Communicating science

Last night, just before switching the lights out at Chez 6000, I caught sight of this link telling me “why scientists are losing the fight to communicate science to the public”, and shared by Jacques, along with this excerpt:

Tellingly, Gawande refers to the ‘scientific community’; and he’s absolutely right, there. Most science communication isn’t about persuading people; it’s self-affirmation for those already on the inside. Look at us, it says, aren’t we clever?
That’s not communication. It’s not changing minds and it’s certainly not winning hearts and minds.
It’s tribalism.

Well, I thought, that should be good for a read. And then I fell asleep.
Understandably too: it had been a long day in the lab.

So, when I woke up today, and once my morning duties were out of the way, I did read it.

“Hmm,” I thought, “Not quite, mate.”

And then I wrote this.

It’s not that I disagree with everything that Richard P Grant says. Not at all. It’s just that, for me, he misses out on several important points regarding “scientists” “communicating” “science” to the “public”.

Scientists, by definition, do science. If they are in a position whereby they have done science to such a point that it’s something considered worth communicating to the public, then it would seem reasonable to assume that they are pretty good at doing science. At no point, however, does it follow that they are good at communicating this, especially to the public.
So who do we appoint to communicate our science to the public? Well, that’s where things begin to fall apart.

A lot of science is pretty technical, and there’s definitely a skill in being able to translate that technical language into something that the general public can understand. That’s not belittling the public (not intentionally, anyway). Every profession has its own specialised terms and language: legal, building, engineering, accounting, retail, whatever. The scientist above is fluent in Sciencese – they speak it every working day and have done for years. But they might as well be speaking Azerbaijani if they’re going to use it to communicate their exciting findings to the public. (Obviously, this point assumes that the presentation in question is not taking place in Baku.)
Thus, 99% of the time, using the scientist to communicate science to the public is out. After all, when we try it, it can go horribly wrong. (Sidenote: I still get angry about that story.)

“Fortunately”, we now have celebrity scientists like the Peter Pan-esque Brian Cox; celebrity scientists who are gainfully employed in the art of wandering past radio telescopes in far-flung lands, speaking slowly and waving their hands, demystifying science and providing it in an understandable, bitesize format to the general public. But there are problems here as well: often, the science is so dumbed-down that it’s near unrecognisable as actual science. Again, not necessarily Prof Cox’s fault. However, Grant’s use of the phrase describing Cox as “performing a smackdown” highlights another issue – these scientists are primarily celebs now – it’s about performing and drawing viewers, and the science is often lost, buried in the making of a popular show.

We could go to the newspapers. Or… er… not. Because then, we have to add another dash of sensationalism (along with the inevitable misunderstanding and inaccuracy) to the mix. In my experience, many of the journalists writing about science in the popular press don’t really actually understand the science they are writing about. Certainly in newspaper reports about the science that I know about, the stories regularly miss the point, and filled with wild misinterpretations and are, in a lot of cases, simply not correct. When you’re writing about a field that is founded on logic and rationale – “cutting through bullshit and getting to the truth of the matter is pretty much the job description” – inaccurate reporting is actually worse than not reporting at all.

But the fact is that most science is really rather dull. It’s mundane, routine stuff. Landing a washing machine sized satellite on a comet half a billion kilometers from earth really is the sharp end of things. Most of the stuff we do on a daily basis leaves us cold and unfulfilled, let alone the public.

But then, the public to whom we’re allegedly losing the fight to communicate science. In addition to the challenges I’ve described above, what about them?

Yeah, they’re problematic.

Can I be honest here? Because it’s not just (as Grant points out) that “people don’t like being told what to do”. Sure, that is a factor, but there are a couple of bigger elephants in the room: generally, the public don’t actually care about science, and generally they are too stupid to understand it anyway oops – I mean: “you’ve got a population that is – on the whole – not scientifically literate”. Yeah. That’s it.

But then, do the public actually need to have science communicated to them? When I walk into a lift in a tall building, I don’t need to know how the motor works, nor why the cable chosen was the cable chosen. I just assume (hopefully correctly) that there is an expert who has made these decisions for me (hopefully correctly). I don’t need to know why, and actually, I’m fairly uninterested as well. Maybe scientists need to understand that people actually don’t care about what we do and what we achieve. They just want to go to the doctor and be given the correct antibiotic or other drug, they don’t care how it was discovered.
This “fight to communicate science to the public” – does it really need fighting?

For me, perhaps, the saving grace in all of this are popular science magazines. The higher end ones: New Scientist, Scientific American, DiscoverNat Geo (to a point, anyway). These are scientists best bet in communicating science to the public. They’re technical enough to be challenging and to help people learn, but without being inaccessible. And, perhaps more importantly, because they are voluntarily purchased and read by those individuals who want to be told about these things.

