Scientific miscommunication: an examination of the divide between the scientific community and the public
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Scientific miscommunication: an examination of the divide between the scientific community and the public
The United States of America is one of the world’s leaders in science. The scientific advancements made by Americans 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 fact, and as a result provides over a billion dollars a year in science funding (United States). However, despite the obvious usefulness of science to the public and the use of taxpayer dollars to fund scientific research, there is a clear disconnect between the scientific community and the general public. A majority of people in the United States do not understand or believe in many basic scientific principles. In addition, the public often questions the utility of the research scientists perform, while “forty-four percent of survey respondents cannot name scientific role models” (Kirshenbaum and Mooney 3). One of the causes of this disconnect is the lack of effective communication between the scientific community and the general public, and in order to even attempt to solve the problems that result, communication between the two must be improved.
II. Current relationship between scientists and the public:
The relationship between the scientific community and the general public is strained at best and full of contradictions. Evidence of this can be found in the public’s level of active interest in science. Most Americans recognize the importance of scientific advancements to their lives, and eighty-six percent of respondents to the 2008 General Social Survey (GSS) expressed interest in new scientific discoveries (United States). However, this interest is generally passive in nature. For example, only thirteen percent of the 2008 GSS respondents said that they follow science and technology news closely and only half had visited a zoo, aquarium, or science-related museum within the past year (United States). This conflict between expressed interest and active interest in science also manifests itself in the American public’s opinion on the federal funding of scientific research. According to the 2006 GSS, ninety percent of respondents agree that “science research is necessary and should be supported by the federal government” (“Dataset”). However, the importance of federal science funding relative to federal funding of other areas is more contentious, and the majority of Americans believe federal investment in areas such as economic growth are more important than federal investment in research and discovery (United States). All of this data suggests that, compared to other subjects affecting society, science is relatively low on the public’s radar.
In addition to this relatively low level of active interest in science, a large portion of Americans do not understand or believe in many well-established scientific principles. For example, sixty-seven percent of respondents to the 2006 GSS agree that the greenhouse effect is likely caused by a hole in the Earth’s atmosphere (“Dataset”). Furthermore, only thirty-nine percent of Americans believe in evolution (Newport). Also, the public often perceives scientific disagreement when there really is a consensus among the scientific community. Global climate change is a good example of this. According to one survey, ninety-seven percent of climate scientists believe that global climate change is a problem that has been influenced by human behaviors (Lichter). However, only fifteen percent of Americans believe that environmental scientists have formed a “near complete agreement” on global warming, while thirty-nine percent believe that these scientists have come to only a moderate agreement on the issue (“Dataset”). Clearly, what the scientific community believes and what the general public believes are very different, and these differences contribute to the discord between the two groups.
All of the previous statements demonstrate that there is gap between the scientific community and the general public. However, none of these statistics explain why this gap exists. There are many causes, ranging from religion to politics to economics to education. Many of these causes are outside the scope of a scientific perspective. However, one of the largest contributing factors is the general lack of effective communication between the scientific community and the general public. This communication is ineffective for several reasons, including a lack of understanding on the part of both groups and a dearth of collaboration or interaction between the two communities. In the following sections the causes for the communication breakdown between the two parties will be examined and possible solutions will be offered.
III. Science literacy among the American public:
One explanation presented by scientists for why there is a divide between themselves and the public is that Americans as a whole are scientifically illiterate. There is definite evidence that the American public does not understand or know the details of many scientific processes. For example, as previously mentioned, many Americans do not understand the difference between atmospheric ozone depletion and global climate change. Moreover, while the research done recently by the scientific community has greatly increased the world’s knowledge about how the natural world functions, the general public’s level of scientific knowledge has held relatively steady for the past thirty or so years (United States). Finally, according to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams, between 2000 and 2006 the science literacy of American high school students decreased compared to other nations, with the United States scoring in the bottom third of participating nations in 2006 (United States). Clearly, the American public is not informed on science as it could be.
