How Much Do You Love Science? Interview with Elise Andrew
July 1, 2013
Elise Andrew is a U.K. blogger, social media specialist, science communicator, and webmaster. She is the founder and maintainer of the Facebook page “I F****** Love Science,” which as of June 2013, has 5.6 million likes. She also runs the mirror page “Science is Awesome,” with posts that are usually links to news of new discoveries or theories, light-hearted re-posts of science-related images and cartoons. She will be presenting in Australia for ScienceWeek on August 12th at an event called IFLSLive / IFLSOz. This will feature a number of scientists and science communicators in conjunction with Science Alert at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.
Kylie Sturgess: Firstly, Elise, how did your career in science start? Have you always been “effing in love with science”?
Elise: No, actually. Completely not at all! I don’t know what it was. Maybe it just wasn’t taught in the right way or maybe the emphasis wasn’t placed on it, but I studied science because I was good at it. Taking science was a purely practical decision for me. A STEM degree seemed the best way to get a good job to end up in a field that I enjoyed.
It was purely practical. I didn’t go on to get so excited about it until I went to university, where obviously they encourage a lot more research, a lot more self-learning. You manage to get your teeth into it. You learn so much more and I remember sitting there in lectures, thinking, “Wow. This is so cool. How is it possible that everybody else is just walking around out there in their lives without knowing all this cool stuff?”
That was when it completely began for me, when I went to university. I feel so lucky that I did that, because I look back on it and I almost cringe in fear at how close I came to never discovering all of this.
Kylie: What’s the journey with I F****** Love Science been like? From media interviews, for example, I’ve noticed that you’ve said you’ve got an incredibly open platform, you get to see the best and worst of people. Is it always extremes?
Elise: No, it’s not, of course. Of course not. The problem is the extremes stand out always, whether it’s the great or whether it’s the horrible people. I get so many amazing messages every single day from amazing people telling me that they’re in their forties and my Facebook page has made them decide to go back to school.
I got a message from one woman who said that she was saving all of my best posts into a scrapbook. That she’d just had a baby and she was going to give the scrapbook to the baby when it was old enough to read to encourage it to love science right from the start.
Yeah, I get so many amazing messages from people. Then at the same time I get so many horrendous, terrifying messages from people. While neither of those categories are really in the majority, it’s still absolutely what stand out in your mind. It’s impossible to have it not.
A message I got the other day—I don’t know if you saw, but I posted something about conspiracy theories. There’s a certain conspiracy theory that’s been publicized by an English guy named David Icke, which is that the world is secretly controlled by lizard people.
Kylie: Oh, yes…
Elise: I didn’t even mention David Icke at all. I just mentioned the fact that four percent of Americans seriously believe that the world is controlled by lizard people. I got the most insane [abusive] message about it. Anyone that messages like that, I ignore anyway, but that is what sticks in your mind and that is what you remember. When you look through the IFLS comments, there are some really inane, really silly stuff, and that is what sticks in your mind.
Kylie: How did the journey begin? How did you first think about starting up a Facebook page?
Elise: I don’t know if I even really did. I was at university. I was in my final year, and ever since I first went to university, I’ve always been so, “Oh, this is so cool, I just want to shout it to the world, I want to tell everyone!”
So I used to post it on my personal page. I’ve always loved silly humor and silly science jokes and random facts. All the stuff that’s on IFLS is really just the inside of my own brain. That’s what I’ve always called it. It’s what I’m finding interesting that day. There’s no more thought or curation to it than that. It is literally... “This is the paper I’ve read today. This is the joke I’ve laughed at today. This is the picture or the photograph I think is beautiful today.” It’s just all the sh** that I think is cool.
I used to put it all on my personal Facebook page. One day a friend of mine popped up and said, “You’re always posting this stuff. Why don’t you make a page? Would that not be a better idea? Then that way people can subscribe to it if they want to and you don’t have to spam them all the time with all this science stuff.”
