Science Communication

Science communication is difficult, according to an article in yesterday's New York Times. Lisa Randall writes in "Dangling Particles", that "science plays an increasingly significant role in people's lives", therefore "faithful communication" is paramount. However, communication is "fraught with challenges that can easily distort discussions". Randall, a physicist at Harvard, lists multiple factors that confuse science communication.

What Scientists Miss

For one, terminology is often misleading. She gives the example of "Global Warming", a term that leads people to doubt science because "their winter was worse", colder, not warmer. More appropriate is the term "global climate change" she says. As well, "String Theory" could conjure images of the children's game cats cradle to the non-scientists, but for scientists brings to mind formulas, proofs and concepts that neatly explain how things are made.

Randall provides a balanced review of the challenges to communicating science. She points out that when the media present different points of view to achieve balance they fail the reader, because all points of view are not valid and research evidence changes over time. For example the body of evidence that supports "global climate change" has grown but the media continue their rote presentation of both sides of the story.

Modern science is complex Randall writes, so the problem of science communication is difficult but not insurmountable. She suggests:

  • "Inculcate greater understanding and acceptance of indirect scientific evidence", such as the evidence collected from unmanned space flights, which is as valid as that from manned flights, she notes.
  • "We might need different standards for evaluating science with urgent policy implications then research with purely theoretical value."
  • "People need to realize that science is complex"...its not "only simple stories". Scientists, for their part, "should be willing to go the extra distance to give proper explanations"

The article presents excellent points, but starts with the assumption that we all agree that science plays an important role in people's lives. Scientists recognize that this is true. We walk into the kitchen and see polymers in plastic containers and microbiology at work in our refrigerators. We flip on the light and think at least to our introductory physics class. At mealtime we are stimulated to think about nutrition or the biochemistry of ATP synthesis and metabolism. Spicy sauce burns our tongues and we think about receptors and neurobiology. We go for a run and biomechanics kicks in, we see photosynthesis in the leaves and geology in the landscape around us. Science is everywhere; in the materials used in our houses, the air we breath and the gas we put in our car. However ubiquitous science may be, we doubt that the average person thinks like this because few have a science framework. (Actually many scientists don't think this way either.)

How Important is Science To You?

We all have more immediate priorities. We think about family, jobs, bills and vacation. Global climate change has perhaps affected the livelihoods of fisherman and people stuck in storms but for the most part, few people are affected in life-changing ways. However if by chance a person gets sick and realizes that in order to get the care they need they should understand diabetes or cell biology they may learn enough to manage their specific concern. But arguably, science knowledge is only required on a need-to-know basis.

Ignorance By Design

Modern science may be complex, but to the layperson it was also relatively complicated 100 years ago too. We were farmers then and needed to learn a fair amount of science relating to agriculture and farming. Then we became machinists in factories and now we're office workers. We've adapted our lives to science progress quite well actually; electricity, automobiles, jet travel, plastics, pharmaceuticals, electronic communications and triple bypass surgery. Even when bombs or viruses or the machine guns in our schools threaten us we quickly learn to manage the unintended consequence and detrimental byproducts of technology. Very few people completely understand the science behind these helpful or threatening life changes. And it's ignorance by design.

We're surrounded with technology but human interface designers toil to make the science and technology we use everyday "user friendly". They hide bits of technology behind colorful buttons and self explanatory icons. While science is clearly more complex for scientists today, technology for end users is deceptively simple. Businesses invest billions in assuring that the impact on people's lives is minimal. Technology is inevitably proposed as a way to "save you time", and "make things easier". In a way, we've become quite pathetic. We rely on technology like GPS units in our cars to guide us so we don't need to interpret maps. If you recognize this, it's therefore unintuitive that after decade of technology becoming more and more intuitive we should collectively reverse course and take time out of our stuffed dayplanner agendas to start figuring out science.

Randall is a theoretical physicist whose research involves "indirect science evidence", and she carefully notes that accepting "indirect science evidence" is not advocating "blind faith". But with the collective aversion for delving into complicated answers, nourished by decades of "user friendly" technology, it's difficult to imagine that perfect balance of intuition and analysis where as a society we would manage to masterfully suspend skepticism at all the appropriate times.

Marketing rules business, politics, entertainments, and yes, even science. It serves us by abstracting handy perceptions from facts and reality. Skepticism therefore becomes our key survival mechanism. Indirect science evidence will most likely be accepted not because of "inculcation" or analysis, but if and when the ideas become useful for the people. In the meantime, if new ideas threaten our individual paradigms without clear pay-offs or if they clash with easier to latch on to perceptions, we humans maintain an uncanny ability to promptly reject them.

Democracy -- Choose Your Science

We do have different standards for science with policy implications, though ironically it's not what the author proposes. Grant funding, marketing, and academic survival demand that we find ways to make science significant by connecting it by any means to potential lives saved, famines averted and diseases cured. However, if policy implications could potentially impact an influential sector in a negative way, the science in question is degraded, mocked, or questioned. When "climate change" science conflicts with goals of the powerful automobile and oil industries, we hear cries not for quickly acting but for further research. People align with one side or another not because of misunderstanding about science. They do so because conveniently, there are sides to be taken, and one side fits better with their desires and habits than the other.

Many articles fault the media for not communicating, for creating "sides", for kowtowing to advertisers. An article in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago skewered science journalism with exacting ruthlessness. However it remained unclear to this reader, when perusing the same column's other articles, what good science journalism actually entails. The Guardian itself isn't shy about spewing scientifically shaky news -- it reports regularly on "ufology", for instance.

Critics blame the media for misrepresenting science, but this often misses the real challenges of science communication that Randall presents. It is infinitely easier to find fault with the media, we know, than it is to write lucidly about original research or to note excellent coverage from any source.

Science is important. Science writing is important. In addition, politics about science is important. Suppose as science writers we forgot about communicating science, and spent all our time analyzing the statements of politicians and trying to find matches to those politicians possible agendas -- often unspoken but often obvious. Though I'm not advocating this but I believe we could potentially understand the issues as well as if we focused on communicating the science. Because it's not just about science, that's only a small piece of the pie.

Given recent political history, we citizens should be perfectly able to summon the skepticism to realize that the current administration chooses whether or not to believe global climate change. It is not for lack of credible evidence, or because too few scientists are taking the time to explain. Those pushing petroleum are not hobbled by the scant science news on the local evening TV shows. In many areas of science the administration is basing policy not on scientific evidence but in spite of it. In an age where politicians are constantly determining science policy based on the loudest lobby, it is as critical to grapple with this problem as it is to note the lack of attention to science itself.

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