The scientific community is understandably frustrated by the public’s scientific illiteracy. Its lack of knowledge about basic scientific principles decreases the public’s ability to engage, either actively or passively, with science. For example, eighty percent of Americans cannot even read the New York Times science section because they do not possess the basic scientific knowledge or vocabulary necessary to understand the articles presented (Kirshenbaum and Mooney 13). If average citizens cannot read this relatively simplified source of scientific information, it is unlikely that they will understand many results published by scientists. However, it is unreasonable for scientists to expect the public to be well-versed in the intricacies of science. Almost all scientists today have pursued post-secondary education in their scientific field, and about twelve percent of those people working in research and discovery hold a doctorate (United States). Obviously, most Americans who do not work in science-related fields do not have any advanced science training, nor should they. There is no reason for an accountant, or any other non-science worker, to understand biogeochemical cycles at the same level as a geoscientist.
More important than the public’s general lack of understanding about specific scientific processes, the American public does not fully understand how science works and what it can tell us. A 2008 study by the National Science Foundation (NSF) about reasoning and the scientific process found that while sixty-five percent of respondents correctly answered questions relating to probability, only thirty-eight percent could correctly answer questions related to good experimental design and the best ways to solve a specific problem, and only twenty-two percent correctly answered questions related to what science is and the kind of information one can garner from scientific research (United States). As a result of not understanding what science really is, most Americans do not realize that science cannot definitively prove anything or that its purpose is solely to provide well-tested explanations, which are continuously improved upon, for natural phenomena. Thus, when new scientific findings contradict previous findings, or when long-established ideas about natural phenomena are abruptly shown to be incorrect, the public often becomes frustrated and can begin to distrust claims made by scientists. In addition, because the public does not fully understand the scientific process, when they are presented with a multitude of contradictory “scientific” information they are not able to decide for themselves which information is more accurate or trustworthy. As a result, the public is easily swayed by scientific misinformation campaigns, such as those presented by global warming doubters or intelligent design supporters.
In order to bridge the gap between scientists and the public, it is clear that the public needs to become better informed about science. One possible solution is elementary and secondary science education reforms. However, in order for these reforms to be effective they should not focus solely on the memorization of the fine details of specific scientific principles. Unless the student becomes a scientist, in which case they will need to pursue more advanced levels of science education, most of fine details will not be retained into adulthood anyways because they will not be directly applicable to the person’s life. Not to mention that many of the scientific “facts” will end up being disproven or altered during the course of the students’ lifetimes. Instead, the focus must be on teaching the scientific process, ensuring that students understand how scientists developed the hypotheses behind the scientific principles that are being learned in the class, fostering critical thinking skills in the students, and ensuring that the students understand the great importance and relevance of science. Recent educational reforms such as the America COMPETES Act of 2007 attempt to both improve students’ factual and conceptual understanding of science. It is too soon to know if these reforms will have a positive effect on American scientific literacy. However, regardless of the outcome of these reforms, improving the public’s understanding of how science works will help repair the relationship between the public and the scientific community.
IV. How the scientific community shares scientific information:
In order to understand the disconnect between the scientific community and the public, one must first understand how science is communicated within and between these two communities. While scientific illiteracy amongst the general public is partly to blame for the strained relationship between the two, the way that scientists communicate is a large contributing factor. 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. Correspondingly, publishing articles in scientific journals and being a part of scientific conferences is rewarded through increased chances of promotion in academic settings (Goktepe-Hulten and Mahagaonkar 407). 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. It 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. As previously mentioned, the majority of Americans barely understand the science articles presented in media such as the New York Times. Obviously, there is absolutely no way that these citizens will understand the science articles found in scholarly journals. So, scientific journals are essentially 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 the 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. The scientific community needs to communicate directly with the public if it hopes to improve relations with the public.
V. How the public acquires scientific information:
Considering that Americans are not receiving their scientific news from the actual researchers, but instead receive it from some third-party, it is not surprising that a gap between what the scientists believe and what the public believes exists. To understand this topic more thoroughly, it would be useful to know how the general public gets most of their information, scientific and otherwise. Most Americans learn about what is going on in the world of science through mass media. According to recent surveys, forty percent of respondents cite television as their primary source of science information, twenty-eight percent cite the internet, eleven percent popular magazines, and eleven percent of respondents cite newspapers (Unites States). In addition, fifty-four percent of the respondents said that they would choose the internet to be the first route by which they learn more about a given scientific topic. While all of these sources can prove useful in conveying information to the public, they also have shortcomings that can contribute to the public’s lack of understanding about science.
