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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

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Communicating Science 2: Criticism

So what about the unknown, unseen audience – the “general public”? How do you cater for everybody? The fact is that you can’t do this perfectly. I find it very strange when people (mostly scientists) are critical of science outreach on the whole. The main reason is that they feel the truth is inevitably being washed away. There is always a danger of this happening when your target audience has little or no prior knowledge. I myself have suffered from this syndrome of watching “Horizon” on a subject I know a lot about and then criticising it for being too low in content (N.B: this is different from criticising i for being factually incorrect, which has happened!) However, the fact is, when I was 12 or 13, my father and I would watch Horizon on the very same topics and be fascinated – I would have to admit that it was one of the things which sparked my interest in astrophysics and cosmology. Horizon did, in that example, reach their target audience perfectly, and they were not factually inaccurate in that case, they simply held back on all of the details (an interested adult viewer could find these out himself, but the casual viewer does not need all of it). I have learned that whilst the truth does not need to be compromised (and anyone who says it does is not doing a good job of communicating), you do have to learn to restrain yourself in certain contexts. As scientists we love our subject so much we want to tell you everything about it all at once, and it takes a lot of time and care, and the right environment, to do that (A blog is great for this because there is no-one to tell me to shush!)

New Scientist magazine received a reasonable amount of negative feedback recently for its headline, “Darwin was wrong” on 24th Jan (e.g. here) . My opinion on this, having actually bought and read the article, is that this was a clever (if a little cheap) device by which to engage a new audience – those who find it interesting that he might be considered wrong by a science magazine – and show them that he was in fact fundamentally right, but more recent work (discovery of DNA) allows us to improve on his great studies – just as Newton described what he could measure at the time perfectly well, but we have since developed ways to measure a correction on this. Hearing “Newton was wrong” from my teacher outraged me as a child but then I learned about Einstein…it makes you interested. I loved it, because people who would not ordinarily have picked up the magazine and read about this subject now presumably did (sales went up, one assumes the copies were read!) which in my mind is an excellent thing. People have concerns that it has given weight to creationist anti-evolution arguments. I simply think anyone who cites only a headline to support their argument has to be viewed with high scepticism, and those naive few to whom this is not clear probably do not need the apparent backing of a science magazine to sway them into believing something.

New Scientist magazine is purchased by the interested non-scientist and the scientifically educated alike, and I like it because it introduced me to subjects I now love, and I find out a little from it about other science. It aims to show people a little of something real in the research/industry world, that they can go and investigate further if they wish. And yes, to sell copies, it drags you in in a bit of a sensational or misleading way – but it explains itself. This is exactly the kind of science publicity that scientists seem to hate, but I disagree. Now, don’t get me wrong – as soon as Angels and Demons is out, I will be the first to the cinema booing at the back. The reason is that it is very factually incorrect, and in ways that sometimes don’t even affect the plot (an office with glass walls sitting a few metres away next to the beam pipe would be hideously unsafe!), and to be then littered with a tiny bit of truth this is a dangerous thing for fiction to do. What is real and what is false is not clear. However, as long as outreach to the public is done in a factually correct way, and anything that might have been misleading is clarified, I am not entirely against grabbing people by allowing a topic to appear more exciting/simplistic/controversial on first glance than it is shown to be later. This is exactly what the Jenga analogy does, and it still works – I am not left thinking I am actually made of jenga, am I? 😉

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