I said, yeah, OK, that sounds like a good idea. Why not? I’ll do that. I uploaded all the content I’d been posting to my personal page and I just went to bed. The day after, I had a thousand followers. It just took off right away.
Kylie: Wow. Incredible. Your email inbox must be absolutely astounding then, with all the photos that you get.
Elise: My email inbox is kind of a scary place at times!
Kylie: I guess one of the things about science communication is people worry about whether or not there’s an interest beyond the products of science to actual communication in civic science or promoting critical thinking.
For example—love of science may not actually translate to “having science information that influences me when I make a decision,” particularly when they’re decisions that might be based on factors like emotion or culture. Or people often worry that such sites encourage, “Oh, yeah, I cheerlead for science, but only when it doesn’t conflict with my other values.”
So—when does it actually translate into action that makes a difference in the world? How do you know that the I F****** Love Science page is making a difference in the world?
Elise: No, you are absolutely right. Everyone f****** loves science until it gets round to debunking their own personal bull**** belief! I think it’s important to remember that the scientific community isn’t immune to that. We’re all prone to confirmation bias, whether we like it or not.
I think the difference is that people who are scientifically literate often—not always—often have the ability to acknowledge that and take steps to prevent it. So I think it really comes down to education, and you’ve just got to keep pushing it at people. It is true that there are always going to be a certain population of people who say they are fans of things, but that fanship doesn’t really go that deep. You get that in everything. You get that in absolutely everything.
There will always been some, and even if that percentage is tiny, who do take it further. And I get messages from people every single day who show me that they do. That’s the great thing about reaching that many people. I think 5.6 million people subscribe to that page.
That page reached 60 million people a week. Even if only one percent of those 5.6 million go beyond, reading my latest article or sharing a funny joke—even if just one percent, that’s still 50,000 people I’ve influenced in the last year. I don’t think that’s bad going for someone who’s twenty-three and a year out of university! It could be worse! I mean, I do absolutely see what you’re saying. But I think it’s important to just...oh, I had a whole thing to say about this, and I’ve just lost it in my head now.
Kylie: It’s tough because if it’s something you’re really passionate about and then suddenly people start turning around and saying, “Yes, but it’s a job,” and you go, “Well, it didn’t actually start out like that…” I can understand the hesitation…
Elise: I don’t know. I did have something in my head, but I’ve completely lost it, so maybe it will come back to me. If it comes back to me, I’ll just completely interrupt what I’m saying in a minute or two!
Kylie: Well, one thing that people ask is if more pseudoscience will be debunked on the site, or where’s more dinosaurs, more physics, more this and that? Do you think that there is a direction that I F****** Love Science will go in?
Elise: No, I really hope not, because I think that’s what the problem is. Oh, now I’ve remembered what I wanted to go into now, so this works into it quite nicely! I think what you get is that the problem is that science is such a broad field. I think sometimes you forget that science covers so much. We all have our own specific interests. Anyone who says that they love all science equally, most of the time, they’re full of sh**. Everybody has their own specific field that they’re interested in.
For me, it’s biology. It’s always going to be biology. That’s what I studied, that’s what my first love is, that’s what I hope to go back and do my PhD in some day. Evolutionary biology, ecology, genetics.
I have to take physical steps sometimes to prevent myself from posting about that too much. I have to look at it and think, “OK, I’ve done three biology stories today. I really need to go and look for something else!”
So everybody has what they want to be featured. They want dinosaurs, they want physics, they want space, they want this, they want that. But the point of IFLS isn’t just to give you what you want. It’s to give you new things that might interest you that you might want to go and learn about. So I really try really, really hard to keep it as general as it’s possible to be.
I don’t want it to be all about jokes, but I don’t want it to be all about information, either. I don’t want it to be all about physics. I want it to be about everything, so everybody’s got something on there that is for them, that works for them. Even if the rest of it isn’t, maybe, it can open you up to new things.
