The way science is taught, the way it’s portrayed on TV and in the press, he way it’s promoted by science-advocates and science bloggers, often seems to adhere to a rather pompous and hubristic view of science as the ultimate bastion of truth and certainty.  So it’s been rather refreshing this week to see a group of real-world scientists shattering this image in the on-line event I’m A  Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here!

For those of you that haven’t been following this, I’m A Scientist is a two-week UK-based event where up to 8000 teenagers quiz 100 scientists on any and every subject under the sun, before they decide who is worthy of a £500 prize in support of science communication.  It’s an inspired event that puts students in charge of the conversation – and one that I am privileged to a part of this time round.

Half way in, the event has been intense – with over 100 live chats between scientists and classes of students, and literally thousands of questions and answers (scientists in the Cancer Zone – just one of twenty zones – have received over 700 questions from students so far!).

But what has struck me more than anything perhaps has been the honesty and humility of the scientists taking part.

Maybe it’s responding to kids that brings out the honesty (I know I have made a rule of answering questions as openly and as honestly as possible – because you don’t mess around with kids).  Maybe it’s that this is a bunch of real-world scientists, rather than the vocal minority that people are usually exposed to.  But the lack of science romanticism here has been eye-opening.

From subjects spanning global warming to evolution, and religion to animal testing, I’ve repeatedly seen participants lay out their honest opinions – even if they don’t match exactly with established opinion  The responses have not always clean and homogeneous and “politically correct” – sometimes even the science behind them isn’t as robust as some would like.

But this is how real scientists perceive their work, the world, and their place in it.

In other words, the answers to questions emerging on I’m A Scientist are probably a good reflection what the science community is actually like, rather than what we would sometimes like to think it is like.

I suspect the value of this honesty and humility is immense.  Clearly, it provides the students taking part in I’m A Scientist with a realistic view of what science is really like – and probably a more believable and attractive one than some idealized vision of the scientific endeavor.  I also think it is proving liberating to the scientists involved – providing them the opportunity to explore and express their honest perspective on things.

But just as importantly – the event is leading to a unique resource documenting what scientists really think – not just what they think they should think.

In the long run, this may be an incredibly important added-value within what is already an extremely high-value initiative.

Edit 6/19/10 – I meant to note above that many of these thoughts were sparked off by this blog from I’m A Scientist participant Tom Hartley earlier this week.

Andrew Maynard