Science Communication: Hopeless?

Last year my colleague (and  I suppose  friend) Mathew McGann and I participated in the Canberra focus group for the Australian Science Communicators (ASC) audit of how the discipline is doing in Australia. The results of this audit can be found here.

Mat and I put forward the views that we’ve been debating among ourselves for years. No doubt those views will continue to change as we learn more, but at the moment I think I can summarise what we see as the problems with science communication (SC) with a few questions which don’t seem to be answered at the moment.

How do we measure the effectiveness of an SC activity?

Even if we devoted funds to measuring how SC events are implemented, it’s not clear that we have any metrics for measuring “science engagement” — whatever that is. Should we test people before they enter Questacon about their knowledge of seismology and then quiz them again upon leaving and then follow-up the study six months later?Should we conduct a longitudinal study of people, tracking their consumption of various SC publications, events, documentaries, etc. and then compare this with how their opinion evolves on climate change? It’s an open question and there are probably answers in the private sector from marketing and PR and maybe even in the public policy research community.

What are the goals of a given SC activity?

Not only do we often not measure the effectiveness, or know how to, I think we don’t even know what counts as effective. Mat and I are still debating about this and I think it goes to one’s core political and philosophical beliefs as to which camp you belong to. I’m suggesting that the following are the implicit, tacit  goals of current SC and that we should pick one or two and make them explicit, so as to better focus efforts and move towards a situation where effectiveness could actually be measured according to some criteria.

The implicit goals of science communication

  1. The evangelical goalScience author Mike McCrae was in our session and made a bunch of very clever contributions; he jokingly suggested the religious analogy which I’m developing. The evangelical impulse is to share the Word of science. SC people are people for whom science is wonderful. They are the enlightened Elect who have been touched by the divinity of the natural world and want others to see how great it is. We want others to see how incredible it is that a photon travels for thousands of years, from the other side of the galaxy, across space, into the eye of the observer of the night sky. If only others could be filled with the awe that we feel, then surely the world would be better off.
  2. The social engineering goal. Why is it that people abhor the idea of drinking recycled water? Why can’t people see you’re better off getting your kids vaccinated? And why can’t they get it into their heads that just because one crank says climate change isn’t happening, it doesn’t mean the jury is out on global warming. The social engineering impulse is almost Marxist in its attempt to try and enable the masses to achieve scientific consciousness, that they may become more informed voters, better able to recognise pseudo-science and help us usher in a new scientific utopia.
  3. The utilitarian goal. We need more scientists and engineers as well as a more scientifically literate public in order to cope with highly complex problems and to improve standards of living around the world. Therefore if we can effectively communicate science, more people will understand it, ergo, the world will be better off.

All of these approaches are easy to caricature and doing so is quite fun. But I really do think that if most people interrogate their SC motives, they’ll find they more or less fit into one or more of these camps  though I am keen to hear of any other goals people have. As for me, I think I tend towards the first, particularly now that I’m quite interested in the idea of appreciating science in the same way that people appreciate art and literature (more on that later).

Number 1 aims to convert people already interested in ideas to becoming interested in science. Number 2 wants people who are hard-core disengaged from science to become more scientifically literate  I believe this is very hard, perhaps impossible to do.

Which leads to the next question:

Who is the intended audience of an SC activity?

This question is probably a  bit of marketing 101 and taken for granted by anyone making an advertisement or conducting a public awareness campaign. And yet in most SC endeavours I’ve witnessed, there has been little or no focus on defining an audience for a given event, article or production.

This is crucial. I propose that the population of potential targets for an SC effort divide at the highest level between those whom it is practically possible to engage and those it is practically impossible to engage. Of the possibles, they branch off again so that there are those who are already engaged in science and therefore presumably receptive to more SC and then there are those who have not previously been interested in science, but who possess a potential to be interested. Within these two categories there are many gradations; some are on the cusp of being engaged, some will require an exceptional effort to be engaged. Personally, I feel an effort aimed at those who are primed to be engaged in science is the most fertile ground. I am thinking, — vaguely and without any empirics to back this up yet  of the set of people who are generally interested in ideas but who are somewhat allergic to science and numbers  The clever, artsy people who like learning but have not been engaged by the dreary model of “crystal clear” science communication or who just haven’t gotten around yet to reading that Bill Bryson book.

