“Lemons Cure Cancer” and Other Hazards of Scientific Communication

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!


    • Indeed! (Your first sentence)

      Most of us here like to collaborate (ignoring any negative aspects of this term), otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. Reaching a consensus, any consensus, anywhere, will be difficult, and seems to be fraught with conflict, even within the apparent sides. We’ve seen a local Sierra Club chapter go against the National leadership, and we’ve seen some timber companies go over to sustainable harvesting. I’d like to see the Forest Service de-politicized but, I guess we’re stuck with political pendulum swings.

      To reached the desired compromises, we’ll need full transparency. In this age of fake news and partisan studies, we need to spotlight those who are “not playing well with others”. Sadly, there are too many out there who will refuse to compromise, preferring the current state of affairs (and the realities of the Trump Administration, for better or for worse).

  1. Hi Sharon,

    If you please, would you put some meat on this bone and give specific examples of where people who thought either #1 or #2 on this blog? Thanks.

    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.

  2. Matthew- for #2 the key thing is when someone says “the science says.” For almost anything that is controversial and complex, scientists almost never agree. And we don’t want them to because in the science biz, disagreement is key to a broader understanding.

    Here’s an example from 2nd law (not to pick on him, I just found this first, I think due to the search engine), http://forestpolicypub.com/2016/12/15/in-search-of-common-ground/#comment-404570

    “reducing “catastrophic loss” is contrary to ecological science. ”

    There are so many ecologists, of so many stripes and spots (landscape, fire, fish, wildlife,the old systems NPK kind, applied ecologists (e.g. silviculturists), and so on and so on, since it became trendier to be a fish eco than a fish bio, or a forest eco than a forest bio. To me, saying “science says” is reifying an incredibly diverse and dynamic bunch of folks studying different things at different spatial and temporal scales, using different theoretical and practical approaches, checked or not checked on their work, into one thing, “science”. As in “science says” “that’s contrary to science” or “they chose politics over science.”

    A side note: I have notice this reification of science in some of the legal people I worked with, more than other people (scientists and practitioners). Perhaps it’s because by nature legal people are more comfortable with abstract ideas, and people in science tend to be more concrete in their thinking. Plus people in science know the inherent and delightful messiness of the science biz from the inside out.

    But now that you mentioned it, I can point it out when I see it in the future.

    • I think that would be useful. It sounds to me like you are saying something a lot like Matthew has said about backing up what you say. I’m sure I’m guilty of not doing that sometimes when I’m in a hurry, so I’d also put some of the onus on the reader to recognize how much weight should be given commensurate with the depth of the information provided.

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