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Burton DeWilde | USLHC | USA

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Communicating Science and Its Value, pt. 2

About three months ago, I wrote a blog post about science communication in which I bemoaned the disconnect between the American public and scientific consensus on many fundamental principles (such as evolution); suggested that Americans are exposed to science in a variety of media (movies, television news, online), but that much of this exposure contains inaccurate, partisan, and/or sensationalized information; and noted (without surprise) that science education has a positive impact on scientific literacy, so we should continue encouraging it — in a rational manner. Although I’ll be the first to admit that the post bordered on rant, it was based on a fair amount of personal experience and research, and seemed pretty reasonable overall. (I hope.) I had meant to quickly follow it up with a more pointed critique of the overall inability of scientists to effectively communicate with the public, as well as proffer some ways to improve the status quo.

Evidently, I was much delayed… for two reasons: 1) I realized that I was wading out into deep and choppy intellectual waters, so I should really do more research before opening my big mouth again, and 2) I finished writing my dissertation, defended it, and graduated with a PhD in Physics. So, after a line of research that led me far afield (into science education, cognition, social sciences, …), I am back. 🙂

First of all, I’d like to clear up some common misconceptions:

Gross domestic expenditures on R&D by the United States, EU, and selected other countries: 1981–2009. (NSF S&E Indicators 2012)

  • Americans are anti-science. Consistently, scientists are held in very high esteem (falling just behind firefighters and just above doctors) and are considered the most trusted sources of information (above religious institutions, news organizations, etc.). Public interest in science is high, as reflected most recently by the wide media coverage of the Higgs (sorry, “new”) boson discovery last month, not to mention all the friends and family who went out of their way to tell me how totally cool that was. Investment in scientific research and development has consistently increased over the last fifty years, and in total dollar amounts is higher than any other country in the world. Yes, the U.S. is pro-science!
  • Distrust of scientific findings stems from a lack of knowledge, so reducing that knowledge deficit will shift public opinion in favor of the science. This is the basic premise of the classic “deficit model” of science communication, which appeals to people trained to base their conclusions on evidence alone (i.e. scientists). However, research has proven it false. People aren’t just blank slates, waiting to be imprinted with scientific knowledge; they filter new information through cultural/religious/political perspectives, and when making decisions, these other considerations often trump pure facts. Counterintuitively, more knowledge may result in less support, and the hardening of opposition to the science. Take, for example, what happened in March when a bevy of distinguished climatologists presented overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change before Congress. No… it didn’t go well.
  • Scientists should be more assertive in public about advocating policy prescriptions based on scientific results. To me, this seems like a good idea, and it’s one that I have long supported. Unfortunately, research shows that when scientists talk about policy rather than just science, there are negative consequences: reductions in the percentage of people trusting what the scientist said, in the overall percentage of scientists that can be trusted, in the perception of the science itself, and so on. While Americans strongly believe that science should inform policy, they seem to prefer that scientists stick to the science, about which they have a credible voice. Note that I’m talking specifically in the context of communicating with the public, and not about the very good work that many science advocacy organizations do in collaboration with the public and the government. They key word, it turns out, is collaboration.

When Science Meets Politics: A Tale of Three Nations. ("In Science We Trust," Scientific American)

Science and technology are increasingly important in America, affecting aspects of our lives both small (morning routines, making social plans) and large (long-term economic prospects, health care), as well as the development and leadership of the entire country. The aforementioned disconnect with the public on both established and emerging scientific issues is problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which because it facilitates poor personal and national decisions (if memory serves, the Founding Fathers had quite a bit to say about the necessity of “a well-informed citizenry”). Of course, most people aren’t scientists, so they must rely on someone else to share salient and useful scientific knowledge with them, and in turn, make better-informed decisions. This is the role of science communication.

The problem that science communication currently faces is not a prevailing anti-science sentiment, nor a lack of activism on the part of scientists, nor insufficient knowledge of the public alone. I’ll explain next time.

Yes, I’m ending on a cliffhanger. 🙂

— Burton

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