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Burton DeWilde | USLHC | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

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

  • Jerry Truitt

    Keep ranting, we need as many Americans as we can muster ranting that we need science. Science is what made us strong and science will keep us strong. We need more graduates with engineering degrees and more science projects. The government needs to realize this and fund worth while projects not put science under the ax of budget cuts.

  • Xezlec

    Well I’ll need to read that paper. It sounds like it conflicts with my personal experience, which has been, pretty consistently, that once people become more knowledgeable about a subject, their views become more reasonable. “A bevy of distinguished climatologists” presenting “overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change before Congress” does not, however, sound anything like making someone more knowledgeable about something. If I wanted to make someone more knowledgeable about climate change, I would:

    1) Choose pretty much anyone except politicians (whose livelihoods depend strongly on ignoring everything except their constituents’ views),
    2) Talk to them in a sweet, human, and non-threatening way, and mostly about the underlying subject rather than the political conclusions (so that they would be more likely to actually listen to a word I’m saying),
    3) Be interesting and engage the audience, and
    4) Explain not using “overwhelming scientific evidence”, but plain English and easy-to-understand facts, focusing not on rigor but on simple, common-sense things they can easily verify for themselves.

    If we use classrooms as our example of giving people knowledge instead of inaptly-named Congressional “hearings”, I think we do see an effect. People with a formal education in a subject are definitely less likely to hold extreme, far-from-mainstream views on that subject than people without.

  • Burton DeWilde

    Cuts in funding for science actually prompted the initial rant… It’s seriously short-sighted policy. Investing in science pays off significantly in the long term, so axing science funding now based on concerns about the national debt is a lose-lose!

  • Burton DeWilde

    The paper I linked to provides a nice summary of why the deficit model is incorrect and cites a number of more specific sources. It’s a good read. I agree, it makes intuitive sense that providing people with more knowledge about a scientific issue will lead them to reasonable conclusions about the science, but unfortunately it just doesn’t work that way in real life — hence the common misconception. The example of a panel of climate experts explaining scientific results to Congress is apt: In spite of *even more evidence* to support the consensus view on climate change, many Congresspeople continued or intensified their opposition to this view. It’s not ignorance of the science that fuels their skepticism, it’s ideology, religion, culture… which is exactly my point.

    As for your prescription on how to impart knowledge about climate change to someone… Well, your first point is a glittering generality that I would like to but just can’t agree with. Your others, however, are pretty much in line with existing guidelines (that I’ll be discussing in part 3!): stick to the science and stay out of politics, tailor your message and vocabulary to your intended audience, and as much as possible, *engage* the listener in a dialogue rather than talking at them from on high.

    Lastly, your comment about more formal education is another seemingly reasonable one, but research shows otherwise: More educated individuals tend to have more highly polarized opinions. The causes of this are, as I understand it, not fully understood, but are under study. I’ll probably mention this in a later post as well.

  • Carlo

    Congrats for your PhD graduation, cheers!

  • flashgordon

    O.k. suppose you have sixty percent anti-science and forty percent pro-science in a given democracy; guess where they’ll vote for or against anything scientific? If it’s scientific(evoltion versus creationism), they’ll vote sixty percent against whatever is scientific . . . every time.

    You’re thought is pointing to this mechanistic idea of having some ‘competent’ scientists inform the non-scientists and think that career politician or the sixty percent anti-scientific public to just go “oh, of course, therefore, I’ll vote the scientific way!” Ah, no, back to the first paragraph. Yes, we need to get people to know and be scientists if we’re ever to have a rational democracy(as oppossed to a disfunctional irrational democracy).

    That’s hard as it is; but, it’s also easier said than done. The twentieth century alone had more scientists, mathematicians, and engineers in all history; today, we have even more; but, they tend to mix up their science with their anti-science religion(mostly christianity; see 1corinth1, or even Genesis about the tree of life; or Dueteronomy 4 and I do believe 7 where a faction tells the others that they should stop studying the heavens). Arab religion is generally not anti-science; but, like Taoism that doesn’t understand that one must do experiment/observation and mathemtics to do science, Arab religion doens’t understand that one shouldn’t have all kinds of bogus restrictions on what you can or cannot look at . . . or else they’ll cut your hand off or worse.

    Most religious people today that get a science degree don’t think twice about the dark ages, they don’t know they’re own religion. If they did, well, they usually chose to ignore and anybody pointing it out(I’ve experienced this with a former indian mathematician friend of mine); people are socially bound up; they’re not going to tell their, sister, mother, daughter, or wife that their religion is bunk!

    The religious who end up in science just turn the principles of science and their religion around to make things ‘o.k.’ There’s nothing one can do; you just point out like in america, that religious discussion is not part of a scientific discussion and end it at that. Note: Kepler, Galileo, and Newton all bent their religion around to make it ‘o.k.’ to do science. Honestly, I think Kepler most; Galileo and Newton hardly ever mentioned ‘god.’ If they did, it sounded like they just put the mention of god in their books to shut up the social nazies mouths!(I don’t recall the mention of god in his Two new sciences; Newton only mentions god one time at the end of his Principia).

  • Burton DeWilde

    Hi, it sounds like you’ve reduced decision-making from a complicated, multivariate process to a simple binary. It doesn’t work like that. And no, I was not suggesting that scientists need to teach the public how to be and think more like scientists; in fact, that’s not true: the public only needs certain key information to make informed decisions on scientific issues, rather than all the details of the analysis itself.

    Your sweeping generalizations about religion and religious scientists don’t agree with my personal experience, but I can’t speak to yours.

  • Congratulations on the PhD!

  • CAM

    Only the ones afraid to think. I personally found the majority of those to have supplanted reason with religious dogma. Like TV replacing books, it is so much easier to have someone tell you what to think. It takes a special type of person to step outside of the box and go where no person has gone before.My hat is off to all of you.