As for the excerpt shared by Jacques and which opened this rather long op-ed (sorry), well yes, a lot of science communication is amongst the “scientific community”, and maybe some of it is for self-affirmation and validation. A lot of it is essential to establish collaborative and symbiotic research and progress though. And anyway, that aspect of scientific communication isn’t what Grant’s otherwise generally valid article is about: it comes across as a bit of an unnecessary (if not entirely inaccurate) dig. There’s a whole other piece to be written about the way science is funded, communicated and carried out in academic and/or research institutions. It’s a lot longer and more boring than this one, I promise. And I’m not going to write it.

In the meantime, that line on scientific communication: “Look at us, it says, aren’t we clever?”
Well yes, actually we are – it’s just that we’re not very good at telling you about it and you don’t really care anyway.

4 thoughts on “Communicating science

  1. I’m not going to do a point-by-point commentary on what you’ve written, because I agree with most of it. But at the same time, it leaves some issues out, and to Grant – and my – detriment, we didn’t make those clear. It’s true that scientists aren’t usually communicators, and that when they focus on communication over science, the science can get very dumbed-down.

    However, given the scientific illiteracy of too many people – and the near-complete absence of good science journalists, as well as churnalism and so forth, it would be great if more scientists could effectively communicate ideas that are not too technical to be conveyed to a layperson.

    This is what I (and Grant, presumably) were trying to focus on, and it’s a rhetorical and political point above all else. It’s traces back to an issue I’ve been talking about at conference a lot over the past few years, and address in Chapter 6 of this tremendous book, namely the “backfire effect” (that link is not to my book, I promise), whereby being given data or evidence that contradicts existing beliefs can cause people to double-down on the false beliefs.

    What that can tell those of us who try to communicate science is that a softly-softly, drip-feeding approach, and even a non-confrontational one, can be far more effective when trying to combat pseudoscience. And I think – given the example of anti-vaxx that Grant leads with – that he was trying to address that set of issues in particular, without ever making it explicit, meaning that people will read the piece as being about science communication in general, rather than debunking bad science, which is what I think he’s actually intending to talk about.

    (Anyone who gets this far into this comment and isn’t yet bored of my musings can read a slightly fuller explication of some of these thoughts in this post and talk.)

  2. Jacques Rousseau > Well, ok. If you’re correct, I was got. For me, Grant’s approach was far too general to be read as specifically about debunking bad science. Sure, there are plenty of examples of that in there: anti-vaxx, GMO, climate change and homeopathy, but I think it could still be read either way. Additionally, his tweets on it don’t mention that either. (He’s here, for anyone’s future reference.)
    The same problems still exist for that subset of scientific re-education though. And maybe they’re even accentuated in those situations. And yes – the “we know better than you” approach seems even more antagonistic and self-defeating here. But ok, I accept that there is a need to communicate here: there are difficulties with my rather simplistic “ah, well fuck ’em then” approach.

    Oh, and btw: you should have touted that excellent tome before Pravin was summoned to the Hawks. (Even though neither Grant nor I had written this to comment on yet.) 🙂

  3. I as a scientist am torn between the “Deep Sigh, Let’s Tell This Story Simply”, and the “Fuck ‘Em, They’re All Too Dumb To Understand” approaches. And in fact oscillate between the two, depending on the subject, my irritability index at the time, and a number of other factors including whether or not it is Wine O’Clock.

    I also flip-flop between the “Let’s Do This Gently” and the “Listen To Me, You Fuckwit!” approaches – with the latter taking precedence when it is anything to do with Mr T Mbeki and HIV denialism, and the former being experimented with when it’s members of the family expressing doubts about vaccination.

    Communicating science IS difficult – which is why there are not many people who do it well, and those that do, get overworked to the point of having to make pronouncements on just about everything. Or, in the case of The Banting Professor, developing an omniscience delusion – but that’s a different can of fat.

    I think we should all try to do our best at this difficult task: we should try to develop the skills necessary to communicate simply and well, and we should try to do it OFTEN – which means developing a level of conversance with social media that many “serious academics” (aka pompous ones) think is deterimental to their work.

    Which, as anyone who knows me on Twitter knows, is a crock of excrement.

    Oh, and 6 000 miles from civilisation would mean you’re somewhere on a 10 000 km-radius circle centred on Cape Town? B-)

  4. Ed Rybicki > Wow. Write stuff on science and you get some high-powered commenters. 🙂
    You are right in that we need to do our best at communicating to the public. There was a certain amount of laziness (and some small degree of facetiousness) in my assertion that we should perhaps just give up. Obviously, it’s not really an option.
    But who’s going to be the one to hang the bell around the cat’s neck? Aren’t we all too busy doing science to find the time to learn another new skill? Or is this so important that it’s actually added as a foundation module for BSc students?

    In the meantime, I’ll (continue to) follow the examples you cite your first two paragraphs. Understanding your audience is obviously key, as is wine.
    Let’s face it, things could go either way. :/

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