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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

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Communicating Science 3: Compromise?

It seems that when you don’t really know exactly who you are communicating to, the balance inevitably becomes a compromise. However, I think it is worth giving the audience the benefit of the doubt. I don’t want to give a lot of maths or jargon, or tell people more than they want to know, but I do think that people can handle very difficult concepts more easily than they might think, if the communicator does his/her job well. When putting together my 3 minutes of fame (heehee), I asked for alot of feedback from physicists as well as friends and family. What I noticed by comparing suggestions from all groups is that, despite our tendency as scientists to dislike a lack of detail in public outreach, when challenged to actually come up with something ourselves our estimation of what the average person outside of physics can cope with can be somewhat skewed in the direction of patronising.

Kathy Sykes, Prof. of Science and Society at Bristol University, who wrote about this issue for New Scientist on 18th April, and Ben Goldacre, writer of the Guardian’s “Bad Science” column had an interesting debate on this on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday. I really feel they both touched on crucial points.Kathy, who is a judge on the Famelab panel, felt that scientists are too critical of science outreach attempts, too quickly claiming they are  “dumbing down or not including enough science”. However, Ben Goldacre raised the good point that science is the only subject in which the audience is pandered to in this way, for example the rules of snooker not being pointed out to us during a game on TV. He also felt that real scientists are rarely the ones to find a place publicizing science, which is a great shame:

“You neglect your nerds at great cultural and economic cost.”

Bad representation of science is happening all the time, from journalists twisting scientists’ words to over-simplification (to the point where to content is no longer factual!) of an idea just to popularize it. One of the worse things I notice is that the question “why do scientists think X is true” is rarely answered well. People are all too quick to excessively defend their research to the public to sell it as brilliant. It needs to be absolutely clear to the non-scientific world just how scrutinizingly critical and cynical the scientific approach is, or else any old so and so can come along and give a bit of a half-explanation for why they think, for example, the LHC will destroy the planet, and some people will eat it up, because that is how science is fed to them anyway. For example, people were frightened and confused by the idea of LHC black hole production because of their understanding of the behavior of a naturally occurring one in the universe. Without adequate explanation of why the LHC black holes would be completely different it is hard to shake the instinctive idea that they could destroy the planet.

The way that the public were reassured on this issue as a standard was initially far from satisfactory because the level of detail and depth that can be gone into to explain this is almost endless. Now, the CERN website gives a safety page with a brief summary, with references, of all of the separate problematic theories and (in not alot of detail, true, but it isn’t a paper!) why they have in turn been ruled out. I will try to do a blog on this topic at some point with more specific discussion and not just “because collisions like that happen everywhere so it must be safe” (I read alot of papers about this!), but in the meantime, read the safety page!

Now, I must pull my neck in a bit and say that there is a big difference between misrepresentation and oversimplification or “dumbing down” of science and simply limiting the actual science you want to get across to something realistic given the context, or using something a little sensational to grab someone’s attention and engage them before explaining properly (note, you have to do the second part or else it’s just lying!) Kathy is right in the respect that the negative attitude towards science outreach is doing nothing to improve it, and scientists can have a rather stereotyping view, criticising all public science without discrimination. You cannot write off science outreach altogether – if you did you would be left with no scientists – and probably no funding! The potential future scientists of this world and the people whose taxes are contributing to our research deserve our effort to show them what we are doing and why we love it. We, the scientists, know this better than anyone. We are passionate about our subject, we know how important criticism is, and most importantly, we get our facts straight! We are clearly the ideal people for the job, and passing the buck onto someone who doesn’t know the field like we do is inevitably going to leave us with something to moan about!

What I get from my experience talking to people about science is this: we find it hard to understand the perspective of a non-scientist. Some people tell you not to include anything tricky, because “it might put them off”. Some fear that you must “sell the sizzle, not the sausage”, because presumably normal people don’t understand the motivation of simple curiosity and are interested only in the spin offs that benefit their everyday lives in an obvious way. However, I disagree with this. I think that in the right context, and put across clearly and without jargon, complex and non-instinctive concepts can be understood, if the audience is prepared to make a little effort. There’s the rub: you can’t expect everyone to want to do that as a spectator, for example watching a television programme. And frankly, real science will never appeal to someone if they don’t feel that spark of a questioning nature, if they aren’t a little intrigued when their instincts are wrong, or if they never wonder about the world around them. Science is hard. It is also fascinating, addictive and the most logical and trustworthy technique we have to understand the world around us. That is clear to anyone, scientist or not, who has made the effort to try it out.

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