Claudia Dreifus is a New York Times science reporter and writes “A Conversation with…” in the Tuesday science section. In 2006, Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society, granted her honorary membership for her work in making science more accessible to the public. She is also an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs (SIPA) and a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute.
Claudia Dreifus is the co-author of Higher Education? which takes a critical look at higher education in the United States. She is currently working on her next book about mathematics education.
On Wednesday, March 21st, Dreifus will interview keynote speaker Jill Tarter at the Inspiring Women Scientists Forum 2012. Under the Microscope had a chance to speak with Dreifus about involving the public in science, and the prejudices that still affect women in science.
Under the Microscope: How has the decline in print affected science journalism?
As print has contracted and newspapers have contracted, the science section is always among the first to go. This is an enormous social problem for all of society. I don’t think you can be a citizen of this world without knowing science. People in Congress don’t know science and they have no idea of the ramifications of what they’re voting on. All the issues that have become politicized have enormous implications for the future of this country. Creationism is an example. Evolution is the basis of all modern biology including the very complex molecular biology that everyone says America must have if we are to compete. And yet, more than half the population believes that the world is 5,000 years old.
What I admire about [Jill Tarter’s] work is this idea of citizen participation – the use of the tremendous brain power of our citizenry to find an answer. As Americans, we actually have a great tradition of citizen science. I don’t believe that everyone should be an expert, I believe in amateurism in almost everything. I think science can be democratized much more than it is.
UtM: What do you mean when you say the democratization of science?
I mean that people can actually participate in science and understand it. Science is in tremendous trouble, because it’s seen as an activity of the elite, and not something that impacts everyone’s life. And yet, it is. We all use the internet, we all take pills – we certainly use science if we get sick. So, shouldn’t we know about, and perhaps participate in, this thing that’s so central to our modern lives?
UtM: How do we make science more accessible to the public?
I think you teach science as a liberal arts class, to undergraduates and to high school students. I don’t think science is impossible for people to get. Anybody’s who’s been to the Museum of Natural History and seen eight-year-olds squealing with delight, knows that kids really get science. But, by the time they get to junior high school, it’s been squished out of them.
So, I think if undergraduate science teachers see themselves as introducing kids to this wonderful thing, and teach it with a narrative, and show its connection to every part of life, you can get back to that joy that kids have when they see a dinosaur bone.
UtM: How has the role of women in science changed?
Life is much better now, but we don’t have equality. Women do hit a glass ceiling at a later stage than I did. The entry level is pretty open, but they run into stuff later on, particularly at whatever time they’re having children. Without daycare, without real equality in wages, I think women have done amazingly well.
I think women in science were way behind women in the rest of society for a long time, because there were women who made it, who didn’t identify with other women. They felt they were the exception to the rule, and they had gotten a lot of support from male mentors.
The wake-up call for women in science was Larry Summers. There wasn’t a lot of militancy among women scientists until [his speech]. And then every woman I know in science, the most accomplished brilliant women, women with their own labs, women with Nobel prizes, said, “What did he say?!” (Laughs.) The phone wires burned, and then people realized there was a problem.
There’s a biologist at Stanford named Ben Barres, who used to be a woman. He is very aware of how he’s treated now that he’s a man. It’s a startling revelation. There is this deep psychological prejudice that has not been acknowledged. And, the people who hold these prejudices are the people who hire, and they’re probably not even aware of it.
Image caption: Claudia Dreifus with her writing and life partner, Queens College ProfessorAndrew Wacker
Image courtesy of Tequila Minksy