We’ve all encountered this: the science communication department at a large university is usually devoted to marketing the research of that particular university. The so-called “outreach” products of such departments – the public talks, articles, and events for school groups – are all forced to suit this purpose. Mediocre research is described in glowing terms as “world-class” or “ground-breaking”. Poor communicators are put forward again and again so that they can be seen as a leader in their field.
This is promotion, not outreach. Describing this as educating about science is like saying that a car commercial is designed to teach viewers about engine design.
There are different kinds of science outreach: One type of outreach is aimed at elementary and high school students to get them interested in a career in science. Another type is aimed at people who don’t work in science and never will work in science but who are curious about the world and like hearing about science. That is my favourite kind of outreach, because to a certain extent everybody *is* interested in science. People will say that they don’t like science, but what they don’t like is the memory of sitting in a science classroom in high school. Once you point out that there is science involved in many of he things they read about in the news every day – alternative fuels, stem cell therapy, forensics – it suddenly becomes interesting and you have an eager audience wanting to learn more about DNA fingerprinting or energy conversion.
My interest in these experiments has less to do with questions of political polarization and more to do with interest in international news. Are internet readers more inclined to look for information about other countries, since they’ve got such a wealth of information at their fingertips? Or are they more inclined towards information on their home countries, since they can easily choose to avoid international news. Extrapolating from Pew’s data suggests that wired readers might consult more sources and perhaps consume a more diverse diet; Farrell’s research points to a strong homophily effect, which suggests the possibility of geographic cocooning.
Guess I’ll need to design my own experiments using whatever data I can as a proxy to indirectly answer the question… and hope other researchers find other data and other methods to challenge my assumptions.