I don’t know
Is the phrase uttered most by scientists “I don’t know”?
I don’t know, but its defiantly the phrase most thought by scientists. Research is a constant up-hill battle of mistakes, each one with a new question to ask, a new one to solve.
These grievances may be uttered frequently around the (nobody uses water coolers anymore) of the science buildings, but rarely is it expressed to the public.
But what if we lowered our guard more often an uttered more phrases like “I don’t know”.
I can’t speak for the wider population, but what I know of my peer group is that science is generally seen as cold facts discovered by cold people. People who are so arrogant in their knowledge that they wouldn’t bother explaining it to someone so low.
During a tipsy pub conversation where I was listing off a bunch of random animal facts one of my friends turned to me and said how nice it was that I didn’t talk down to her about science. This took me aback. Firstly because I didn’t think there was much science in the fact that ducks have corkscrew penises. Secondly because I didn’t feel I knew that much about science to be able to talk down to people about it anyway.
I think back to when I first started out in science. A timid mature age student whose last foray into science resulted in a low ATAR score and a very basic view of photosynthesis. Trembling on the tram on my first day, I imagined a lecture full of young, promising students pointing at me in hysterics, taking pleasure in the notion that I thought I could enter their world.
What I did encounter wasn’t as horrific, but not by much. In order to catch up on the years of lost knowledge, I had many late nights in the library, furiously teaching myself from a primary school level up about cellular functions, animal diversity, chemistry and that dreaded photosynthesis.
I certainly didn’t feel very knowledgeable then. Nor do I now. Though I do catch myself projecting a certain arrogance at people that don’t understand what I assume now to be basic facts about the natural world.
This arrogance is a trait I’ve noticed countless times in scientists, from undergraduates to professors and everything in between. There’s the same sputter, eyebrow raise, and high-toned correction of whoever they are degrading to get their point across that they in fact know everything.
This type of reaction benefits no one, except the child inside of us that clutches our tender ego like a security blanket.
As someone who has been taught the scientific method, to think critically and be sceptical of the world around us, it may seem obvious to us what is utter non-sense. Shouldn’t we use that gift to education, not belittle. I’ve always been a critical thinker, but even I’ve committed the crime of being coerced into buying a beauty products I know are nothing more than sweet smelling goo.
We are all constantly privy to the word lying to us. That doesn’t mean we always have the right answer.
Maybe if we expressed more how much we don’t know, and that we LOVE that, science wouldn’t constantly feel the need to prove itself. If science knew everything we all be out of a vocation. It’s the joy of discovery that urges sciences forward, not the need to present the discoveries as trophies of superiority.
It seemed fitting to finish off this blog series with a piece about science communication itself. For a great example about the divide between science and the public, and the wedge in that divide being bad science communication, see below.