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Credit: Hal Mayforth

Searching for Truths (at Booths)

The Washington, D.C. Green Festival is a strange event. Booths are run by "green" vendors, but often a vendor’s greenness directly contradicts another vendor’s greenness. An organic market boasts local cage-free eggs, while a nearby poultry rights representative shouts that egg farming is morally reprehensible. A vegan café hands out samples of barbecue tofu next to a protein bar manufacturer boasting that their products are "100% soy free!" Activists distribute pamphlets demanding the reclamation of city streets for urban bicyclists while, nearby, Ford employees encourage everyone to test-drive the new C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid sedan.

And then there are the wireless people.

But today scientists increasingly are called on to embrace a new role, or else suffer the consequences of obscurity and potentially poverty: We have to become salespeople.

At one booth, attendees marveled at the newest wireless inductive charging pads for cell phones and tablets. Another booth was occupied by—I don’t remember the name of the group, but let’s call them the Anything Wireless Is Evil people.

Let me say preemptively that I don’t attend the Green Festival to talk to people with causes. People with causes are often wonderful, but my main interest that afternoon was eating free samples of snacks made with absurd amounts of dates and kale. I was also carrying a 2-year-old who shared both my interest in snacks and my disinterest in fervent strangers.

As I was about to snag a free cashew-and-avocado smoothie, a fervent stranger accosted me, waving x-rays of tumors caused by cell phone radiation—radiation, she said in an anxious tone, that my cell phone was emitting in my pocket right now. And that pocket is adjacent to the very genitals that spawned the 2-year-old.

Concerned, I let her measure my cell phone with something called an "electrosmog meter." It gave a reading of 0.01 dBm. I didn’t know what that meant. But as she talked up the hidden dangers of radiation, I took my phone away and noticed that the electrosmog meter still read 0.01 dBm.

"Um … shouldn’t you subtract out the background radiation?" I asked. "And if you did, wouldn’t that mean my phone isn’t emitting radiation at all?"

Instead of answering, she launched into an annoyed rant about personal privacy and the electric company’s new wireless "smart" meters, which apparently are part of a nefarious scheme to eliminate the concept of privacy. The cashew-and-avocado smoothie sat 10 feet away, staring at my daughter and me, laughing at our misfortune from its paper cup—a cup that, by the way, was evil according to a nearby aluminum canteen vendor.

I came to the booth with an open mind. I really did. If my Droid plans to mutate my vas deferens, I’d like to know. But—and I mean this constructively—if you want people to trust your science, the science itself has to be convincingly and unassailably presented. No amount of screeching, fervency, redirecting, or CAPITAL UNDERLINED ITALICS will compensate.

* * *

Some data fudging can be expected from a booth representative who opens by repeatedly assuring me that her colleagues don’t wear tin-foil hats. (When you have to say it …) But I recalled an experience from a couple of years previous at what should have been a more scientifically rigorous affair: the USA Science & Engineering Festival.

Ah, the USASciEngFest. There, I felt like a kid at a candy store, partly because the event featured hundreds of wonderful science organizations, each with demonstrations aimed at promoting cutting-edge research to the general public, but also partly because so many booths had candy.

In fact, if you were to ask me "What is DNA?", thanks to the festival I’d be able to tell you: It’s a string of multicolored marshmallows. And just think: Those marshmallows are in each and every one of us.

Then I walked past a booth on Wilson Plaza. I don’t want to name the group running the booth and embarrass them, so let’s just say they came from a state shaped like a hand. A hand with an Upper Peninsula.

"This is liquid nitrogen!" I heard a man at the booth yell into an ear-mounted microphone. "It’s so cold!" It’s minus 300 degrees Celsius!"

My Nerd Alarm sounded. That’s the warning bell in every scientist’s head that screeches, "Noooooo! Someone has stated a minor inaccuracy!" -300ºC is, in fact, below a pesky little thing called absolute zero. I stopped dead in my tracks.

My wife wanted me to let it go, but, being a scientist and a nerd, I just couldn’t. It was as though the man had declared, "The sun revolves around the Earth!" or "The films of M. Night Shyamalan are consistent, plausible, and entertaining!"

I approached the booth but felt bad interrupting the man, who was still pontificating on the wonders of science. So I spoke instead to a scientist at the same booth who was running a miniature Van de Graff generator.

"Uh … someone should probably tell him that liquid nitrogen isn’t -300°C," I whispered. (Scientists are forceful when we feel passionate about something.) I expected her to brush off my pedantry, but instead she gave me a pleading conspiratorial look and said, "I know. He’s our ad guy. He’s been saying things wrong all day. He just told a kid touching the Van de Graff generator that 230,000 volts of electricity were traveling through his body."

I didn’t remember enough about physics to recognize why that was wrong, but I looked it up when I got home. Damn, is that wrong!

I frowned and said to the scientist, "He probably shouldn’t have the microphone."

Again the pleading look. "I wish," she said.

* * *

These days it’s not enough just to do good science. Apart from the skills needed for basic work—mathematics, objectivity, ineptitude at contact sports—scientists have long had to write and edit scientific journal articles and present research at conferences. But today scientists increasingly are called on to embrace a new role, or else suffer the consequences of obscurity and potentially poverty: We have to become salespeople.

Partly we must sell in order to compete for grants, jobs, or attention. If we want our research to be funded (or at least believed, if not beloved, by people who think Earth was created in 1922), we need to sell it. Like it or not, we’re often urged to drop the pipettes and go populate the booths, engage with passersby, and bellow at people who only came for the smoothies.

Most of us strongly resist the urge to sell. It feels wrong, because we innately believe that, in and out of science per se, evidence, logic, and careful reasoning should win out over whoever has the largest megaphone. Sales just isn’t in our marshmallows.

But we have to sell because we know that the natural salespeople—those who value persuasion over precision, confidence over confidence intervals—get too many things wrong, too cavalierly and too loudly, and it matters too much.

The best part about shouting is that anyone can do it—and the worst part about shouting is that anyone can do it. If we intend to uphold science’s place in the world, we must rip the microphone from the ad guy’s hand and say, in our most passionate voice: "Uh, thanks. I got this."