To conclude, these three, big questions are unanswered but I doubt it would take very long to answer them because there are such well trodden paths in other disciplines which can be used as models. Overall, though, the approaches of the discipline have so far been unfocused and scatter-shot, but have produced some wonderful works of non-fiction writingradio and TV documentaries.

Anyway, to end on a bathetic note,  here’s a quote from Bertrand Russell:

I do not believe that science per se is an adequate source of happiness, nor do I think that my own scientific outlook has contributed very greatly to my own happiness, which I attribute to defecating twice a day with unfailing regularity.

2 thoughts on “Science Communication: Hopeless?

  1. Alison says:

    I tentatively agree with the Evangelical goal, but with the caveat that the science used to sell the “awe” is accurate/not just misreported rubbish. For example, just the other day (earlier this week in fact) someone shared a “science” article to a friend which popped up in my news feed (these friends are not themselves “scientists” but creative-artsy-well educated people who are receptive to science/excited by scientific phenomena, the ideal targets for Evangelical sci com). The article was titled something along the lines of “scientists find memories are located in single neurons”. Naturally I clicked and followed the link, which went to some website reporting on tech and science news. I got as far as the second paragraph before I just couldn’t handle reading anymore. (Specifically the author asserted that neurones are “very small and not the kinds of things you can stick electrodes onto”. Seeing as the technique of doing just that was developed nearly half a century ago, with Nobel prizes even having been awarded for it, plus the fact I’ve spent most of this year sticking electrodes onto nerve cells – technically astrocytes, I’m fairly confident in saying the author’s statement is wrong). Skipping the rest of what was going to be an obviously flawed piece i glanced down to the comments to see if anyone had pulled the author up. Amongst all the science vs religion and consciousness debates there was one commenter who pulled the author’s report up on the grounds of scientific accuracy of the report. This guy’s problem was to do with the complete misreporting of the original research articles findings (I didn’t even read that far), to which the author of the news piece responded that he hadn’t actually read the research article, he just read the university’s press release.
    So he misinterpreted a press release, reported this misinterpretation, and then filled around the core misinterpretation with his own completely naive (and wrong) statements of the field.

    I then notice the article was written in 2012 – but the popularity, the awe of the content, was such that it was still being shared with excitement between receptive people on social media. Yet their awe is founded on a piece of fiction. And this isn’t a one off. Discussing said article with my supervisor today, he gets the same thing from friends and family members who aren’t in the field, who mostly have arts backgrounds, who will always tell him excitedly about some new scientific discovery made by researchers at which is generally somewhat inaccurate or just downright wrong. But they are super excited by it, and can’t wait to share it with him because he’s a scientist so he’ll understand the amazement they feel too, right?
    (Or for a negative mood spin, take the “meat is as bad as smoking” reports that caused waves through the media as another example of poor scientific communication)

    Whilst it’s good that people are being engaged and inspired by science it shouldn’t be at the expense of the science. Specifically, the facts/research should not be twisted to make it more fantastical. Original research is fascinating enough, and the task should be to sell it to people that way – teach people why the actual data is interesting. And to do that the sellers need to have basic understanding of the thing they’re selling or else they’ll always be selling fantasy. I don’t think that’s really much better than people saying “there’s this guy, right, and he cured the blind, AND, get this, he could not only walk on water but he could also turn it into wine! How amazing is that! And he also has one of the best selling books of all time, which has been translated into all languages – so he must be legit in his amazingness – you should read his stuff and be amazed with me!”…

    1. Jamie Freestone says:

      Thanks for the comment, Alison. Funnily enough I’m now doing a PhD pretty much on the topic of how awe is used to communicate science, specifically in pop science books. I think you make a good point, especially because, for me, something is made more impressive, more awe inspiring precisely if it is real, accurate, etc. That’s part of what I want to look at as I’m interested in attracting artsy, creativey type people to science, but the point I want to emphasise is that — unlike fantasies, fictions, art which may be beautiful, awe inspiring, etc. — there’s some extra value in something being real or true.

      The mis-reporting of some cool scientific fact is interesting because on the one hand it’s great to see non-scientists attracted to the wonders of reality; yet it’s a shame they get duped because the accurate story is rarely less impressive than the corrupt one. At least it gets people into the idea that the world as described by science can be aesthetically pleasing.


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