public knowledge of science

I want free public lectures about science (and okay, social sciences, humanities, politics, art, whatever — but especially science!) to be as freely, conspicuously, and ubiquitously available as church/synagogue/temple services. In a city the size of Boston, people have the opportunity to choose from hundreds of free lectures about religious ideas every week, probably several within easy walking distance. Counting Christian, Jewish, and Islamic, these offerings hit Sunday, Saturday, and Friday; plus scattered such offerings sponsored throughout the week.

Viewed in this light, religious services are simply free public lectures about religious ideas, and I want the same for science: multiple series of lectures on biology, astronomy, nuclear physics, astrophysics (I really don’t get it at all), geology, chemistry … Choose between folksy styles with food & discussion, lecture styles from authoritarian learned types; series that tie it all into politics, or series that tackle the ethical questions relating to particular scientific techniques.

Over the last few months I’ve been thinking about the various statistics on US citizens’ belief and understanding of evolution, claims of particular religious beliefs, and the like. Recently I’ve followed the Dover, PA, trial, read various histories of science, religion, and the conflicts between religious and secular values. Here in the US and elsewhere, the forces of religious intolerance, bigotry, and ignorance are on the rise. At the same time, polls seem to repeatedly suggest that knowledge about basic science is declining and belief in creationism is rising. At times, it can look pretty bleak.

The dubious appeal of religious doctrines aside, some piece of this must surely be an artifact of the availability of particular kinds of information. The supply of information helps shape the demand, and we are well supplied (I might say too well supplied) with religious information. Religious institutions provide free public lectures on a weekly basis from people who are (some lay ministers excepted) trained in the field.

In a sense, religious services prove the effectiveness of open content as a means of popularizing a source of information. How many billions, quadrillions, zillions of dollars have been given to religious groups over the years freely? (Not counting all the coerced funds produced by ties to the state or through outright violence.) Religions are funded with the pledge drive from hell: every single religious service. “We interrupt this service … to ask you for money to help keep our services going. You don’t get this quality of direct-to-God information anywhere else! Pledge now, and you’ll get this lovely piece of pie in the sky when you die! Marked with our logo.” Religious institutions give away their content for free, and they get back in spades: donations to support mega-churches, cathedrals, “towers of power” and so on.

Knowledge about the world — science, our governments, our communities, our environment, our history and literature and art and human nature and health — is not comparably available. This knowledge — which would go so far to empowering and pleasuring people — is carefully metered out to those who can pay for “higher education”.

But imagine if we had free public lectures about science every week; several within walking distance from any point in the city. Would it make a difference? Could people fill the deity-shaped holes in their hearts with excitement and passion about the real world? Could we imagine no hell below us, above us only sky? and then learn why the sky is blue and how fast light travels and really help people understand dark matter and black holes and string theory, for gods’ sakes?

I’d love to find out. And I’ve seen a few moves towards greater openness of academic & scientific content. Stanford is making public lectures available via iTunes. I’ve recently seen advertising on MBTA for free public lectures from Harvard. It’s not quite multiple ongoing series of free public lectures, but maybe it’s a start.

Every university and college should record just a tiny fraction of their content and make it available for free to the public. Consider it a good-will gesture for all those high-handed renovation projects that so annoy the local neighbors. Start with the big lecture hall introductory classes. When a professor wins an award for lecturing or teaching, tape them for the next semester & put them online so everyone can see how fabulous they are. And all those endowed lecture series are just begging to be digitized and made freely available. Many of them have been taped for years; digitization would simultaneously preserve the original tape, make the material more widely available, publicize the lecture series, and honor the, uh, honoree.

And frankly, I’d like to see how well the much-vaunted popularity of religious doctrines stands up to a little competition. [Perhaps this whole issue lends support to the entertainment industry’s contention that “you can’t compete with free” ….]

update 11/22: This posting about “open knowledge drives out closed” is relevant …

update 12/4: Just read about Cafe Scientifique in an article about PZ Myers.

update 12/21: PZ Myers / pharyngula has this relevant post about scientists’ need to communicate clearly, succinctly, engagingly.