Illuminating the Masses: A Look at Science Communication in the General Public
Illuminating the Masses: A Look at Science Communication in the General Public
By most accounts the United States of America is the world’s leader in science. Many of the largest advancements in science, such as the decoding of the human genome and the invention of the internet, have been made by Americans. These advancements had, and continue to have, the potential to better the lives of millions through their implementation in health care, education, national defense, entertainment, and all other facets of society. The federal government recognizes this, and in turn provides over one hundred billion dollars a year in science funding through organizations such as the National Institutes for Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) (Kirshenbaum 3). However, despite the obvious usefulness of science in understanding the world and the use of taxpayer dollars to fund scientific research, the American public largely turns its back on science. The public is as involved in science as it is in politics, the job market, or the entertainment industry. For example, most Americans fail at the task of naming the major government science agencies, such as the NIH and the NSF, and “forty-four percent of survey respondents could not name scientific role models” (Kirshenbaum 3). In addition, a large portion of Americans do not believe many of the principles that are undisputed and well-established in the scientific community, such as evolution and natural selection being the mechanisms responsible for speciation, the safety and usefulness of childhood vaccinations, and the reality of global warming and the effects of human actions on climate change. Questions that arise from all this involve why there is such a disconnect between the scientific community and the American public and how it can be fixed. The full answer is complicated and beyond the scope of this paper. However, one component is the lack of direct communication between scientists and the public. In order to even attempt to solve the problems presented by this disconnect, the scientific community must put an honest effort into bridging the gaps through communication with the public.
In order to begin to understand the disconnect between the scientific community and the general public, one must first understand how science is communicated within and between these two communities. In the scientific community there is an expectation that scientists accurately present their findings and the possible implications of those findings to the public. This is achieved mostly through the publication of research papers in scholarly journals and through the oral presentation of data to other scientists at “research rounds” and conferences. This exchange of information between scientists is extremely important because it allows other scientists to know the methodologies used and the actual data obtained before accepting or rejecting the validity of any given explanation. This exchange of knowledge can also inspire different scientists, with different perspectives and ways of interpreting the same data, to ask important questions than might lead to an even deeper understanding of the scientific principle or discovery in question. Thus, there is no doubt of the usefulness of the current model of information exchange between scientists.
However, the problem is that the general public tends not to participate in this exchange. Although it is hard to find specific numbers on the topic, it is safe to say that most non-scientists in America do not read scientific journals. For one, these journals often require subscriptions or membership in some kind of scientific organization, so the majority of the general public does not even have access to them. In addition, even if members of the public do get their hands on a science journal the articles within are full of jargon that non-scientists do not understand and assumptions of knowledge of basic scientific principles which many Americans do not have. The majority of Americans simply do not know or understand many basic scientific principles, and as a result “eighty percent of Americans cannot read the New York Times science section” (Kirshenbaum 16). If such a large portion of the public cannot understand the relatively simplified New York Times science section, there is absolutely no way that they will understand scientific articles found in scholarly journals. So, scientific journals are completely ineffective as a means of communication between the scientific community and the general public.
Unfortunately, scientists for the most part use scientific journals and scholarly presentations as their only means of communicating their findings. Actual researchers very rarely contact journalists, news agencies, popular magazines, or other types of mass media to share new scientific knowledge. A good example of this is a book published this year entitled Scientific Writing and Communication. This book is intended to be a comprehensive guide to effective scientific communication. It covers minute details such as word choice and word order, and explains in great depth how to communicate clearly through research papers, review articles, grant proposals, posters, oral presentations, and job applications (Hofmann). Yet, despite this book’s thoroughness, it contains nothing on effective communication with the general public or with the media. Apparently, communicating with the general public is not an important enough part of being a good scientist to warrant a chapter, or even a paragraph, in this tome. It can be argued that scientists are not journalists, and as such they should focus their limited time and resources on doing research, not on explaining their findings to the general public. However, if the scientists do not expend even the smallest effort to explain their findings, it is unreasonable for them to expect widespread understanding and acceptance of these findings among the public.
