make it seem like we don’t know what we’re talking about and the message will be lost. People want answers and when scientists don’t deliver them confidently, they look to other authorities and this includes charlatans.

  1. Tell a story

Nothing engages an audience more than stories. Use stories to show the impacts of your research in a broader sense and include emotional interests like families, the community and the environment as well as enjoyment of lifestyle, of technology, of food and wine. Keep the underlying message straightforward and broad.

  1. Give science a friendly face

Scientists traditionally aren’t good communicators and for many years they were kept away from the public and not allowed to speak to the media. This also hasn’t done much for our image. To build trust, we need to step outside of the scientist caricature and show that we are just people. We work and eat and sleep and care for our families, the environment and the community. And sometimes we do other cool stuff. Recently there has been a trend on science company websites to show their employees as more than just scientists and this is just the sort of thing we need.

With time and communal effort, the evil scientist image will be vanquished. Then all we have to do is take down those evil corporations…