A few weeks ago, Josh Kurutz posed a question in response to Jeff Seale’s article: How do we go about effectively communicating about science without inspiring fear? I’ve been thinking a lot about fear lately, how the unknown can inspire us or make us cover our eyes. I’ve been thinking about fear because of a television show’s recent return. I am talking about The X-Files.
For those that don’t know, the show involved two FBI agents investigating the paranormal. Fox “Spooky” Mulder was the seminal conspiracy theory nut at the bureau, and his foil Dana Scully was the physics-major-turned-forensic-pathologist assigned to the X-Files to disprove Mulder’s half-baked ideas. Though there was an overarching plot, most episodes could be described as having a “monster of the week” structure:
- The monster is revealed to the audience.
- Scully & Mulder investigate the strange phenomena.
- Scully posits a logical explanation.
- The monster is revealed to Scully & Mulder thereby disproving the logical explanation.
- Corroborating evidence of the monster’s existence is inexplicably destroyed before Scully & Mulder can submit a final report to their supervisors.
This being the most common of the show’s episodic structures means that the better part of the show’s existence was dedicated to showing off monsters followed by another 40 minutes of pounding home to the audience that the monster was real. Science and rational thought were allowed their rebuttal halfway through each episode, but only so that the inherent truth (from the show’s perspective) could shine through: monsters will always triumph over rational thought.
Occasionally, the show would take a different approach (in fact, one of the new episodes is an excellent example). Instead of presenting the monster as an adversary lurking in the shadows, the monster would reveal itself to the FBI agents and seek their help so that together they might overcome some other obstacle (extra-government organizations, mad scientists, alien bounty hunters, etc.). Once this relationship was established, the monster would be transformed from a “monster” into a “Regular Joe” just trying to get by in the world.
By now many of you are wondering what any of this has to do with industrial chemistry, and I’d like to thank you for your patience in making it this far.
I believe most scientists if asked “Who from the X-Files do you most identify with?” would answer Agent Dana Scully. Historically speaking, her character has been credited with a surge in women enrolling in STEM programs in the 1990’s and 2000’s (you can google “the Scully effect” if you want to know more about that). While we all would love to be perceived as impossibly well-rounded pragmatists, there are some who would rather write chemists into a different role: the monster.
Let’s be clear. You are not a monster and the work that you do is not abominable. Nor is it “a triumph over rational thought,” to quote myself above. In reality, the work of industrial chemists is a triumph of rational thought. It is the dispersion of the possible; it is a test of limits we believed to be true; it is a great number of things. When you think about it, your work really is…an X-File.
There’s been a lot of talk lately among the Industry Member Programs team about the public perception of chemistry. There is a lot of concern that the public views the chemical industry in a negative light. What can we do to change this perception—to make them better understand just what it is that chemists do?
Let’s start with what not to do! As satisfying as it is to instantly launch the debate-ending authoritative final word on a subject in 140 characters, don’t believe the lie! Social media, while a powerful communication tool, is not a magic bullet. Mulder and Scully might be able to close cases in 42 minutes plus commercials—but that’s science fiction. In the real world, it takes much longer to change hearts and minds.
Changing public perception requires thoughtful positioning and no sudden movements. It is important to not only frame your message properly, but also to direct it at the right audience. Remember that your goal isn’t to “shut down the X-Files.” When you talk about chemistry with the public, your real goal is to aid in their investigation of the truth. You can be an authority without being an authority figure.
Maybe you think that there’s nothing that you can do—your company has a P.R. department and that’s their job, not yours. In some cases, that might be true, but you’ll never know if you don’t ask. Maybe your company already has an outreach program that you can get involved with or maybe your company has been waiting for an individual like you to start the program. If not within your own company, ACS offers plenty of opportunities for you to get involved with your community. Real messages delivered by real people are more likely to be perceived as true than messages delivered on behalf of a faceless corporation.
The public has a fear of the unknown, but like Mulder, they “want to believe.” Unfortunately, they aren’t always going to seek out their own answers (we aren’t all scientists). When Scully and Mulder’s monsters remained in the shadows, they were seen as predators. If you want to change the public perception, you have to put the science out into the light and give them something to believe in.
If you give the public the resources they need, they will solve the case, but if you try to close down communication lines, don’t take time with your message, and choose the wrong audience, you’ll give the public an excuse to trust no one. If you treat people with respect and gain their trust, a grassroots campaign, while taking more time, can have more impact than you believe.
As my title states, the truth is what you put out there.
Nathaniel Janick works with Industry Member Programs at the American Chemical Society.