Science Communication is like Sex

Or: The Prostitution of Science Communication and its fallacies.

Erik Stengler, The Transformative museum.

The argument goes like this: the morally accepted consensus is that sex should not be paid for. When it is, and it becomes a business, we call it prostitution.

So if you think, like me, that science communication should not be paid for, you will agree that charging for attendance at public science events is rather like prostitution (of science communication).

For those of you who do not agree with the premise that science communication should not be paid for, here are some arguments, and responses to the common counterarguments which will spring to your mind immediately.

But first some clarification. I am not saying that the work of those providing and delivering science communication should not be paid. Like anyone else, they deserve to be paid for their work. I am just saying that the «end user» should not be charged.

The first argument for “free for all” science communication is at the heart of what we keep telling ourselves are the main reasons to do science communication in the first place. The cultural argument, the economic argument, the democratic argument, the accountability argument… all of these rest on the foundation that science communication needs to reach everyone. How then can we accept at the same time that certain events be only attended by those who can afford it?

The second argument is that precisely those who are willing to pay the price and therefore are interested enough to make the effort are those who need it least. They are already interested, and the science communication activity will be preaching to the converted. Out of their interest, they would certainly have sought out the information about the topic at hand by themselves. They certainly need to be catered for, but not in way that excludes others.

This argument dissipates a common fallacy regarding ticketing that says that charging is necessary in order to select who will get to attend an event with a limited number of places. Organising such an activity only for those who are interested enough to pay defeats the whole purpose of science communication. There are ways to make sure that only a certain number of people attend without discriminating against those who can’t afford it. For example, tickets could be given out on a first come first served basis.

A typical counterargument will say that at events like the Cheltenham Science Festival there are sufficient free activities to ensure that all get their share of science communication. That is the reply I got from them when I expressed my discomfort about events that were charged for. My response to this fallacy is a very simple question: are you happy that science communication contributes to the discriminatory paradigm of first-class and second-class citizens? If the answer is yes, then I guess there is not much we can talk about…

Another common argument is the fallacy that science is culture, and if people pay for theatre, movies or concerts, why should they not pay for an event at a science festival. The fallacy lies in that the job of actors, moviemakers and musicians is to perform in public, and their income comes from the tickets sold. The scientists’ job is to do research, and their income comes from taxpayers and in some cases the revenue generated by their products. To pay to listen to scientists communicating science would be the same as paying for musicians talking about their music, or for listening to actors giving interviews. So yes, science may be culture, but science communication is not culture just as the making-of of a movie is not culture, the movie is.

To make matters worse, an event like the Cheltenham Sience Festival has various big sponsors, a large number of volunteers giving up their time to help out, and exhibitors are charged to be present (which is an absurdity in itself). So if the exhibitor is charged, and those attending the activity are charged – who is making all that money? Venue hire, insurance and the like certainly do not justify this level of income. I wonder what those volunteers would think if the penny dropped and they realised that they are giving their time for free for others to make a substantial profit out of it.

The icing of the cake comes when the event one has paid for turns out to be a one hour-long advertisement. As much as I admire Jim Al-Khalili and enjoy his outreach, when I attended a session entitled Quantum Biology I found myself being sold a book and read out of it – with the possibility of buying a signed copy included.

Another fallacious argument is that people do not value what does not cost, and that charging for tickets is a way of making sure people turn up. That people only value what they pay for is mainly true for material objects, so people will take more care for things they have paid for or would have to pay for if they break them. But is it less true for events – if they made the effort of getting to the venue, or to pick up the free tickets beforehand, they have shown interest already and invested their time, so it is very unlikely that they will not turn up. And if they didn’t, then there would be many others on site happy to take their place.

I may be asked whether I am implying that science books for example should be free, then. This can sound as a valid objection to my argument, but again, a fallacy lurks behind it. Books are written by authors and one pays for the book because writing books is an activity whose product is what is paid for, assuming certain quality. When a scientist writes a book they are acting as writers, and as such they deserve payment just like any other writer does. If the book is badly written, they won’t make much profit and it will be entirely their fault. In addition, books can be accessed free of charge in libraries, so the elitist element is no longer present, whereas a single live event that is ticketed, once it is over, will only have been enjoyed by the privileged few who could afford it.

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