Flatow proves ‘science is popular’

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

Each week, millions tune in to science journalist Ira Flatow’s talk show, Science Friday, in which Flatow and guests talk about news related to nature, science and technology.

Last Tuesday, a slightly smaller audience filled the Green Bank Observatory science center lecture hall where Flatow was guest speaker for the annual Frank Drake Lecture series.

Flatow, who has covered science for decades, said he wanted to focus on the popularity of science and how, while people may not fully understand science, they do talk about it on a daily basis.

“You may not think so, from where you hear the popular culture say, ‘people can’t understand science,’ – they may not understand what scientists do, but they love to talk about science,” he said. “I hope to show you a little bit on how to communicate that idea to the public – how we communicate it, how you might if you are science communicators – and some tools you might use to communicate science.”

Flatow used social media and entertainment platforms to validate that science is indeed popular, citing the popular science-based TV show Big Bang Theory – a TV show on which he’s guest starred three times. The big screen has embraced science, as well, and that was never more obvious than in 2014.

“Let’s look at the recent Oscar nominated films going back just a few years,” he said. “This is 2014 – do you remember what was competing for the best Oscar? You had The Imitation Game [about] Alan Turing and The Theory of Everything [about] Stephen Hawking. One of them won the Oscar that year. Who would have thought when they went to the people who were going to spend a couple hundred million dollars to make a movie and said, ‘hey let’s make a movie, a bio pic about a scientist,’ that it would also win the Oscar.”

Science has also been prominently featured in TV commercials selling non-science related wares.

The first commercial Flatow showed was for Tire Rack, which shows a woman driving her car at night and calculus equations are dancing around her head and the car as she thinks about the conference she is attending.

“Think about that pitch meeting,” Flatow said. “They have Tire Rack as a client, and the ad company is going to try to come up with themes for what will sell tires. Is it going to be the guy at the side of the road with a lug wrench…? Is it going to be somebody out in the rain?

“It’s a female scientist, driving in the dark with calculus in her back seat. That’s how we’re going to sell tires.”

Thinking it was a fluke, Flatow said he continued his research and found more commercials, including one for Jaguar which featured Stephen Hawking, and a New York State Lottery commercial which takes place in a planetarium.

With all those pop culture examples, Flatow said there is proof that science is popular.

“Let’s put that myth about people not liking science to bed because the people who spend the money on it know it’s not true,” he said. “This is not to say that people understand what science is or what scientists do. Most people don’t, as I say, and that’s something that we communicators have to overcome in our work.”

Flatow said the first hurdle to is to convince people that science is not simply a book you read, it is a field you experience. He added that science should be treated like music and art, and science appreciation should be taught, along with core science classes.

“You take classes in biology, chemistry, physics; most of the time the classes are taught like you’re going to be a biologist, a chemist or a physicist,” he said. “They teach you a lot of interesting stuff, but most of you are never going to become scientists. You have to appreciate it. We teach you what great music is, who the good musicians are; how to appreciate the value of music. My own personal thinking, we should teach science appreciation.

“What is the value of science in our society? Where does it fit in? How will it make your life better?”

Flatow talked about how science helps to develop creative thinking. It teaches us how to know when we hear junk science.
In other words, society needs to become “science literate.”

“It is also important to realize that we never stop learning about science,” Flatow said. “There are museums and science centers and other science-related places people visit on a regular basis where they learn without realizing it.

“You are learning your science informally,” he added. “Right here, in this building, is one of those science centers. You’re learning your science outside. You’re learning out in the hallway. You’re learning from all the exhibits here. You’ll pay more attention to what you learn in this building than you probably did when your science teacher was teaching you in class.”

There are countless ways to share science, especially now with the use of the Internet. Flatow said those interested in spreading the knowledge of science can create a podcast, a YouTube channel and join social media platforms to reach the masses.

“My message to you is science is everywhere,” he said. “People love it, and they seek it out. If you want to reach them, it’s not really hard to find them. Just learn a few simple tricks to make it easier to do. That’s what we do on Science Friday. The science is there. They love it, and they will take as much of it as you can give them.”

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