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 and Mooney 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 and Illman 153). In addition, the nature of how the media presents information can be problematic. Science is an ongoing process, and what is known about various scientific topics is always changing. Scientists want the media to somehow demonstrate this incremental nature of science in all of its science coverage. However, media coverage tends to be just the opposite of incremental: it takes a single event and attempts to neatly describe all of the important aspects of that event in a single story (Kirshenbaum and Mooney 71). Thus, more often than not, science media coverage focuses on a particular hot new result, despite the fact that usually one cannot draw large conclusions from the results of a single scientific study. Because of all this, the public really only gets snippets of the information that they need to really understand the implications of a scientific discovery.
Contributing to this oversimplification is the fact that most journalists and news anchors do not have formal training in the sciences and do not work in a mainly science-oriented field. As a result, they may not fully understand the complexities of the science themselves and may inadvertently introduce inaccuracies into their story. There are science journalism programs at several graduate schools that teach their students how to read and understand scientific literature, how to determine the most important aspects of the research, and the best ways to present this information to one’s audience. In addition, since 1955 the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) has brought together science reporters to “foster the dissemination of accurate information regarding science through all media normally devoted to informing the public” (“About”). However, of the over two thousand reporters who are members of the NASW, only seven percent actually work full-time for a mainstream media source (Kirshenbaum and Mooney 69). Clearly, the majority of the people who work in the media are not science experts and there is a definite need for more accurate science coverage.
Finally, in contrast to the unintentional oversimplification and inaccuracy inherent to most science coverage in the media, some media sources are biased or intentionally inaccurate. The majority of news and broadcasting agencies are owned by media conglomerates, which are subject to only limited government regulation. While complete objectivity is impossible to accomplish, it is one of the most important goals of scientific research. In contrast, some of the 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. If there was more scientific information available directly from scientists themselves, there would be a greater chance that members of the public would receive accurate science news from mass media sources.
VI. Why scientists do not communicate directly with public:
Clearly, the current model by which scientists disseminate information is not an effective means of communication with the general public, and this lack of effective communication is contributing to the strained relationship between the two communities. This problem could be alleviated if the researchers themselves communicated directly 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.
Unfortunately, many scientists are not comfortable with engaging in public outreach. One reason is that most scientists are not trained communicators, so public outreach is outside of their comfort zone. While liberal arts colleges put more of an emphasis on interdisciplinary learning than technical or vocational institutions, most undergraduate science curriculums include very little in the way of public communication. Often, if science courses include some form of communication component (presentations, essays, etc), the target audience is the students’ fellow classmates, who most likely are also science majors. The situation is even more extreme in graduate-level science education, because in that case the students have almost no academic interaction with anyone who is not a scientist. Thus, future scientists grow accustomed to the best ways to communicate in a scientific setting, while never learning the best ways to communicate with those who have absolutely no scientific background. If a scientist does attempt to communicate with the media or the public, they have the tendency to discuss things as they would with another scientist, making public outreach very difficult.
Meanwhile, many scientists feel that going outside the traditional channels of scientific communication can be detrimental to their careers. Some scientists view public outreach as a watered down form of advocacy, so the motives of scientists who devote a lot of time on public outreach efforts may be questioned. Meanwhile, even if public outreach does not directly harm a scientist’s reputation, it can still hurt that scientist’s career. When academic institutions consider a scientist for tenure, the number of publications the scientist has and the prestige of the journals in which the scientist has published count as merits. Public outreach takes time and effort and can take away from time spent publishing papers. Thus, scientists who spend time on public outreach are at a disadvantage when they try to receive tenure. Carl Sagan is a good example of how the current establishment does not reward public outreach. Sagan was a great scientist who, throughout his life, published hundreds of papers, conducted important work on the greenhouse effect on Venus and the causes of Mars’s seasons, and greatly increased the public’s awareness of astronomy (“Carl Sagan”). However, despite all these achievements, the scientific community punished. Due to scientists who objected to Sagan’s interactions with the media, he was denied tenure at Harvard University in the 1960s and was denied admission to the National Academy of Sciences (Kirshenbaum and Mooney 39). Since most scientists recognize that their career might suffer as a result of outreach efforts, there is little incentive for scientists to attempt to communicate directly with the public or the media.
