Disconnect Between the Scientific Community and the Public

Crystal Leonard's picture

Biology in Society Senior Seminar

Bryn Mawr College, Fall 2010

Session 7

 

 

Disconnect Between the Scientific Community and the Public

"What a strange set of historical circumstances, what odd disconnect between science and society, can explain the paradox of organic evolution - the central operating concept of an entire discipline - remains such a focus of controversy, even of widespread disbelief, in contemporary America?" (Stephen Jay Gould, 1999)

Questions

  1. Where does this disconnect come from?
  2. What are the consequences of this disconnect?
  3. How can this disconnect be resolved?

Background 

The general public is lacking in scientific literacy (http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind04/c7/c7s2.htm)

A large portion of the public does not believe or is unsure about basic scientific principles. For example, according to a recent survey only 39% of Americans believe in evolution (http://www.gallup.com/poll/114544/darwin-birthday-believe-evolution.aspx)

(1) Where does this disconnect come from? 

Science education: Dakota and Kendra have already led us in a discussion of this topic, so I won't belabor the point. Suffice to say, American science education could benefit from serious reforms. As of right now, the majority of Americans do not have a solid understanding of basic scientific principles.

Science in the media: The public gets most of its news, both scientific and in general, through media such as television news shows, popular magazines, and the internet. How do you think this affects people's understanding of science?

Influence of politics, religion, etc: While a person's political affiliation may change over time, most people identify more with one political party than the other. Does political affiliation affect one's interpretation of scientific data? 83% of Americans identify as religious (http://religions.pewforum.org/reports). Are religion and science inherently contradictory to each other? How does religion affect the interaction between scientists and the public?

Communication between scientific community and public: How does the scientific community present new information to the public? Is this method effective?

Highly publicized scientific retractions: How do these affect the public's opinions of scientists?

 

(2) What are the consequences of this disconnect?

          How does this disconnect affect public policy in short-term and long-term?

How does this disconnect affect the scientific community in short-term and long-term?

 

(3) How can this disconnect be resolved?

Education reforms: what kinds of reforms? how expensive? how effective?

Increased regulation of media: freedom of speech/press? effectiveness?

Increased direct dialogue between scientists and public: format? takes time away from research? can the two effectively communicate?

Increased cooperative dialogue between scientists and religious/political leaders: usefulness? effectiveness? 

Any other ideas?

 

Summary of class discussion (sarah)

Our discussion started off with Crystal asking us what we felt has caused the disconnection between the scientific community and the general public that is currently so prevalent.  Crystal mentioned first the fact that many Americans are lacking in their scientific education, a topic that we had discussed in length a few weeks ago.  We then moved on to science and the media.  We all agreed that the scientific community does not communicate with the general public as effectively as it could.  Some of the reasons that we came up for this were that they don’t have time to go into all details in depth and they would have to “dumb down” the information they do present.  Another reason that was mentioned was that science doesn’t have the answers to many questions, and the media and the public have a hard time accepting this.  With society so focused on finding concrete answers to all questions, it is not easy for scientists when they are unable to give such answers, just more theories.  This led to a quick discussion about how while scientists focus on the theoretical, and the details, and is often portrayed as unemotional, society is more focused of the practical, the big picture, and is as a whole very emotional.  

The next topic we discussed high profile retractions, and how that has led to distrust in scientists.  We could not agree as to whether the media has led to the premature publishing of data, or the fabrication of data, or if the scrutiny of the media has helped prevent such problems.  We did, however, agree that the media has placed high demands on scientists, and such retractions have been severely detrimental to the progress scientists have made when it comes to gaining the trust of the media and the general public.

We then talked a little bit more about how scientists as a whole have a hard time talking to the media.  While there are a few scientists, such as Carl Sagan, who are very comfortable talking to the media, many are not so comfortable, and as a result their information does not reach nearly as many people.  This led to a discussion about whether or not we should be taking a class on how to communicate properly with society, or if all classes should incorporate some amount of practice in communicating with the general public.  We all agreed that if such instruction was incorporated in the education of all scientists, it might help bridge the gap between the scientific community and the rest of society.    

