Science Communication: Where Does the Problem Lie?

When concerns arise about the public’s understanding of science—say, on the efficacy of vaccines vs. their risks—I see many articles, tweets, etc., bemoaning poor scientific communication. Communication involves multiple parties and several steps. The science must be published, discussed widely, explained openly, and eventually stated in terms that non-specialists can understand. It also must be heard—and not merely heard, but fairly considered, carefully weighed, and then accepted, rejected, or put on hold by the intended receiver. That’s not all, of course. There are generally intermediaries—including teachers, reporters, doctors, business interests, politicians, religious leaders, and others—who must also convey the scientific information, but who may block, change, confuse, or distort the message either accidently or deliberately. And none of this is a one-way flow of information. There are multiple voices, and there are feedbacks as questions are asked, answered in new words or with new evidence, and so on. So it’s a complex problem, too complicated for a poll to shed much light. And of course, a poll here will get a highly non-random sample—mostly scientists, students, and others with an interest in science. But perhaps some professional pollster or organization interested in the communication of science can develop a proper poll along these lines (with information about a respondents’ professions, ages, affiliations, etc.), and with proposals about how to improve the situation at the various roadblocks. (Or maybe similar polls already exist. Please feel free to suggest useful references in the comments.) It might also be interesting to run the same poll except with prompts about different issues such as vaccinations, global change, and evolution. So here’s the poll: If you had to say, which one of the following groups shoulders the greatest blame, and thus has the greatest room for improvement, when it comes to the problems of communicating science?

  • Scientists
  • Professional intermediaries such as teachers, reporters, and doctors
  • Other intermediaries such as businesses, politicians, and religious leaders
  • The public

[The image below is from the British Council / BBC World Service site on teaching English. It is shown here under the doctrine of fair use.]


Filed under Education, Science

11 responses to “Science Communication: Where Does the Problem Lie?

  1. This is a subject that has long worried me, Rich. I have been involved in this kind of business—communicating science to nonscientists—all of my life. I was not raised in an academic or intellectual household. My parents never went to college, and have no scientific interests. So I started with them. I used to debate Creationists years and years ago (about the time I first met you). Making what I do understandable to nonscientists has always been important to me.

    My opinions are just mine. I teach at a liberal arts college, and do far too little research, and publish less. I’m not famous. But I yield to no one in my love of science. I also have a strong historical bent. So I think the problem is easy to break down:

    1. Many folks conflating politics with science. Politics, by its nature, is seldom about truth, but instead about narrative. Science, as it should be practiced, is about caution, integration, and thoughtfulness, not posturing for effect. Many scientists have indeed become involved in politics, and have convinced many members of the public that they are to be trusted as much as politicians. It’s sad. And there is nothing new about this, historically: eugenics, N-rays, etc.

    2. The media attempting to describe science in terms of narrative instead of process. They also—like Social Media—use a “bumper sticker” approach to communication: more slogan than determined fact. When media types begin talking to politicians, for example, about evolution…do the media types asking the question really understand the concept? Or is it a slogan? Cynic that I am, I suspect the latter.

    3. Self-congratulation and insular narcissism. I cannot tell you the number of times I will hear one person call another “stupid” because of differences of opinion on matters of science—when neither person is trained in science! But they don’t mean the other person is “stupid” as much as they want to be perceived as “smart.” Both sides feel superior to the other as result of their name calling. The surest way to lose an undecided majority is to name call.

    This is why I admire your approach the way you do, sir. You do very little of this. Instead, you do your best to stay positive, calm, and refrain from sloganeering and jeering.

    With that approach, we *might* be able to win over the undecided public, instead of appealing to committed cheerleaders on the intellectual sidelines. That’s very idealistic of me, but you know what Wilde wrote about cynicism.

    Anyway, sorry for the speech. My opinions only. This general topic has been much on my mind of late.

  2. Useful reference: Hawley et al. 2011 examine some of these factors (exposure to science, political inclinations, religious orientation, etc). Although evo-focused, it assesses knowledge & distrust of science in general.

    Hawley et al. 2011. Evo Edu Outreach 4:117–132.

  3. Somewhat related poll from Pew of AAAS scientists reports that “86% of AAAS scientists often (37%) or occasionally (49%) talk with citizens about science or research findings”

  4. (Scientists, teachers, journalists, doctors, lobbyists, politicians, religious leaders, the public–all together–sing:)

    “A-polling we will go!”

  5. Paige Jarreau

    I can help with a “real poll” if you’d like! I have access to Qualtrics, and I do survey research quite often (e.g. for my PhD research)

  6. My comment is less general and much more specific. I write a blog and frequently reference peer-reviewed research and write detailed summaries of some specific research.

    But, as I am not affiliated with a university or library, I find it exceedingly difficult to get access to non-open source research. I do have a subscription to Science that I got on one of their special deals, but anything from Nature is hit or miss and the less well known journals are almost impossible for me to get access to.

    I will occasionally find an article in an accessible format on the internet, but it’s hit or miss. And I have written several 1000 word blog posts that I had to either scrap or radically later because I couldn’t get a particular bit of research.

    I’d like to get more research out in the public eye. But they don’t have a prayer of being able to read it. I’ve taught myself quite a bit of evolution and genetics so I could read and explain these papers to a lay audience. But without the papers, really cool things that would be great to share just get ignored.

    • Yes, it must be very frustrating not being able to get the papers you need. Two suggestions: (1) Contact the authors via email. Many will respond by sending a PDF; I, for one, try to fulfill all such requests. (2) Poke around on Google Scholar. You can often find links to PDFs posted on authors’ webpages, etc, for published papers or preprints.

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  8. another fred

    For me and many I know the problem is scientists who mix their politics into science. Most of them are trying to “save the world” and are therefore as balanced and objective as any other religious fanatic.

    Not all do that, but a disturbing number do, and their results look like anything but science.

    • This is actually an interesting point. But how do you know what’s science and what’s politics. I’ve seen many people complaining about politics in science. But the only time I’ve seen it is with the work of truly shoddy scientists, who are using the gravitas of science to promote a political agenda.

      Consider something like climate change. Do you think that all the scientists that are accepting of the evidence of human cause global warming are really using this as some kind of political point. Or are they drawing a conclusion based on the data, then trying to get people to understand the issues and the solutions?