When was the last time that you asked a scientist what they were working on and came away from the conversation without any clear understanding of the answer? Despite being in the final year of my BSc. in Biological Sciences, it happens to me all the time, even when speaking with researchers in my own field. At first, I told myself that I had not learned enough to grasp some of the concepts being studied at PhD level and beyond, but I have since revised my position: if you fully understand a subject, you should be able to explain it to anyone, at any level of vulgarisation. Furthermore, I have found that, as a general rule, scientists are very bad at communicating the objectives and implications of their research. This failing has serious consequences at many different levels.
The first is that the general public, even a large portion of its most highly educated members, is woefully misinformed about current advances in science and how these are affecting our lives. A poll by the Pew Research Center found that only 37% of American adults considered genetically modified foods to be safe to eat,1 despite there being no evidence that genetically engineered (GE) crops are less safe than foods from non-GE crops.2 Even groups such as Greenpeace peddle the idea of a “broad diversity of opinion among scientists on this issue,”3 whereas the Pew Research Center report found that 88% of scientists belonging to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) agree that GE foods are safe to eat.
The same poll found that only half the American public believes that climate change is mostly due to human activity, a staggering 37 points lower than the percentage of AAAS scientists.1 A Yale University study found that a minority of Americans (49%) thinks most scientists agree that climate change is happening.4 This impression of controversy may be explained by the way the subject is discussed, particularly by American media outlets.
First, many television shows still host debates between a scientist presenting the facts about global warming – inevitably Bill Nye – and a climate change denier. This arrangement gives the false impression that views on the subject among experts are split 50-50. Moreover, to an uninformed audience, such debates do not always project the irrefutability of the evidence for human-induced global warming.
This impression is the result of the manner in which science is communicated. Due to their determination to deal in probability, scientists tend to say: “there is no evidence that the current rise in temperature of our atmosphere has non-human causes,” rather than: “global warming is definitely the consequence of human production of greenhouse gases.” This form of measured argument can result in their appearing less convincing than sneering sceptics bringing a snowball to the American Senate floor.
Second, many news agencies continue to give wide coverage to global warming conspiracy theories. In 2017, the proportion of American adults who reported getting a portion of their news from social media rose to two-thirds. In this context, the move by social networking companies such as Facebook to label certain media outlets as untrustworthy could prove critical.5 Many people do not have either the ability or the will to differentiate an article that is reliably sourced in primary research from misreported science. This leads me to what the scientific community must do to combat the rise of disengagement with science and the increase in fake news.
Good science communication begins with education. Schools must impart to all pupils the crucial role that science plays in the advancement of our society. Whether passionate about science or not, every engaged citizen needs to understand such concepts as GE organisms, nuclear power and renewable energy. If they do not, they cannot influence the critical debates surrounding the risks and ethical implications of their use.
Even more importantly, the primary objective at any level of education must be to enable students to critically evaluate the information that they are confronted with on a daily basis. This aspiration includes explaining the benefits and limitations of the peer-reviewed scientific process and the differences between primary, secondary and tertiary literature (which consists of vulgarised reports of scientific research, understandable by the general public) so that the United Kingdom never again has a justice secretary who says that people in this country have had enough of experts.
Justice Secretary Michael Gove on Sky News on the occasion of his famous declaration.
The scientific community must also recognise the importance of vulgarisation, however. If the general public (and their elected representatives) do not comprehend the significance of the research scientists are undertaking, they will cease to fund it. They may even take strides to ban experiments they feel contradict the ethics of the society in which they are being performed. The dependance of science on public approval draws attention to the efforts researchers must make to insure they can explain their work not just to their peers, but at any level of knowledge.
Nowhere are the failings of science communication as apparent as in the United States. The second greatest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world cannot take the necessary steps to curb its environmental impact because its population is still divided about whether or not that is even a worthwhile objective. This situation is a failure both on the part of the education system, which did not equip its graduates with the means to differentiate between fact and fiction, and on the part of the of the scientific community, which for far too long has underestimated the dangers that stem from an absence of accessible and high quality tertiary reviews.
Insuring that our society understands and supports science, thanks to good science communication for every age group and at every level of society, could determine the future of our species on this planet.
- Pew Research Center, Internet & Technology. Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society (online). 2015. Accessed at http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/29/public-and-scientists-views-on-science-and-society/
- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects. Washington DC, USA: The National Academies Press. 138
- Greenpeace. The position of Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of the European Commission (online). 2014. Accessed at http://www.greenpeace.org/eu-unit/Global/eu-unit/reports-briefings/2014/20140722%20NGO%20letter%20on%20EU%20chief%20scientific%20adviser.pdf
- Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Public Opinion Estimates, United States (online). 2016. Accessed at http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us-2016/?est=happening&type=value&geo=county
- Pew Research Center, Journalism & Media. News Use Across Social Media Platforms (online). 2017. Accessed at http://www.journalism.org/2017/09/07/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2017/
- Climate Shift. Background and Context for Climate Wire Story on “Cultural Divide” Between Science and Journalism (online). 2011. Accessed at http://climateshiftproject.org/2011/08/01/background-and-context-for-climate-wire-story-on-cultural-divide-between-science-and-journalism/
- Financial Times. Britain has had enough of experts, says Gove (online). 2016. Accessed at https://www.ft.com/content/3be49734-29cb-11e6-83e4-abc22d5d108c?mhq5j=e5