Considering that Americans are not receiving their scientific news from the actual researchers, but instead receive it from some third-party, it is unsurprising that a disconnect between what the scientists believe and what the public believes exists. Most Americans learn about what is going on in the world of science through newspapers, magazines, television, and the internet. Unfortunately, the amount of accurate science coverage in legitimate news sources is limited. As a result of economic pressures and changing demand, the number of newspapers offering a weekly science section decreased by two-thirds between 1989 and 2005, and for every five hours of cable news there is about one minute of science and technology coverage (Kirshenbaum 6). It is difficult to accurately explain the complexities of scientific advancements in one minute or less, so often what is communicated is oversimplified and incomplete (Carsten 153). In addition, the journalists and news anchors who present the information often have no formal training in the sciences and do not work in a mainly science-oriented field, so it is unlikely that they fully understand the complexities themselves. This leads to further oversimplification and possibly inadvertent inaccuracies.
In addition to the issue of oversimplification and inadvertent inaccuracy, there is the issue of bias and intentional inaccuracy. The majority of news and broadcasting agencies are privately owned, so they are subject to limited government regulation. As a result, many news agencies are at least subtly biased in one way or another. While complete objectivity is impossible to accomplish, it is one of the most important goals of scientific research. In contrast, many in privately owned news agencies may have political, social, or religious agendas which cause them to present scientific information in ways that support their agenda. This can lead to a misrepresentation of the facts. This problem is amplified when the internet is the means by which the public receives scientific knowledge. While legitimate news agencies, even privately-owned ones, can be held to some form of journalistic integrity by others in the industry, anyone with a website can say whatever they want as if it is fact. People must sift through all of the scientific information presented to them in the media and online to determine which is the most accurate, but because they are not experts in the field they are often led astray.
This problem could be alleviated if the researchers themselves communicated with the press and with the public. If the public has access to information straight from the scientific community then they would not need to obtain this information from less than reliable sources. Of course, the information would need to be presented in a clear, understandable way, using common vocabulary. There would need to be an effort to explain the science in a way that any common person with no scientific background could understand. A classic example of the success of this approach is Carl Sagan. An astronomer with effective communication skills and a passion for public outreach, Sagan made science cool again during a time when the political atmosphere was decidedly anti-science. Through public lectures, a television mini-series, and popular books, he helped many Americans to understand the cosmos as they never had before (“Carl Sagan”). Sagan provided easily accessible, accurate scientific information in an easy to understand manner and did not act as if he was superior to the public because of his place in academia. As a result, he became wildly popular and helped foster a generation’s interest in science. Sagan is not unique; many other researchers could also engage the public if they tried.
While it is true that public outreach requires time and effort which scientists would rather spend on research, it is extremely important if society is to know or care about what researchers are doing. The general public wants to know more about scientific advances and how these changes affect them. However, due to the scientific community’s passive stance on public outreach, most people end up learning oversimplified and inaccurate versions scientific principles and discoveries. This often leads to a lack of understanding on the part of society and frustration on the part of scientists. While not a cure-all, more direct communication will help improve relations between the two parties, allowing a more efficient implementation of scientific knowledge in society. The time and effort put forth by this generation could be the needed catalyst for change within society. Science has brought about innovation and wonders into our daily lives. Only time will tell if the public can continue engage with this illuminating field.
“Carl Sagan”. Encyclopedia of World Biography. 5 Oct 2010
Carsten, Laura D. and Deborah L. Illman. “Perceptions of Accuracy in Science Writing”. IEEE Transactions on Professional
Communication Sept 2002: 153-156. 1 Oct 2010 <http://faculty.washington.edu/illman/ieee.pdf>.
Hofmann, Angelika H. Scientific Writing and Communication: Papers, Proposals, and Presentations. New York: Oxford
University Press, 2010.
Kirshenbaum, Sheril and Chris Mooney. Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future. New York:
Basic Books, 2009.