One of the gaps I’ve noticed in our discussions is between people who (1) think of science as a biz like any other with the resultant glories and debacles, and everything in between. Other folks (2) tend to have a higher view of how the science biz works and what it produces in general. To our mutual great misfortune, this has become somewhat partisanized (at least by those who want to partisanize it). So one of the things I would like to work on is exploring this gap.
This recent Scientific American piece is of interest because it touches on topics we recently discussed vis a vis fuel treatment and research papers. I agree with the author, Katherine Wu, even though our backgrounds and experience couldn’t be more different (me 40 years in the forest science biz, her three years as a grad student in health science at Harvard.) Here is a summary of quotes:
First, we often assume that the gap between scientists and the general public is about knowledge.
Importantly, this also means being receptive to the perspectives and concerns of the general public, rather than simply dismissing the misconceptions we hear as false. Building the relationships between scientists and non-scientists is the same as building any relationship founded on trust: open communication and accepting culpability. We can churn out all the facts we want, but none of it will do any good if no one is willing to listen. It’s time to step off our soapboxes and have conversations on level ground.
Second, we assume that there is finality in science.
Next, a great difficulty in communicating science is that it’s almost never clear-cut or final—a difficult fact to swallow for most people looking to quickly glean information from the media. All data requires interpretation, which is subject to bias, and all results are preliminary. But hypotheses and tentative conclusions don’t make for good headlines.
When I earn my Ph.D., I might be able to say, “We think we may have come across something that explains a miniscule portion of a complex pathway that might be correlated with a slightly elevated risk of contracting this disease—but our findings are pretty specific to this one population studied at this point in time under these conditions.”
Meanwhile, media headlines say, “Lemons cure cancer!”
Science can’t compete with sensationalized misinformation. To combat this, scientists can publicize their process, rather than just their results. Rebuilding rapport between scientists and non-scientists means opening new lines of communication and increasing transparency—not only about scientific discoveries, but how we arrive at them. Science is incremental and in constant flux. In highlighting the scientific method in our communication efforts, scientists can also encourage non-scientists to look at data in totality and form their own conclusions and criticisms.
At a minimum, scientist or non-scientist, each of us should commit to simply showing up. Without participation on both sides, communication doesn’t happen, and we can’t challenge each other to relay information effectively. Communication is a conversation, not a series of lectures. Don’t just expect that conversations will happen—take part in making them happen.
Almost what we discussed in the comments here.
You can read the rest here. Thanks, Scientific American for no paywall!