strange behaviors

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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Scientist on a Pub Crawl

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 15, 2013

I’m at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where I just heard one scientist wondering aloud how to bring science directly to the general public.  It seems to be a running theme of this year’s meeting, with an “America’s Scientist Idol” program and another called “Bad Presenter Bingo 2.0.”  And it reminded me of a story told by a sea-bird biologist named Julia Parrish.

She’s a college professor at the University of Washington and, at first glance, looks the part—thin, with a long neck, pale, freckled skin, reddish hair pulled back, and the corners of her mouth drawn slightly down, as if you are about to earn a B plus in Life 101 if you don’t shape up now. Asked to give a talk on sea birds at a venue in the coastal city of Everett, Washington, she arrived at the address on the appointed day and found herself in a dive inhabited by “people who at 4 p.m. had obviously had more than their first drink.” She was starting to think C minus.

But at the appointed hour, about 20 people gathered around, drinking beer and eating nachos, and Parrish got up on the dingy carpeted stage normally reserved for bar bands doing covers of Journey’s greatest hits. Parrish talked about sea birds, and one man in the audience, a retired gillnet fisherman, mentioned a study he had helped work on years before. It turned out Parrish had designed that study, and from that point on, everything was copacetic. People were genuinely interested in her work. They asked good questions. Their inner Jane Goodalls, that childhood sense of being in love with the world, inched back toward the surface. At the end, the bartender announced that he had “something to say about natural history.” Just a week earlier, a mountain beaver had inexplicably made its way into the city, ending up in this very bar. It ended badly for the beaver, and the bartender went to his refrigerator to retrieve the evidence. Then Parrish and her audience gathered around to commune over the cadaver, sipping their beers and chatting about sea birds.

Maybe it wasn’t quite T.H. Huxley delivering his lectures to working men on the new science of evolution. It certainly wasn’t the contemplation of nature at its prettiest or most perfect. But as an instance of how to reach out and make natural history matter for ordinary people who deserve to know, it was a very nice start.

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