It occurs to me (as a novice in this field) that there are a few main variants of “science communicator”:
Communicatus Scientificus Var. Unopinionatii* – Cool-Hand Luke
Also know as the “Non-committal One”, Cool-Hand will never put his name to an opinion. He is probably a journalist, maybe a science journalist, almost certainly not a scientist. He writes for news papers, and loves phrases like, “scientists have claimed” (and a lovely critique of Luke can be found at Not Exactly Rocket Science, Ed Yong’s great blog). Cool-Hand prefers balance to the truth, and so will likely present most of science as a perpetual slanging match between sides balanced at 50/50. Science isn’t like that (in case you didn’t know).
*there is some debate as to the taxonomy here – Var. Unopinionatii may in fact belong to C. Journalensii under the subspecies of Scientalis.
C. Scientificus Var. Bulldogensis – The Watchdog
These are the people who, coming from a scientific background (particularly medical science) review the science behind grand claims and debunk them if dodgy. These guys write books about it that really should be essential reading for everyone over the age of about two. Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science is a prime example. The watchdogs are the heros of sanity in a crazy, commercially-driven world where a pill is better than a good nights sleep. Some Watchdogs are graduated Skeptics (see below). Michael Shermer comes to mind.
C. Scientificus Var. Sceptiensis – The Skeptic
Closely related to the Watchdog (but perhaps more distant from their original scientific training, or perhaps not even scientifically trained), the Skeptic will go after anything even remotely unscientific, and has a penchant for examining people who believe in crazy things. Some Skeptics become very good (and very popular) whilst others skirt the boundaries of sanity and start to believe in conspiracies themselves. This skeptic has to be constantly vigilant against “The Forces of Darkness”. Sooner or later it is revealed that the Skeptic works for the Templeton Foundation (no I’m not going to link to them, they might find out where I live).
C. Scientificus Var. Theatricalus – The Performer
Yep, you’ve seen them at shows, and seen them on TV. They make science “cool”, and mostly teach kids (and a few ‘kids’ masquerading as adults). These guys are probably our main line of defense against the dark arts of Woo and religion. Without the Performer, your child really might continue to believe in the Easter Bunny. Scientific thinking gets its first opportunity to thrive in the Performer’s hands. The world is a little safer from silliness thanks to them (God bless ‘em). Explosions and volcanoes and dry ice and the like are tricks of the trade here.
C. Scientificus Var. Obsesionatii – The Passionate One
The Passionate One is convinced that the world is in peril if we don’t all understand their field of science. So important is it that they sometimes lose the message of their science in an attempt to “get it out there”. Obsessionatii can be found engaged in long well-worded arguments across the blogosphere, or may be found appearing on late-night current affairs programs. Sometimes they accidentally fall victim to Unopinionatii in a cruel act known as “sensationalism”. Occasionally, Obsessionatii gets mixed in with roaming hoards of Bulldogensis and Sceptiensis. In these instances, they can be most effective, sometimes writing books about how, for instance, geology has an answer against anthropogenic climate change. However, it is important here to distinguish them from our next variant:
C. Scientificus Var. Professorisis – The Prominent Professor
The Prominent Professor is a genuine leader in his or her scientific field. However, usually after having written a surprisingly popular book, they have moved into a position of leadership in science communication, typically with the phrase “public understanding of science” associated with them. They typically have huge masses of seething fans, as well as a notable number of “antis”. Their opponents (who often have Sceptiensis in their mix) can be quite vocal, often labeling them as “strident” or at least labelling them as patsies to the media. They try to avoid Unopinionatii for reasons of professional integrity.
C. Scientificus Var. Polymathicus – The Profligate Writer
Sometimes a scientist, sometimes a journalist; Polymathicus writes features and blogs and books like they have six hands and an army of assistants. Sometimes they actually do have an army of assistants (probably only two hands). Who knows? Their products are easy to read and they really do reach a broad church. Most of the other variants are simply jealous of these types because Polymathicus have always done what the others always wanted to do – speak and write about interesting stuff. Whilst they sometimes sensationalize the science, they always offer a guiding argument, which distinguishes them from Unopinionatii.
There are probably others. Any thoughts?
I don’t know which I am or which I want to be. I suspect that I have grandiose visions of Polymathicus or Professorisis. I may have to settle for the debated taxonomic classification of Var. Studentiasis – who writes blogs about blogs and blogs about science and continually studies at uni and generally would kill to join one of the other variants.