Avoiding Frankenstein in the Age of Google


In recent years, we have witnessed huge devastations including severe droughts in California, increasingly warmer winters, and devastating floods in Asia.

Research has irrefutably linked these extreme weather conditions to man-made climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change categorically stated in its 2013 report that global warming is mainly caused by human activities, citing numerous scientific studies with 95% certainty.

Yet a comprehensive survey released by the Pew Research Center last month shows that a majority of Americans (51%) are skeptical of climate scientists and their contention that climate change is man-made.

The key to changing this unaccepting mindset lies in how scientists transmit their research to lay audiences, said Dietram Scheufele in his standing-room-only talk,  part of the Media, Science, and Technology speaker series at Northwestern University on Oct 24, 2016.

And Scheufele would know. He is the John E. Ross Professor in Science Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His expertise lies in understanding public attitudes towards emerging scientific technologies.

In his talk, Scheufele highlighted a couple of hurdles that exacerbate the challenges of communicating science and technological advancements to the public.

First, emerging technologies evolve at such a rapid pace. Thousands of consumer products flood the markets long before we understand all the potential risks and benefits.

Second, “the science involved in, say, human germline editing or synthetic biology is very interdisciplinary and highly complex,” said Scheufele, adding that this was not something that the general public could glean from or connect to their pre-existing knowledge.

To an average consumer with only rudimentary biology knowledge - learned long ago in high school - the intricacies and potential pitfalls of cancer therapeutics can be overwhelming, and in a sea of acronyms and jargon, scientists can sound like they are speaking in tongues. So where can an uninformed reader turn?

According to Scheufele, the public gets their information from the media. But he lamented that over the years, most news outlets both large and small have been consistently down-sizing their science and technology departments.

This results in a dearth of “translators”-i.e. experienced, yet impartial journalists with the practiced ability to explain complex science to the public.

In the gap, the onus is then on scientists to become their own crusaders - having to effectively convey research to the public and earn their appreciation.

In addition, we live in a world where we can source truckloads of information on any given topic at the single click of a button. According to another Pew Research Center report, 87% of US adults are Internet savvy. Among this group, nearly 72% find health-related information online. However, “the more informed we get, the more polarized we become,” said Scheufele.

Scheufele’s research particularly focuses on the way our digital sources bias our opinions and decisions about scientific topics. In order to study and quantify this polarization, Scheufele has designed and carried out several experiments.

Scheufele and colleagues conducted a large-scale experiment involving 2,338 participants. Each person was asked to read a neutral article on nanotechnology. Everyone had access to the same article content, but the researchers manipulated the comments section.

One group viewed ‘civil’ remarks on the piece both positive and negative–generally praising the research or presenting alternate theories without debunking the research, while the other viewed ‘uncivil’ comments, either anti-nano (disparaging the research) or pro-nano (blaming a person’s mistrust of the new technology on their lack of intellect).

The participant group with existing skepticism and concern who read uncivil comments reacted with a more biased and anti-science stance than those who shared their initial outlook but read civil comments. As a result, participants with pre-existing concerns who read uncivil comments were more likely to mistrust nanotechnology after reading.

To mitigate the growing disconnect between the scientists and the public, Scheufele advocates that researchers should convey their science in a way that resonates with the public.

By ignoring this outreach, “we will run into problems regarding highly controversial technologies such as gene editing. Some may want designer babies, the military may want an eight-foot soldier with stronger tendons. And all we [as a media-consuming public] can imagine are the nightmare scenarios.” Scheufele added that this would lead to the public focusing only on the downside of emerging technologies.

Scheufele warned that unless scientists communicate the benefits of such new technologies, the general public would only get embroiled in the ethical, political and legal aspects of innovative concepts without the scientific underpinnings and potential advantages to critically evaluate the issues.

“An uninformed and uninterested public would invariably lead to budget cuts for science and technology by our elected leaders,” said Scheufele, noting that the United States is increasingly witnessing an anti-science and even science-denying attitudes from some lawmakers.

Emphasizing the importance of training next-generation researchers in creating an informed society, Scheufele said, “The educational component of communicating research is very important. We are driving down the street at 70mph in a car called Science Communication, but we are not in control of steering wheel anymore.”

And why is that? Fields such as nanotechnology and genome editing are churning out technological advancements and applications in leaps and bounds. As a result, consumers must follow these intricate and often confounding developments in the media at the same pace, leaving little room to process the data objectively or even rationally. All this shapes opinions ranging from passionate advocate to vocal critic, and leaving plenty of room for complete indifference.

Scheufele therefore concluded that scientists need to adapt to and engage with the public in a fruitful manner in this new, dynamic environment of public news consumption.



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