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Must Scientists Do a Better Job of Communicating Science?

Anyone working in academia is well familiar with the slogan, “publish or perish”.

Indeed, the quantity and quality of scientific publication continues to be a major measure of academic achievement. But how relevant are these publications really? Research shows that the vast majority of publications appearing even in top journals often have little if any measurable impact on decision makers or policy.

Is this because the science is truly irrelevant or is the science largely ignored because it faces a world of non-scientists who do not understand its significance and simply couldn’t be bothered?

This is the topic of a most interesting book that I just finished reading.

Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, is a short text written by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, which explores the roots and consequences of the increasing divide between what science reveals and a population that largely ignores these revelations.

As Mooney and Kirschenbaum point out,

“For every five hours of cable news, less than a minute is devoted to science; 46 percent of Americans reject evolution and think the Earth is less than 10,000 years old; the number of newspapers with weekly science sections has shrunken by two-thirds over the past several decades. Meanwhile, only 18 percent of Americans have even met a scientist to begin with; more than half can’t name a living scientist role model.”

But rather than simply blaming schools or parents or politicians or the media or an increasingly anti-intellectual public, the authors point a finger directly at the scientific community itself – a community that is clearly failing to make itself relevant or interesting to policy makers or the general public (who will ultimately determine what policy makers care about).

Not only do Mooney and Kirshenbaum deplore the fact that very few scientists have communication skills that allow them to effectively convey the relevance and importance of their work to “outsiders” but that “there are too few collaborations between scientists and journalists, screenwriters, politicians, and religious leaders”.

They quote Preston Manning, who argued that scientists need to “establish a relationship with the political community on grounds other than the milk cow – milking machine relationship” and not only reach out to politicians when they want research funding. Rather, they should establish long-term mulitdirectional relationships, where they are helping as much as they are being helped.

In terms of communicating science, Mooney and Kirshenbaum are also not very happy with science bloggers (to which I dare count myself). They point out that the vast majority of science blogs serve rather specialised audiences – often preaching to the converted and can hardly be considered part of mainstream discourse.

Indeed, the fact that today anyone can find any information supporting any view is exactly one of the main problems with the new media. Like-minded readers congregate to whatever media best represents their opinions or beliefs, thereby essentially eliminating the need for serious discourse, the key to true understanding of any issue.

The authors have several pieces of advise on how to address this scientific illiteracy. One solution may be to train a small army of ambassadors who can translate science’s message and make it relevant to the media, to politicians, and to the public in the broadest sense. Another may be to stoke a cultural change at academic institutions that will specifically reward scientists for their public outreach and communication endeavours – efforts that will hopefully make all of society more scientifically engaged.

Certainly a book all scientists should read.

Stockholm, Sweden

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  1. Carl Sagan, who died in 1996, understood the importance of this dialog. One of my favorite Sagan quotes:

    “But there’s another reason I think popularizing science is important, why I try to do it. It’s a foreboding I have — maybe ill-placed — of an America in my children’s generation, or my grandchildren’s generation, when all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when we’re a service and information-processing economy; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest even grasps the issues; when the people (by “the people” I mean the broad population in a democracy) have lost the ability to set their own agendas, or even to knowledgeably question those who do set the agendas; when there is no practice in questioning those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and religiously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in steep decline, unable to distinguish between what’s true and what feels good, we slide, almost without noticing, into superstition and darkness. That worries me.

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  2. Jerry: You may be happy to learn that a substantial proportion of this book is actually dedicated to Carl Sagan and his exemplary role in popularizing science.

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  3. I couldn’t agree more with you. I know there is a need to provide valuable scientific information asthere is some wich is not as valuable, and I think that translating this information to the patients who strggle with chronic disease is as important. You have done a great benefit in translating so much information in your blog.

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