We then quickly discussed in the last few minutes science v. religion & science v. politics.  We all agreed that in the “war” between science and religion, it is religion on the offensive and science on the defensive.  While religion is very important to many people, the point was made that science and religion do not have to be mutually exclusive.  The point was also made that such a conflict is much more pronounced in the US than it seems to be in any other country.  Similarly, we agreed that political beliefs seem to affect who individuals will believe, and as a result affect what science individuals are willing to believe.

 

Conversation and Implications to Date

“… I use Wikipedia all the time to help me understand certain things. I think this is because it is more successful at accomplishing the task we agreed scientists are often bad at… communicating with the general public. I find as a student that my knowledge is insufficient to understand some things at the level scientists present them on, but I have had some exposure to the issue/facts so I am frustrated by the “dumbed down” version. Where is the middle ground?”  adownton

“Should a paper that is not academically accessible to someone like my biochemistry professor be appropriate for a scientist to publish? To some degree, doesn’t this encourage a gap amongst all scientists, even with other scientists in the field of biochemistry? Using this as an example, it seems as though the scientific community cannot present new information to the public in an effective manner, in fact, they cannot even present it to other scientists in their own field…”  mlhodges

“These programs (Discovery Channel, Scientific America, Bill Nye the Science Guy, etc) appear to have met with some success, but the fact is that most people don’t find them very exciting a la football or Dancing with the Stars. America needs to reset its priorities and focus more on the importance of how science is going to affect our lives and not always fixate on entertainment so much.”  Colette

“… in the 50s and 60s science articles were written in a more informal, accessible manner. Now it is difficult to fully comprehend a science paper unless that is your specific field… I think science articles would be much more fun to read and more interesting if the writers tried to scale back the amount of jargon and focus on explaining the results in an accessible manner.”  lbonnell

“I just think that [Mythbusters] is a good example of how to communicate an important idea of science, to look at the world skeptically and try to figure things out, and does so in a really fun way.”  Hope

 

  • There is a need for access to scientific information that is presented in an easy to understand but not dumbed down manner
  • Scientists are ineffective in communicating their research in a way that non-scientists, or even scientists in other fields, can understand
  • This ineffective communication may partly be due to increased specialization among scientists and the increased use of specialized jargon
  • Disconnect between scientific community and public may partly be due to public caring more about the instant gratification of the entertainment industry than the long-term effects of scientific discoveries

 

Continuing discussion in on-line forum below

 

Comments

Florinda LG's picture

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Chris Clauser's picture

From an artist stand point

As a fine artist and digital artist I may have a different perspective due to the people I am around and the lack of educated statements from people at my young age or area. I think there are two main issues. One is that people today have to worry about so much stuff, may it be house payment or health, that they convince themselves that they have no time to study science or try to understand it. The second is the perception of today's society where the easy fun things are the best result for life. There is a Lotus epidemic. Much like the famous Greek tale, people want to live in a world were tension or frustration is lifted from their daily lives. Learning about the fundamentals of biology or the advancements in string theory are boring cause there is no stimulate that TV would produce or parting. The chemical reaction in you head is a lot easier when watching TV cause humans are very comfortable with pictures than text.My view is that it's irresponsible to not learn about the world you live in. I will say at the age of 23 I still have a lot to learn, but sadly cause of my teenage ignorance I still have a lot to relearn. I believe that there is a connection between the science community, math community, and artistic community, but it has not been taped to today's public. I do feel the artistic community is lost, but I do feel there are artist like me out there typing the same thing in another website. Da Vinci is always an artist first inspiration, but a majority really don't know how much of a contribution he was to art, math, and science I also feel that there is a lose of history in the community. Research or discoveries that may be irrelevant in the present, still have importance in the present and future. So in the end I don't feel that there is a problem with the communication. It's just the lack of honesty from us artist (Scientist and Mathematicians in my view are artist) and our realization that the public may never understand science information. Knowledge should not be dumbed down cause then it wouldn't be knowledge. It would be a misinterpreted headline. Sorry if this didn't make any sense cause I am an artist but I try to express the best possible way while having so many pictures going through my head. Thanks

dfishervan's picture

What can science education do to help?

