Communicating Science – Part 1

“If you choose not to communicate what you do, your work will be increasingly irrelevant. Even worse, you will condemn the rest of us to receive information from sources who may be ignorant or who choose to distort and misinform for their own gain.”

-Carl Safina[1]

The world is an enormously complicated and interconnected place. As we all search for ways to know and understand it, there are lots of people who have answers for us: politicians, religious leaders, industry lobbyists, marketers, con men, cult leaders, and of course, scientists. In the above quote Carl Safina wisely warns: if scientists don’t make their answers accessible to the public, someone else will.

You certainly don’t have to look hard to find the answers coming from these someones else. Especially in certain areas of public discourse the opinions of experts – the very people who have spent the most time and effort thinking about and working to understand the issues – are being overwhelmed by the ignorant and misinformed. The result is that laypeople are being badly misled about many of today’s most relevant science and technology topics, from wind turbines and microwave ovens, to cell phones, vaccines, and nuclear power.

Part of the problem may be the poor quality of science journalism in many media sources. Some folks from the Union of Concerned Scientists recently examined 40 stories on climate science that ran on Fox News Channel between May and July 2012, and found that only 3 of them contained accurate representations of the relevant science[2].

A layperson consuming science journalism may not realize when they’re being presented with a confused and misinterpreted parody of science, but perhaps the most harm is done when some people do actually notice that the mainstream media is doing a terrible job of communicating science to the public. Glimpsing signs of incompetence and bias in the mainstream media’s reporting of science, many people turn instead to alternative sources of information, not realizing that these are often much more biased and incompetent at reporting on science than the mainstream media is[3].

Tree nuts found to lower death rate by 20 percent” says a headline from NaturalNews. “Those who consume nuts daily reduce the risk of death by 20 percent from any cause of death“, continues the article, citing a study from the Harvard School of Public Health. If you look up the study that this article is supposedly reporting on, you find it’s not even the type of study that could have discovered this if it were true. One of the links listed as a source for the article even says this explicitly.

Unfortunately, this is pretty typical of science articles from NaturalNews and many similar sites, and there’s a whole subculture of credulous people that love to spread this kind of nonsense around the internet, especially on social networks. They fancy themselves free thinkers, and you can usually identify them because they make a point of expressing their pride at ignoring the evil mainstream media. If a well-informed person points out that the information they’re spreading is utter nonsense, they are dismissed as brainwashed victims of the mainstream media conspiracy, dogmatically refusing to entertain any idea not officially endorsed in the canon of science. In this way, people making nonsensical claims totally unwarranted by the actual evidence are given a platform in the name of open mindedness and information freedom.

“A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to ‘debate’ on television.”

-Suzanne LeBarre[4]

Of course, there is an important dialog to be had that involves first understanding our technologies and then investigating and discussing their social impact, their safety, and their efficacy. Questioning the consequences of our technology is an important task, and that’s precisely why scientists spend an enormous amount of time and resources doing just that. That’s why scientists and engineers are usually required to take entire undergraduate courses on the social impact of technology. But this important dialog is being disrupted by the ignorant ranting and paranoid fear-mongering of a few who wish to impose their ignorance on others.

Just to take one example, it’s certainly not the case that the safety of vaccines shouldn’t be questioned. It should be questioned, it has been questioned, and it continues to be questioned. But it’s also pretty clear that the vast majority of the people who go around trying to “inform” people that the MMR vaccine causes autism don’t have even a basic understanding of the issue, and this is a terrible hindrance to this important dialog.

The next time you hear someone say that the MMR vaccine causes autism, ask them if they’ve actually read Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 paper that started the whole controversy; (it’s only five pages long). Ask them how many subjects were investigated and what type of study it was. Ask them to explain what that type of study can tell us. Ask them what other large or significant studies have been conducted on the subject. And, of course, ask them to explain why Wakefield’s medical license was revoked and his paper retracted in 2010. These are the most basic fundamentals of this issue, and yet you’ll find that the vast majority of the people spreading the word about the MMR “controversy” usually can’t tell you most of these basic things.

If twenty studies on a topic suggest one conclusion, and one lone study suggests another conclusion, it’s usually reasonable to regard the one study as a statistical outlier, and stick with the conclusion supported by a balance of the evidence. But a much more compelling story is to imagine that the one lone scientist discovered the real truth and is brave enough to speak out, despite their peers rejection of his work as a mere statistical outlier. And so laypeople with good intentions, motivated by a perhaps reasonable distrust of authority and driven by the positive affect of a good narrative, share a story all over the social networks and help to spread just the same kind of irresponsible misinformation they denounce elsewhere.

There’s lots of good science being done on these important topics that the public cares about, but for the most part it’s just not trickling down to the general public. If scientists don’t do a better job of explaining what they know to the public, the public will continue to be misinformed by incompetent people presenting confused misinterpretations of science, or worse, by those deliberately misleading people for their own purposes.

Continued in Communicating Science – Part 2.