Thursday, 7 June 2012

Outreach online

I take it as a given that most universities' scientific departments are involved in some form of "outreach": the organization of and participation in events that allow scientists to engage with the public at a non-specialist level. Love it or hate it, it's something all scientists should know something about and a worthwhile pursuit given things like misrepresentation in the media or various political causes that oppose what we all take as fact. It's up to us to defend, for example, the theory of evolution everywhere from South Carolina to South Korea. And in South Korea, they're winning.

Fortunately, there are several things you can do to help scientific literacy from the comfort of your own home; ways of engaging the public over the Internet about your science.


A simple start is Wikipedia. The quality of articles varies quite wildly so you can do an unknowable number of people a service by checking the accuracy of articles in your field of expertise. You can surely find an appropriate WikiProject and, somewhere therein, a table of the importance of articles versus their quality. Naturally, you want the most important articles to be good and work downwards in priority from there.

In my case, I swung over the WikiProject Astronomy and found that the articles on accretion and asteroseismology are highly important but start class articles. A good place to contribute. Another place is to start (or, where extant but lacking, improve) articles on individual scientists. There are lists of winners for a number of notable prizes and the associated articles can reasonably be created if they don't already exist.

Q&A sites

At best, outreach allows people a chance to hear from scientists themselves. Without being at such an event, you can also answer their questions on Q&A sites. There's a large and growing number of Stack Exchange websites, which I think are great systems for connecting high quality questions and answers. Look for one in your own area, bearing in mind that it might be under construction or part of another Exchange. (Astronomy.SE was recently subsumed into Physics.SE.)

Then, there's Quora, the StackExchange-like Q&A site for everything. The questions are not required to have objective answers but people ask a lot of science-related questions. You should find plenty under the appropriate tag. For me, they're astronomy and astrophysics.


Finally, I think an important process is to generally participate online on scientific issues. When you read a good story or editorial about a scientific issue, share it. If you read bad news, share it with a sad face; good news, with a happy face. There are plenty of good blogs that deserve support, too. I personally follow Martin Robbins, a journalist who repeatedly points fingers at science coverage in his industry.

I recognize that this last point probably carries the least penetration. If you're sensible about science, it's likely that your friends are too. But maybe your shares will catch the eye of aunt Mabel and she'll share it with Midlandsville-cum-Stream book club and they'll see why evolution really should be taught in schools.