I believe that a bulk of the problems involving scientific communication stem from the education provided to science and non-science students alike. This past weekend, I was volunteering and a breast cancer event. One of the women interrupted the person who was informing the women present of the risk factors for breast cancer to ask how society is supposed to trust all of this information when one day “they” say this puts you at but the next, “they” retract their original statement. Although I am not sure if this was intentional but, the women sort of put a negative tone on the “they” referring to the entire scientific community, implying that she did not appreciate scientists’ indecisiveness as it inconvenienced her lifestyle choices. I think it is imperative to teach all members of society, especially those who express no interest in pursuing science, that the process of science is constantly evolving and that science is not fact. Incorporating an element of the history of science  in introductory science courses might help promote a better understanding and appreciation of the scientific process.  By witnessing the past development of science, society could better appreciate the risk scientists are taking by presenting their findings to the public and understand the temperamental status of these findings.

As we mentioned in class, another step science educators should take involves incorporating more public speaking assignments into science courses. Currently, the majority of tasks assigned to students such as exams and lab reports emphasize intrapersonal skills and self-reflection. Consequently, the science courses are attracting and producing students who lack certain communication skills. Creating one mandatory public speaking course for science majors may help to build these student’s communication skills however, it could lead to the further compartmentalization of public speaking in science major’s minds. To successfully and continuously build scientists’ communication skills, I think most science courses need to integrate a form of public speaking into their curriculum which allows student to work on their ability to communicate their results to the public. This could be accomplished with lab report presentations to the class and final poster projects that culminate in a brief presentation to members of the entire campus community who possess varying scientific backgrounds.

 

smaley's picture

I think part of the problem

I think part of the problem is that there are shows such as Bill Nye, and Myth busters, and there are journals such as the Journal of Biological Chemistry, there is little in between.  Yes, there are news outlets such as the NY Times, and Scientific American, that try to convey scientific information in more accessible ways, such articles are written by journalists who are acting as interpreters between the scientific community and the general public.  In order for the disconnect between the two to go away, both populations need to make an effort to learn the others "language" so that communication can increase, making things better for everyone, instead of stubbornly refusing to give up any ground, and making everyone suffer as a result.

Riki's picture

I am also in the biochemistry

I am also in the biochemistry lab that Leah and Moira talked about. I can understand why science papers published in journals like Nature or Cell or the JBC are tailored to other scientists in a specific field -- the purpose of the paper is to inform other scientists studying the same thing of new observations. It would be a waste of time for them to read an excessively long article that didn't even get at the details of the study. Sure, the details might not make any sense to someone not in that specific field of study, but that is probably because they have not spent years studying it in grad school or in a lab. So I can understand that science papers are written for a very specific audience, but that doesn't mean that others shouldn't be able to understand new observations as well. Maybe there should be scientists who are better at communicating to a broader audience who can translate the information into more accessible terms.

Paul Grobstein's picture

science literacy, and how to achieve it

Interesting connection between this conversation and our earlier ones on The science of science education and The science of science education, con.  I like a lot the idea that there should be a class on communicating with non-scientists or, even better, that the skills of communicating with non-scientists should be a component of all classes.  That might, though, require starting with the premise that all science is tentative, rather than definitive, that there is value in this posture, and that not everyone needs to "believe" in the current scientific story (even about evolution?). For some more along these lines, see

Kwarlizzle's picture

i think that the disconnect

i think that the disconnect between the scientific community and the general public is at the same time problematic and not problematic at all.
in cases where the science of something directly affects us and legislation - eg vaccination/ charged issues like stem cell research - then the public's apathy and ignorance about science is problematic because
 - we could make the wrong decisions in our ignorance
- we are vulnerable and gullible: anyone who can talk well can sway the argument to his side, by presenting the facts any way he choose
 
But in other cases, there is more to life, and people just could care less. a prime example: Harvard U has just started a class called the science of cooking, where they are doing all sorts of useless things. I say useless because trying to figure out the physics of why chocolate fondue falls in a particular pattern, or the chemistry behind what egg and flour mixed together looks like is pretty useless. Most people just want to enjoy their food. Or the science of death: for most people, death is more a social phenomenon than a scientific one - you know, dealing with the loss of a loved one and all that. Not very many people would care about apoptosis or lack of oxygen. And that is fine too.
 