VII. Possible ways to increase communication between scientists and public:
In order for communication between scientists and the public to increase, the problems outlined above must be addressed. One way to increase scientists’ comfort with public communication is post-secondary and graduate science education reforms. Universities should incorporate communication as a focus in their science training programs. Future scientists should be taught “soft-skills” such as public speaking, writing, and communication alongside with traditional science skills. In addition, universities should stress the importance of being able to clearly explain one’s research to those outside the field of science. Future scientists should become used to the idea that public outreach is just as important for being a good scientist as publishing articles in a peer-reviewed journal. If the next generation of scientists becomes actively interested in public outreach and has the skills to communicate effectively, there is no reason why the relationship between scientists and the public cannot be rebuilt.
However, educational reforms alone will not work unless there are also institutional changes that reward public outreach among scientists. One possible change is the creation of fellowships and grants awarded to scientists who wish to pursue public outreach projects. For example, Bob and Margee Hazen and other donors have recently set up an award through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) the AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science. This award recognizes early-career scientists who demonstrate significant public outreach (Pinholster). While this is an admirable start, there needs to be more such programs to encourage young scientists that public outreach is important. In addition, successful public outreach could be used as a credit for potential career advancement, the way that publications are currently used. If this were done, scientists would not need to worry that by actively engaging with the public they are jeopardizing their chances for tenure or other types of promotion. If these institutional changes were implemented, more scientists would likely be willing to attempt to communicate directly with the public and the media.
VIII. Relationship between scientists and media:
Due to the fact that the public gets almost all of its science information from media sources, it makes sense for scientists to collaborate with journalists or other media workers as a way to better communicate with the public. Unfortunately, scientists are generally uncomfortable interacting with the media. Some of the reasons for this discomfort are the same as for communicating with the public in general, including a lack of public communication skills and institutional practices which do not reward media collaboration. Most of the changes suggested in the previous section would also help improve communication between the scientific community and the media. However, the main reason scientists are uncomfortable with media collaboration is that they simply do not trust the media.
If the goal is to increase collaboration between scientists and the media, it would be useful to understand why scientists have such a poor relationship with the media in the first place. One reason is scientists are worried that, if they contact a journalist to share information about their research, the media coverage will be either inaccurate or not represented properly. This might be due to a lack of science training on the part of the journalist. For example, forty-eight percent of scientists believe it is a problem that the media oversimplifies things in their science coverage (“Public”). However, scientists are also worried about misrepresentation of their findings because of an attempt to fit the story to a particular “angle”, because they are seeking journalistic “balance” by giving equal coverage to both sides of a controversy, or worst yet, because of media bias (Kirshenbaum and Mooney 71-72). For example, seventy-six percent of scientists believe that it is a major problem that “the news media do not distinguish between well-founded findings and those that are not”.
As a result of this inherent distrust of the media, on the rare occasion that they do interact, scientists have unrealistic expectations of journalists. For example, a survey of Dutch scientists found that ninety percent agree that journalists should allow scientists to check their work for scientific accuracy before those works are published, and about half of the scientists believe that journalists should be forced to make any changes the scientists wants (Kirshenbaum and Mooney 73). Considering that freedom of the press is one of the founding tenets of journalism, no self-respecting journalist would ever agree to these demands, and these opinions are downright insulting to most journalists. If scientists are to improve relations with the media, there needs to be a shift in how scientists view journalists. When it comes down to it, scientists and journalists are not as different as they may seem. Both groups recognize the importance of skepticism and attempt to achieve objectivity. In addition, both scientists and journalists acquire evidence in support of their claims, though the type of evidence is different for the two groups. Finally, both groups believe that their findings should be publically available, though journalists are more successful at achieving this goal than most scientists. Perhaps if scientists and journalists recognized their similarities the two groups would be better able to work together to get science information out to the public.
