Public perception of astronomers

Contributed by
Jun 16, 2009
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A comment on another post here at BA led me to an interesting paper: "Public Perception of Astronomers: Revered, Reviled and Ridiculed" by Michael West of the European Southern Observatory (a PDF version is available as well). It's an interesting essay on the changing way astronomers have been depicted and interpreted over time, starting in ancient Greece.

He makes a point on why this is important:

Although we live today in a time of remarkable astronomical discoveries, as many politicians and businesses know the public's collective memory can be short, and hence astronomers cannot afford to be complacent about our public image.

True. He enumerates these points:

(a) Astronomy is funded by taxpayers or private donors and supported by politicians.

[...]

(b) Society's perception of astronomers is strongly influenced by the arts, literature, movies and television.

[...]

(c) Astronomers' ability to educate and inspire the public with new discoveries is affected by the way they are viewed as social creatures.

He gives some details on these, and I could argue some of the fine details, but won't bother; they aren't very important to the broader issue (though he does mention "Big Bang Theory", citing a review that really only skims the surface of the show's characters, which perforce will make them seem two-dimensional; I argue the main roles of Sheldon and Leonard are actually deeper than a first glance might imply).

More interesting are the examples West cites of astronomers throughout history as depicted in literature and arts; from having them mocked in such venues as Walt Whitman's poem "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" -- Whitman says that a lecture by an astronomer bored him, and then extrapolated to the whole profession, which I find unpoetic indeed -- to heroic representations such as in the movie "Contact".

The examples are numerous and fascinating, and there were quite a few about which I was unaware. I'll have to expand my repertoire, it appears!

As I reached the conclusion, I found my self nodding in agreement with West... and then was quite pleasantly surprised to see this:

To get our message to the public, astronomers must not only adopt new technologies but also find creative new ways to use them. A good example is astronomy popularizer Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy website, which was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 25 best blogs of 2009, citing him as "a voice of reason amidst the nonsense of non-science."

Well! That was awfully cool. And, of course, quite true.

As was his conclusion:

The bottom line is that astronomers must actively define our public image, otherwise it will be defined for us. Although it is impossible to control how astronomers are perceived by society, we do have some power to influence our public image.

I agree. Just like any other group of people, there is a broad and rich range of astronomers out there. Some really are like the characters on "Big Bang Theory" (oh, how many Sheldons have I dealt with over the years?), and some really are like Ellie Arroway from "Contact". We are tall and short, men and women, venal and altruistic, short-sighted and far-thinking, socially awkward and the life of the party.

And also like any group of people, it's easy to try to categorize us and put us in nice, sequestered little boxes in your mind. But that's not fair, as it wouldn't be for any group. If you don't know any astronomers personally, I suggest you take a look at the ones who blog. They will be self-selected to have a desire to communicate, so there's a bit of bias there, but still, I bet you'll get a surprisingly diverse set of opinions. Check out the Carnival of Space when I post a link to it every week. It's a fantastic place to start.

Go on. Meet an astronomer. Maybe we'll surprise you.