So yes - on the one hand, ignorance is bliss, on the other hand, what you don't know could very well kill you.....

hope's picture

mythbusters

Has any one ever seen the show mythbusters? Well it's basically these two guys who do experiments to try to disprove urban legends and such.  I just think that it is a good example of how to communicate an important idea of science, to look at the world skeptically and try to figure things out, and does so in a really fun way.

lbonnell's picture

Jargon

I'm in the same biochemistry lab as Moira and I remember the discussion our class had. I thought one interesting thing that our professor mentioned was how the scientific writing style has changed in the last 50 years. She described how in the 50s and 60s science articles where written in a more informal, accessible manner. In particular she cited Watson's and Crick's original article on DNA as a easy to read paper for biology majors. Now it is difficult to fully comprehend a science paper unless that it your specific field. One major change has been the use of jargon that didn't exist 50 years ago. There's so much jargon and terminology now, as a result the scientific advances of the last 50 years. However, I think science articles would be much more fun to read and more interesting if the writers tried to scale back the amount of jargon and focus of the explaining the results in an accessible manner. 

Colette's picture

             Unfortunately,

             Unfortunately, the majority of Americans are underinformed about basic science. It is possible for scientists and the media to work together, as we have seen in the development over the past few years of programs which attempt to educate the public about science (i.e. Discovery Channel, Scientific America, Bill Nye the science Guy, etc..). These programs appear to have met with some success, but the fact is that most people don’t find them very exciting a la football or dancing with the stars. America needs to reset its priorities and focus more on the importance of how science is going to affect our lives and not always fixate on entertainment so much. How to change interests is monumental challenge that has not been solved in centuries of effort.

 

mlhodges's picture

Disconnect within a field

 A couple of days ago in Biochemistry we were discussing a complicated paper from the Journal of Biological Chemistry. The question of whether or not we were really learning something by reading and analyzing the paper arose. A couple of students in the class explained that they found the paper to be “useless” because they couldn’t comprehend anything in the paper. They thought it was written at a too-advanced level. In order to complete the homework assignment, which was a paper analysis form asking us to describe what the figures and tables were showing, the students said they ended up copying the “summarization” sentences describing the diagrams that were scattered throughout the paper. The professor responded to this dilemma by explaining that that was the point of the assignment – to learn to read scientific papers by struggling through them and grasping what you could. First of all, to me, it sounded like students were copying and pasting, not truly understanding what the figures and tables were showing…  In addition, to my surprise, the professor admitted that she herself struggled with understanding the paper. As a Biochemistry professor at Bryn Mawr who has had an extensive education specifically in Biochem, it made me question whether or not her struggling was an appropriate response to the paper or a sign that there was a greater issue. Should a paper that is not academically accessible to someone like my Biochem prof be appropriate for a scientist to publish? To some degree, doesn’t this encourage a gap amongst all scientists, even with other scientists in the field of biochemistry? Using this as an example, it seems as though the scientific community can not present new information to the public in an effective manner, in fact, they can not even present it to other scientists in their own field...

 

adowton's picture

Middle ground

 An issue that comes to mind when discussing this topic is the use of Wikipedia to get scientific information. On the one hand, we are discouraged from using this information for fear that it might not be completely accurate. I believe anyone with a Wikipedia account can modify/edit articles and I am not sure whether there is some sort of monitoring entity that prevents people from getting too out of control/off base when they are modifying content. Knowing this, I guess I understand why we are not supposed to use Wikipedia as a source for our papers, however, I’m not going to lie…I use Wikipedia all the time to help me understand certain things. Whether I use it to understand a concept that’s confusing me from a dense textbook assigned for class, or simply as a starting place to gather ideas for writing a paper, I find it an incredibly useful tool. I think this is because it is more successful at accomplishing the task we agreed scientists are often bad at…communicating with the general public. I find as a student, that my knowledge is insufficient to understand some things at the level scientists present them on, but I have had some exposure to the issue/facts so I am sometimes frustrated by the “dumbed down” version. Where is the middle ground? I can sometimes find it in a place like Wikipedia. I think it would be great if people (perhaps a collection of scientists and non-scientists to get both perspectives) were to put sincere effort into creating an internet forum/television show with the GOAL of presenting scientific information in a way that addresses the people who stand in middle ground.

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