Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Communicating science to the public.

I was planning to write a topical, link-y post (and was amassing a stack articles to discuss and everything). But, seeing as how a cold has taken up residence in my skull, I feel like crud. And, since I need to "comfort-blog," I've decided I'd much rather take up some of the issues that came up in my class today. (For the record, this class is chicken-free matzoh-ball soup for this cranky academic's soul. Or, you know, whatever that is that keeps wiggling my pineal gland.)

Today we were discussing the challenges of getting effective communication of scientific information between scientists and the public. One of the problems that came up is crappy science reporting, even at major news outlets. Not just science reporters who don't get what the scientists are trying to explain to them, but science writers who make up their minds about how the story's going to go, then contact the scientists looking for quotes to support the story. And, of course, ignoring (or spinning) the quotes from scientists that don't support the stories they've already decided to write. And being unresponsive to complaints from the scientists that they've been misrepresented. (I'm not dropping names on this one. But I will say, as I leaf through the paper of record, that one particular author who has got the scientists worked up somehow gets the refrain from a Rupert Holmes hit stuck in my head.)

But honestly? This was more of a shock to my students when I first taught an ancestor of this course in 1999. The mass media seems to have gone to Hell in a handbasket since then, and lots of people today know it. You can't trust what you read anymore, nor even what you see on the network news. If Jon Stewart doesn't cover it, how can we believe it? (Sadly, while The Daily Show has very good coverage of the religion beat, it doesn't have regular science coverage.)

So, if the mass media isn't a reliable conduit for communication of Important Information between scientists and non-scientists, what's left?

Well sure, noted environmental scientist Cameron Diaz has a new show about the environment on MTV. But most of the folks with scientific knowledge to communicate don't have that kind of time (or agent). There are well-established scientists who write for a broader audience (as Stephen Jay Gould did with his columns in Scientific American; unlike Isaac Asimov, Gould hasn't done a lot of posthumous writing). But it's not obvious that most scientists are good at this kind of writing, or that there will be any professional reward for doing so (where by reward, I have in mind something like it not being held against them when they come up for tenure). It's not clear, for that matter, that there's much of an audience for such writing.

And that may be the fundamental problem: maybe the public just doesn't want to know. After all, most people come out of school thinking science is impossibly hard, or boring, or both. (There is, I am sure, a special circle of Hell reserved for the brain trust who has brought this sad state of affairs into being.) People who are not scientists would, most of the time, rather not have to think about science. If they wanted to think about science, maybe they'd have become scientists. How do scientists know what's going on with global climate? Who cares, just tell me if I can still drive my SUV. What's the best way to study the effects of diet on human health? Dude, just tell me whether I should eat carbs or not. Maybe the public wants access to particular bits of scientific knowledge, but the details of how that knowledge was generated are not going to have a big or willing audience.

Indeed, even though the public funds science, a lot of the time the public just doesn't want to hear what the heck is going on in the lab. Maybe we buy science (through our tax dollars) because it's something we think we need (like homeowner's insurance, or an appendix) even though we've never actually made (conscious) use of it. It's almost like we need to know it's there, but we don't want to have to think about it.

Why do we want to know it's there? Maybe because we see science as a generator of objective knowledge, of facts. Some day, those may come in handy. Yes, when the scientists talk amongst themselves, the straightforward facts can get to sounding pretty complicated, but when it gets translated to USA Today, it's all pretty direct.

But how do people in the public actually use these facts? Do they use them at all? People seem inclined to latch onto the headline about the medical or scientific study whose conclusion they agree with (or would prefer to believe). Me? I like the studies that say coffee is good for you. There doesn't seem to be much inclination to root around and find out what most of the scientists think is the case. Maybe it's a side effect of our political discourse, where each opinion seems just as good as the others provided it is delivered in a suitably pleasing and persuasive manner.

But this isn't a healthy diet of scientific information. We're gorging on the chips.

I don't like to be the conspiracy theorist, but there do seem to be quite a few interests that may benefit from the relative ignorance of the American public about matters scientific. Ultimately, I think this ignorance will hurt scientists and the public. I think the scientists will need to work out some reliable ways to get the word out. But I think the public will also need to put some more work into it as well.

More work for everyone! Yeah, you're all pretty psyched. But the alternative is not going to be good for most of us.


At 7:03 PM, Blogger Laura said...

I seem to have started a little revolution at my school. I don't know how effective this will be, but after my blog talk, some of the scientists on campus are looking to put together a group blog for publich outreach. I'd like to see them include people from beyond our little campus, but maybe this is the best place to start.


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