On Communicating Science

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Many scientific fields rarely show up in the news. And, when they do, they do not generate controversy. This is often because there is little direct application of the science to individual lives or to national policy – and because few people understand or are even aware of the work being done.

However, other areas of research – climate change, human stem cells, biotechnology and evolution, to name a few – do make it into the public consciousness, and usually not in a positive way.

In these publicly known fields, what is the role of the scientists (the only real experts) in influencing relevant policy decisions? Is the job of a scientist only to discover knowledge? How should this knowledge be translated into non-technical language without becoming incorrect, and who should be responsible for this communication effort? These are unresolved questions, which generate substantial disagreement within the scientific community.

Take climate change, for example. If you asked people at random what names they could associate with the subject, the top answer would likely be Al Gore – a politician and activist, not a scientist. While he is known for communicating reasonably good scientific information concerning climate change, many people mistrust (or trust) him based solely on their political views.

So this presents a problem – who can be trusted to communicate information for which there is a right answer? Not all issues have two sides. But in the media, both sides are often presented as equally valid, even if one side is an academic scientist and the other is the Heartland Institute, an organization dedicated to climate change denial and strongly linked with conservative politics, and the oil and gas industry (and whose logo happens to be a leaf).

There are many factors that contribute to the confusion over what science is and what results are true. As a scientist, I have little control over the financing of anti-science (or pro-doubt, as is often the case) institutions, the general lack of scientific literacy, and the ease of telling a simple non-truth, which at face value may seem more compelling than a complex scientific theory.

But, as a scientist I do have the ability to fight for ideas that I know are backed by strong evidence. People often say that “truth will rise to the top”, or something similar. This is not true. The truth needs advocates – scientists who know their field and have a deep understanding of what we know, how we know it, and what is still in question.

And science is certainly moving in this direction. There is a major focus from funding agencies and many researchers on scientific outreach and communication. Especially in climate science, there is a growing realization that doing good research is not enough – it is also necessary to communicate your results to the media and the public, and try to ensure that your work is presented and interpreted correctly.

There is pushback from some scientists on these outreach efforts. It is understandable that some are annoyed by the often difficult task of communicating a complex message in simple language, and then sometimes watching that message be misrepresented.

But, if we as scientists don’t share our knowledge and push the theories that we’ve tested and are confident in, it is unlikely that anyone else will. And, we can be sure that in any politically important field, there will be organized and informed people pushing in the opposite direction – and the issues are too important to let them be the only voice in the debate.

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