IX. Possible ways to increase collaboration between scientists and media:
Thus, some effort should be made to increase collaboration between scientists and journalists. A successful scientist should convey their findings to the public, and that means that he or she will need to interact with the media throughout their career. One way to do this, as previously suggested, is to train scientists in communication. This training should start during the scientist’s formal scientific education and continue on even after the PhD has been conferred. At the post-secondary and graduate levels, federal funding for communication courses within science curriculums could encourage universities to increase collaboration between members of the science and journalism departments, which in turn would lead to better communication training for future scientists (Kirshenbaum and Mooney 79). At the post-graduate level, workshops in which scientists and journalists get together and just talk to each other are a fairly easy way to make scientists more comfortable engaging with the media (Metcalfe and Gascoigne).
Once scientists become more comfortable with the idea of engaging with members of the media, there are steps that can be taken to make this collaboration easier and more useful to scientists’ goals. For example, some form of system could be put in place which allows journalists to easily contact experts in various scientific fields. That way, if a journalist is writing an article on new scientific findings and he or she has questions about something that they do not fully understand, they will have a way to find accurate and complete answers. In addition, there should be more opportunities for journalists and scientists to gain first-hand experience in what the other group does. This could take the form of conferences and workshops, or more simply, the formation of close working-relationships between an area’s scientists and the local journalists. In keeping with this close working-relationship between local scientists and journalists, it would be helpful if journalists were invited to actually sit in on experiments as they were performed. This approach could help shift the journalistic focus from “conclusions”, which can be misleading, to actual observations. By clearly and accurately communicating these observations, journalists would demonstrate to the public that science is about making the best hypothesis with the information available, not about finding absolute truths. While this is not an exhaustive list of possible solutions for increasing collaboration between scientists and the media, it demonstrates that collaboration is possible. If any of these options were implemented, it would be a step in the right direction. Until scientists can effectively engage with the mass media, they are not going to be able to broadly communicate with the general public.
If one looks at the science-society interface, it quickly becomes clear that there is a disconnect between the scientific community and the general public. A majority of people in the United States do not understand or believe in many basic scientific principles, to the consternation of scientists. In addition, the public often questions the utility of the research scientists perform, and some even actively distrust scientists. The divide between scientists and the public has many causes, ranging from religion to politics to economics to education. However, one of the largest contributing causes is the lack of effective communication between the scientific community and the general public. If the disconnect between scientists and the public is to be alleviated, communication between the two must be improved.
If one asks a member of the scientific community why he or she think scientists and the public cannot communicate, he or she is likely to say it is because the public is scientifically illiterate. It is true that most Americans do not understand many scientific principles on the same level as scientists. However, this is not a much of a problem as scientists claim. The real problem is that the general public does not realize that science never actually proves anything and that the goal of science is simply to make observations of the world and propose possible explanations for those observations. Because they do not understand how science works and what science can actually tell us, the public can be easily swayed by misinformation presented by anyone with a particular agenda, including politicians, the media, and even scientists. One way to remedy this problem is through educational reforms. In elementary and secondary education settings, the goal of science education should not be simply the acquisition of scientific “facts”, which will just be disproven in the future anyway, but creating a public who understands how the scientific method works, who understands that the scientific understanding of the world is always evolving, and who can use critical thinking skills to analyze any information presented to them.
While the disconnect between scientists and the public is partly due to a lack of understanding on the part of the public, it is irresponsible not to recognize that some of the behaviors of the scientific community are also to blame. One of the main causes is the fact that the scientific community does not actually attempt to communicate with the general public. In order to be a reputable, successful scientist, one must share one’s findings with and get feedback from the scientific community. However, there is no expectation for scientists to engage in a similar discourse with the public. In fact, often when individual scientists do interact with the public via press conferences and such, the scientific community questions their motives and objectivity. As a result, the public is forced to get its scientific information from third-party sources such as the mass media. This leads both to the dissemination of inaccurate or down-right false information and to the perpetuation of the view that scientists are aloof and uninterested in the opinions of the public.
In order to alleviate this problem, the scientific community must make an honest effort to communicate with the public. One way to accomplish this is through increased collaboration between scientists and journalists. Also, as part of undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate science education, future scientists should be trained in public communication. Finally, institutional changes should be made that encourage public outreach among 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 of scientists 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 to engage with this illuminating field.
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