Science Communication: It’s not just about the message

The other day I had a little chat with Scicurious.

We talked about the usual things; the latest academic frustration, weekend plans, &c., but sooner or later we got onto the topic of science popularization. We both work hard to not only make science accessible, but to make it interesting, yet our daily pageviews our abysmally low compared to the stats of political, sports, or gossip blogs. We are trying as hard as we can to be good popularizers yet relatively few people are interested. Why?

This question has been made all the more frustrating by a handful of books published this year that admonish researchers to stop being “such scientists.” This was the central theme of Unscientific America and no doubt it is a major part of Don’t Be Such a Scientist (though I have not read it yet; I’m told a review copy is on the way). Over and over again we are told that scientists need to drop the technical jargon and make an effort to be “cool”, but focusing on scientists alone blinds us to other important factors that influence how science is understood by the public.

Even though it would be fantastic to see more scientists polish their popularization skills, all-too-often we neglect to mention those researchers who are doing excellent work on this front. Neil Shubin, Sean B. Carroll, and Robert Sapolsky come most immediately to my mind. Even beyond these superstars of science popularization there are many, many scientists who write accessible popular science books every year. My library is stocked with but a small collection of these tomes. It cannot be said that scientists are not making an effort to reach the public.

Yet even the most popular science writer’s sales pale in comparison to what pulp-fiction-type authors like Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer. Science just doesn’t seem to be as exciting as plots to blow up the Vatican and sparklepires. Is this truly the fault of scientists, or is there more at play here?

As I mentioned in my review of Unscientific America simply tweaking how scientists broadcast their work to the public will not solve the much-feared “scientific illiteracy” problem. Religious beliefs, educational background, political ideals, and even business interests shape (in some cases some might say “distort”) the way science is received. You could be the most deft and dexterous science communicator in history but it would still be nearly impossible to get hard-boiled fundamentalist Christians to stop believing that Noah brought dinosaurs aboard the Ark. More than just the message is involved, and in a world where we can increasingly choose which sources of information best fit our pre-existing opinions and interests I think it is foolish to believe that scientists alone are responsible for the persistent threat of scientific illiteracy.

Even though I don’t see eye-to-eye about science communication with some of the authors who are being paid to write about it in popular books, I do value the volumes they produce for another reason. They have made me think about the way popular science media is produced and received. The unfortunate thing is that, to the best of my knowledge, no one has written a book with the kind of perspective needed to fully understand the problem. We have been bickering over “framing” (or the same idea by any other name) for years now and all it has shown is the inability of framing advocates to effectively market that idea to scientists.

(I suggested to Scicurious that we collaborate on the kind of book that we would like to see, which could be called Maybe They’re Just Not That Into Science).

Perhaps my view is too pessimistic, but I think one of the most important things to do is to keep encouraging our peers, colleagues, and mentors to reach out to the public. (Even if doing so can be risky.) We need to keep talking. It has always been a struggle to get the public to understand science, and I have no doubt that this struggle will continue.

There is a kind of change that I think we should push for, though. Everyone knows that many (if not most) people trained as scientists never make it in academia. There are lots of people out there with scientific training but that are not actively participating in science right now. Such people, maybe with a little bit of training, might be able to get jobs in the mass media and drastically improve science coverage. One of the biggest obstacles science communication faces is the horrible science coverage put out by many news corporations. Contrary to the protestations of journalists there are people trained in science who do not walk around speaking in incomprehensible technical terms, and I would like to see more skilled science writers take the place of journalists who have to write about topics that they do not understand.

(Unfortunately, however, science sections are dwindling in our current economic slump. It is difficult to bring science to the attention of the public if there is no visible forum to do it in!)

Even so, there are many good science popularizers working today. This is something often ignored by those who insist that the blame for the public’s lack of understanding about evolution and global climate change rests squarely with dull scientists. In fact, by hammering this point it may be that the authors of books like Unscientific America and Don’t Be Such a Scientist are perpetuating the caricature of scientists as nerdy, boring, and socially-inept that they spend so much time railing against. If we are really serious about improving the public’s understanding of science we are going to have to move beyond the endless debates over how to make scientists seem more “sexy.”

[Many thanks to Scicurious for encouraging me to share my thoughts on this matter.]

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