Going back, sorry—I really feel that the role of a science communicator today isn’t necessarily to teach people. I know that sounds really strange, but I feel that on IFLS, I’m not necessarily trying to teach anyone anything. I just want to open them up to how much there is to be taught and how much there is to learn, because as I found out for myself at university, nobody enjoys learning if it’s something they’ve got to do.
You go to school and it’s something you’ve got to do and it’s not fun. It’s only when you start learning for yourself and start exploring that you start enjoying it and start really feeling it. That’s what I’m really trying to do on IFLS, because if you want to learn about science, there’s so much out there. There’s full online courses you can take. People upload entire lecture series to YouTube. There’s textbooks you can download, there’s documentaries, everything you can do completely for free, things that twenty years ago would never have been possible. It doesn’t even occur to most people to go and check those things out, because science is to them something that, when they were a kid, or when they were in school, it got stuck in their head that science is hard and science is boring, and science is not for them.
So I’m not necessarily trying to teach people on IFLS, but I am trying to just pique their interest a bit and show them that it’s not as exclusive. It’s not this old boys’ club with old men sitting around stroking their white beards, talking about how clever they are.
Science is amazing and it’s f****** interesting and you should want to go and learn about it. That’s why I link to different sources and show them different things—there’s YouTube, there’s this website, there’s that website.
I try really hard not to overly rely on one source for example, even though there’s some that I’m overly keen about. I’m always trying to link people to all these different ideas and all these different places on the Internet. I recommend the science page of the week or different places they can go. That’s what I think is really important about it. I’m never going to teach people promotion of critical thinking or translating scientific information that influences me and blah, blah, blah, blah… But I can open people up to everything that’s out there—and then they’ll go and do that themselves, because the best education is always self-education, but you have to pique their interest to get there.
You have to get them to realize, “You know, this is actually pretty cool. I want to know more about this random fact that’s come across my desk on this Facebook page. This was really interesting. I’m going to follow this link that she linked to and I’m going to learn more about this today.”
Absolutely not everyone does, I completely accept that. Like I said earlier, even if it’s just 1 percent, even if it’s 10 percent, even if it’s just 1 percent, even if it’s just half a percent that actually do that? To me that’s a win.
You post a Carl Sagan quote and it’ll get 10,000 shares and of that, maybe... Like I said, 1 percent, 10 percent, 5 percent—I have no idea what the numbers are—but they’ll go and look up the YouTube series! I’ll link to Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” on YouTube and they’ll go and watch. They’ll go and learn more, and they’ll start on that journey.
So that’s just what I’m trying to do; I’m just trying to push people along on that journey a little bit, just give them a little shove.
I’m like, “This is seriously cool. You should go and look at this; you should go and learn about this. Not because you have to, not because someone’s forcing you to, but because it’s f****** cool and you should want to.” The rest of it just goes on its own.
Kylie: Definitely. Well, speaking of effing awesome, have you been to Australia before, and what do you hope for the “I F****** Love Science Live” an evening celebrating science event?
Elise: I have never been to Australia before, so I’m super excited. I’m so grateful to Chris, of Science Alert, for making this happen, because Australia has always been somewhere I’ve wanted to go. As a biologist, the ecosystems and the animals...the Great Barrier Reef, I mean, that’s a biologist’s wet dream, isn’t it, really?
Elise: Of all the places in the world, I think if you were to ask any biologist the places they want to visit, it would be the Amazon rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. This is an absolute dream come true. I’m so excited.
As for what I’m hoping to get out of it, I don’t really know. I’ve done a couple of these meet-ups before. What I love about them is the level of excitement you feel in the air. It’s people who are genuinely so excited about this stuff. They’re so enthusiastic, and they feel just as strongly as I do. I love that. I love connecting with people who feel the same way I do about this stuff, who want to jump around like, this is so cool! I love this!
To meet people like that and to connect with people like that is really, really exciting for me.