Communicating Science – Part 2

Continued from Communicating Science – Part 1.

“The world of news is experiencing a serious earthquake. The normal way in which people access information – basically: press from newsagents, radio, television and more recently free press – is being pushed aside by new channels and media – websites, blogs, podcasts, google/news,… – and by a gradual change in the attitude of the public in terms of how to consume information and, in general, culture. The use of the verb ‘consume’ in this context is completely deliberate because it reflects a profound change of habits in our society, in which traditional journalism of intermediation between those who know and those who don’t is giving way to simple content providers.”

-Vladimir de Semir[1]

Science is able to answer questions about current issues that are important to the general public, but much of the public discourse is being dominated by sources who are either ignorant or who are intentionally misleading the public for their own purposes. The science being done isn’t trickling down to the general public, and much of the reason why has to do with the way the internet has changed the nature of journalism.

The rise of the internet, and especially social networks, has changed journalism in three important ways. First, it has made it easy and inexpensive for anyone to publish and reach a wide audience. Second, it has allowed laypeople to decide what information gets shared with other people instead of professional journalists. And third, it has made it difficult for organizations who employ professional journalists to compete with sources of information that may not have high standards for journalistic ethics.

The result is, to take just one example, that a significant fraction of the population believes that this is a map of radiation leaking from the Fukishima Daiichi power plant:

NOAA energy map shows the intensity of the tsunami caused by Japan's magnitude 8.9 earthquake

That’s not what this is a map of, but who could blame people for believing this? After all, this map was included in many publications where it was either implied or actually stated directly that it was a map of radiation…centimeters of radiation, judging by the legend.

Now, there are plenty of scientists who are experts in nuclear physics or nuclear power or radioactivity who could provide us with informed and well reasoned opinions on this issue, but their voices are being totally lost in a vast ocean of nonsense. If you read (and believed) that the Fukushima nuclear accident “will kill billions of people” you’d probably want to share that important-seeming information with your friends and family. But when a scientist draws on their expertise to give us an opinion that’s actually supported by the evidence, it might turn out not to be quite so dramatic, and it doesn’t tend to make the rounds on the social networks.

The job of choosing what information we receive used to be done by people in the media, but social networks have shifted this task toward average people. Unfortunately, ordinary people don’t usually have the time or expertise to judge which information is true or false. Increasingly the articles being shared with us are chosen not because they’re based on sound research or because their details check out, but for other reasons entirely. People share articles because of how sensational a story is, or how compelling a narrative it makes. People share articles because of the extent to which it reassures them of their current beliefs. People share articles because of what their sharing of the story will signal to others in their in-group about their personal allegiances.

This is probably the most important thing average people can do to help slow the spread of misinformation and nonsense: be skeptical. A significant fraction of the information being spread around on the internet is nonsense. Before you share something you read with other people, just take a minute to check it out. When someone forwards you an e-mail about something incredible, the least you can do is check if it’s been debunked on Snopes before you forward it to all your friends. If just a small percent of people could be persuaded to do even superficial fact checking, the spread of misinformation could be reduced dramatically.

Encouraging the public to think skeptically and do basic fact-checking provides a very coarse filter though, able to sieve out only the largest and most obvious chunks of debris polluting the public discourse. Scientists and other experts are in a position to provide a much better filter, but historically the task of communicating science to the public has been mostly left to journalists.

It’s not that communication isn’t a significant part of a scientist’s job. Scientists write papers and publish them in journals, they attend conferences and give presentations on their research, they sit on committees and lend their expertise to political processes, but they don’t usually spend much time communicating with the general public. This approach seemed to work better before the internet, when the media could afford to have a well-trained journalist thoroughly research and understand a story before reporting on it. Today this approach doesn’t seem to be working so well.

“I see a world where the craft of reporting the news fairly and independently is very much endangered; and with it a society increasingly fractured, less informed by fact and more susceptible to political and marketing propaganda, cant and bias. … I see a world where corporations such as Google and Yahoo continue to enrich themselves with little returning to journalistic enterprises, all this ultimately at the expense of legions of professional reporters across America, now out of work because their employers in ‘old’ media could not afford to pay them.”

-Neil Henry[2]

Keeping the public informed in a world where responsible science journalism is no longer economical is going to require scientists to learn to be better communicators themselves, and to write up their research with a general audience in mind. Many scientists are already doing this by starting science blogs and YouTube channels, or through projects such as Futurity or, to a limited extent, TED.

But imagine if science was not just made available to the public, but brought directly into their lives. A typical requirement for completing a graduate degree is to write and defend a thesis in front of a panel of experts. Perhaps it should also be required that a candidate write up a version intended for a general audience and present it publicly. Attendance should be free, and open to everybody. Universities could record these presentations and make them available on their web sites. The best science presentations could even be televised.

In a world where sound science is routinely rejected in the media by ignorant pundits, bringing together the people actually doing science and the people consuming it could even have enormous advantages over competent and responsible science journalism. The science would be more accurate. The public could meet scientists and ask them questions directly. The public would have a better understanding of what scientists do, and how they work to understand the world. The public would get to hear about the details of the science, how experiments are conducted and the reasoning that proceeds from them, not just the conclusions. Scientists would get a better idea of how their work is viewed by average people. And perhaps most importantly of all, we could help to create a culture where citizens are encouraged to be excited about science and discuss it openly.

“In recent years, more scientists have begun to realize that it’s not enough to just do science. Researchers have to be able to explain their work in words that make the discoveries relevant and understandable to decision-makers and the public.”

-Marlene Cimons[3]

The spread of misinformation and nonsense has been accelerated by the internet, and especially by social networks. This does great harm to our society, but there are a few things we might be able to to adapt to this change in how we receive information. First, we can question where information is coming from. Make a habit of wondering if a person communicating with you actually understands the subject they’re talking about, and demand that they explain the premises and reasoning behind their claims. Second, we can be skeptical. Before you think “Wow, that’s amazing”, try to think “Hmm, I wonder if that’s true”. And finally, scientists can learn to be better communicators and make their work relevant and accessible to a general audience. A closer relationship between scientists and the public could go a long way to building trust and respect between these two groups.

A few more examples of disintermediated science communication (communication directly between scientists and the public):