Talk @ CERN Workshop on “Effective Outreach”

I’ve had the honor of been invited at CERN to talk about the recent experience of Scienceground at Festivaletteratura. Studio Corraini helped me prepare a nice presentation (find below some more considerations).

The conference was about “effective outreach”, so I started out saying that I’m not interested in “outreach” or “communication” of science to give a thrill and stir discussion. However later in the day there was an amazing talk by a local fellow that was orders of magnitude more provocative, I highly suggest it:

John Beecham, Abolish Outreach

Let me add a few more personal considerations.

“Outreach” gives the idea of us scientists lecturing the “lay” people, a one-way communication style. Of course lectures are definitely part of the toolkit (expertize exists!) but that can’t be the whole story. Fortunately other speakers before me pointed out they prefer to use “people engagement”, which comes slightly closer to what I have in mind, a two-way conversation where we can also interact and learn from the “audience”. Unfortunately as with so many words, “people engagement” is already becoming a buzzword in the corporate university, and I guess it will soon be spoiled of any meaning – as all those words whose pervasiveness is the best indicator of the absence of their referent: excellence, merit, synergy, interdisciplinarity etc.

As about “communication”, there’s too much communication already in the world, too many people involved in it, entire sectors of our bullshit economy that are only sustained by communication, and too many tools of communication that only add to the noise. Fighting on that ground is prohibitive and counterproductive, it risks transforming science into just another piece of cool “infotainment”, of adding to the noise and not to the signal. As if we didn’t trust the trascendental value of science as a method of critical inquiry of the world – so it needs a little help in promotion. Yesterday I learnt that some Italian institution, maybe the INFN, will base 20% of their evaluation of scientists according to their outreach activities. Frankly I find it’s horrible news. External incentives often have the effect to deteriorate the work ethics of people (as with those surgeons who cherry-pick their patients in order to increase the index of survival), and of pushing people who do not have any particular talent (can we talk about that?) in something they are not particularly interest in. I find putting emphasis on such “soft skills” an alarming signal of decadence.

So maybe here lies the crucial node that wasn’t resolved yesterday (the final round table, as all such round tables, gave the false impression that we were all aligned, which we weren’t): do we intend this “outreach” to transmit the scientific method for the generations to come, or to be a tool for a more short-timed sensibilization, engagement, and enrollment of people? At this point I have the impression that these two goals don’t go together. We may have reached that point described by Ivan Illich whereby any more effort in the industrialization of a human service leads to the opposite effect: more papers, more journals, more interviews, more metrics, more tweets, more pop books, etc. deteriorate the quality of science – and there’s no communication without good contents. Communication is one piece with all the other aspects of science, and unfortunately many aspects are becoming more and more disappointing.

My personal take is that we don’t need more scientists, we need better science. We don’t need to give everybody a little bit of Higgs boson to get them in our particular club – in the form of work-force, or “stake-holders”, tax-payers, or simply consumers of scientific “products” – but we should care that the good old-fashioned values of science seep in society, regardless of the particular discipline we practice and love (one of the speakers identified as an “enemy” one guy who questioned the opportunity of a new accelerator and would prefer more focus on climate science…). To do this, sometimes I have the impression physicists should go under the radar: High-Energy Physics has been the dominant narration for so long, and now we have the symptoms of a late empire: books about it take up a weird mystical and motivational tone which is precisely the opposite of rational thinking. Like all empires that are not up to their promises, people will rebel it – starting from those scientists whose work we as physicists have kept so long in the utmost contempt, and maybe even the swarms of young Ph.D.’s and students who will live in uncertain times as regards the credibility of future projects, like new accelerators etc. Like said Latour at a meeting at the end of Scienceground, “it’s a great time for science, but not necessarily the same science”. So maybe it’s time to go clandestine and start rebuild the community from the fundamentals, from the methods, using word-of-mouth instead of massive and uninformative noise.

The talk did create a lively conversation, animated in particular by one bold sentence I reported in my presentation, by Ben Goldacre – an active physician,  great communicator, pundit of the “public engagement of science” community, possibly a smug no doubt but crucial voice in the debate – and by my insistence on the fact that it’s pointless to give superficial narrations of science and proxies to try and approach the “general public”, and that I’m more interested in raising the bar and give both high-level contents, and the context of research – in an effort to abolish the separation between academia and the world outside of it, and to use the tools of science to empower people (for example, by analyzing how to fetch, read and contextualize a scientific paper instead of resorting to newspapers). One or two of the other speakers may have felt addressed, so, in the improbable case they were reading this, I would like to point out that personally I appreciate all efforts in doing quality things, and that I was positively impressed by the works of most (but not all) of the speakers. We just shouldn’t believe too much that “that’s the system where we live in”, or something like that. Something I’ve been told over and over in life and it’s simply not true. We live in many different “systems” at the same time. In particular, on the one side there are communities of people who share a passion and have their own professional ethics and social practices, and then there’s an industrial superstructure  of appropriation of the “products” of such communities that is pervasive but has no roots and produces no intrinsic value. To be effective it has to trick people into believing it is necessary for running the processes that communities would run anyway and have run for decades before (and there’s no better example, given that I was at CERN, of “the Internet”; or think of predatory scientific editors). In so doing, it corrupts the spirit of the community, buying its members out of the social norms that give some value of truth to their practices (e.g. by giving out prizes). It’s not by chance that this industrial system of production of goods and services frantically jumps from one thing to the next: because whatever it touches, dies (think of any musical trend the musical industry has come to exploit, like hip-hop recently). And I don’t want that to happen to science. The Scienceground project was meant precisely to show that you can work outside of that structure.

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