As a science communicator and educator, it isn’t the successes that stick in my mind the most. It’s the failures. The person who just didn’t get geologic time is 20x more memorable than the 20 Cub Scouts who can now tell me when trilobites lived. Every person who still thinks that the world is going to end in 2012 has a special place in my mind and psyche.
How does the old phrase go? Everything that succeeds succeeds in the same way. Everything that fails fails in a new and exciting way.
Okay, that’s not how it goes at all, but that’s what I can’t help but thinking each time I don’t get my message across.
I don’t hide these failures. I can’t. I talk about them, whether as funny anecdotes or as the moral of a blog post. The funny anecdotes are the best because I can talk about them without seeming to beat myself up. I can tell them as a story at the pub and maybe get a little of my original point across to a new audience.
That doesn’t stop them from being what they are to me: failures at worst, evidence of where I need to improve at best. They haunt me.
The guy who believes that penguins discredit evolution? Entertaining story, Yes. Great vector for debunking what used to be a fairly popular (in my area) Creationist argument? Yes.
The woman who told her children that museum employees were going to hell within their hearing? Another entertaining story, as well as a good example of the need for tolerance.
The guy who told me that I didn’t know anything about volcanoes because he had heard on Rush Limbaugh something different? A Nice parable about relying on evidence for authority.
The professor who believes the moon landing was faked and geologic time was a joke? Another argument against the argument from authority, as well as a useful way of explaining how an expert in one area doesn’t necessarily know anything about another area.
These stories are useful. They’re funny. I will continue to retell them: to laugh at their absurdity and to use them to teach other, less formal, audiences. However, at the end of the day, they are what they are: a failure to achieve the entire goal of my career. The failure to explain basic facts about the universe in a way that is understandable, engaging and not combative. These failures hurt, but the pain is easily subsumed with laughter.
There are other stories that don’t lend themselves as well to humor: The friend who decides to delay vaccines because her ‘family has a history of autism’. The friend who refuses to protect her extremely high risk children from diseases that could easily kill them with a routine shot. The friend of a friend who won’t vaccinate because their fellow churchgoers are misinforming them.
I will never be able to laugh at these stories. These stories hurt in a way that is much, much more personal. These can’t be pushed away with laughter or their use as an educational tool. I may not always agree with people, but seeing them suffer or the thought of possible suffering in the future because of their ill-informed choices today is too much for me.
So I find a different way to act out. A different way to fix what I see as wrong. To that end, I just had to support this:
I donated a measles vaccine for every person I could think of who has refused to be vaccinated, or delayed vaccination, or refused to vaccinate their children.
It’s not much. It does nothing directly to protect those friends I worry so much about from diseases that are a very real threat to them, but it’s something.
If I can’t make sure that my own herd immunity is solid, then maybe I can at least do something to make sure that the global herd immunity is just a little bit stronger.