Visions from nature

Avoiding “We Told You So”: An Appeal for the Reframing of Scientific Communication

By Sam Perrin
This post is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of the NTNU University Museum. For more on the author, visit Nature According to Sam.

During the late 1970s, in the wake of intense scientific research showing that chlorofluorocarbons were leading to the depletion of the ozone layer, the world took action. By 1987, the world had seen the signing of the Montreal Treaty, which practically banned the use of CFCs, imposing significant economic costs on those who signed. Since then, the hole in the Ozone layer has retreated. It’s a powerful example of science identifying a problem, finding a solution, and then presenting both the urgency of both to the public. Scientific communication at its best, surely. So with recent steps backward in environmental conservation law worldwide, despite almost global consensus on the negative impact of well-studied worldwide environmental phenomena, is science communication no longer as effective?

The image of the lone polar bear has become almost ubiquitous in step with growing awareness of climate change. So why hasn't the scientific community been able to convince the world to act accordingly?
The image of the lone polar bear has become almost ubiquitous in step with growing awareness of climate change. So why hasn’t the scientific community been able to convince the world to act accordingly? (Image Credit: Pixabay, CC0)

Scientific communication should be, I believe, one of the more well-defined terms attached to science. The communication of scientific research to the public. Keeping the world’s populace informed about what we know of the world’s workings should be exciting, something to strive for. At the very least, much of today’s scientific research is conducted through the use of public funds, and we are obliged to let the public know what we’ve discovered. So it should be a strength of the discipline, right?

But it doesn’t seem to be the case. The example of climate change is perhaps the most pressing of today’s environmental disasters, with Point-Of-No-Return borders approaching on many fronts. There is global consensus on this from the vast majority of scientists, and yet governments worldwide are acting at a rate far from commensurate to that at which the threat approaches. We’ve demonstrated over and over the impact deforestation has had on biodiversity in many parts of the world, yet it continues unfettered. So is our message not getting through because we’re not communicating it effectively, or does the world just not want to hear it?

There is plenty of blame to be thrown around here, with some citing the rise of anti-intellectualism and conservative populists (you know who I mean) as the driving force behind many advanced nations’ reluctance to take action on a scale necessary to confront climate change. But scientists have been screaming to the world that there were bad things happening to it long before the US elected their current president, even long before Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth graced our screens with its alarmist cinematography and somewhat debatable ‘facts’. Do we then place the blame at the feet of the populace? I don’t think it too naive to say that in a modern democracy, the will of the politicians should bend to that of the people they serve. And we live in an age whereby information is more readily available than ever before. So do we pass the buck, or do we look internally?

Regardless of who is at fault, bringing about change within our own discipline should be our first port of call, and it will be the focus of the rest of the article.

An Insular Profession

I believe one of the problems we have today is that too much emphasis is placed upon how we communicate with each other. Scientific communication is often mistakenly defined only within the narrow parameters of scientific publication, and scientific publications are primarily read by other scientists. As Dr. Ian Winfield of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in the UK states, “…if you speak to people like you’re used to speaking to other scientists, you lose them. The message doesn’t get across.”. Dr. Winfield has been working with sociologists from a local University to better understand the value of scientific studies to the public, in order to engage better with them when communicating ideas and results.

Ian talking to a local radio station on Lake Windemere, where Arctic Charr populations are now more stable
Ian Winfield, a freshwater ecologist who has benefited from using cultural anthropology in communicating with the local population of the area he studies (Image Credit: Ian Winfield)

“[P]art of it is knowing what the public needs to know… and the other part of it is that when you start to talk to a non-specialist, I think by definition you have to simplify. And that can grate to a scientist.” Now in truth, we should all be able to break our own disciplines and projects down to a simple level. But if we’re not experienced in talking to the public, it’s easy for a scientist to come too far, and make an audience feel like they’re being talked down to, or make science appear as elitist. Finding that slim patch of middle ground between talking down to someone and talking over their heads is one that can only really be overcome by ongoing interaction with an audience that one assumes is intelligent, but not necessarily knowledgeable on your subject.

There is also the possibility that we are not giving the public enough opportunities to engage directly with science. Scientific publications, shrouded as they are in discipline-specific vernacular and rigid literary structure, are by and large not open to public access. This means that the public generally only encounters second-hand information, a problem recognised by global change ecologist Professor Madhur Anand.

“[M]ore firsthand interaction with science is important, so that you’re not always getting it through TV or social media. I think that filter is often bad for the perception of science… As scientists, we always want to go to the source of the information, we don’t want to rely on hearsay or getting things second hand. And I think that giving people more control over where they’re getting their information and how they’re getting it helps.”

There are a bevy of websites today which enjoy rising popularity, which focus on bringing popular scientific knowledge to the public. However these often focus on more popular, charismatic features of science, while ignoring the importance of less alluring disciplines. And I’ll never be convinced that covering an article in memes, clickbait and ads for acerbic t-shirts is an effective way of representing science, even to my own generation. But the other extreme is simply presenting the public with scientific articles, forms of media which, whilst perhaps a more accurate representation of our various disciplines, are not exactly page-turners.

Scientific journals need to sustain themselves of course, and we can’t expect their formats to change. And abstracts have always been free to read, and have contained the essentials of any study, right? Yet abstracts themselves are mostly written in the same prescribed vernacular of the articles they summarise. This language should perhaps be our point of focus – there is no reason why many scientific concepts cannot be explained with more accessible vernacular.

Another problem with abstracts and many popular scientific websites alike is that they often omit one of the more important aspects of scientific research; its inherent uncertainty.

The Inherent Uncertainty of Science

Professor Anand thinks there is another problem with how the public perceives science, and I suspect it is one that is not helped by many modern forms of scientific communication. A poem in her 2015 book A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes was reviewed by Canadian poet and critic Adam Sol. As she states, “[Sol] made these comments about how surprised he was at the language that we use in science, how cautious it is, the descriptions of all the caveats, the unknowns. He discovered that science is NOT presented as cold hard facts in these articles. I think that’s something the public doesn’t appreciate and doesn’t know, and I think if there was more interaction between us and the public… there would be a greater appreciation for what science is, and maybe a better appreciation of what certainty and uncertainty is in science.”

There has been an increasing trend among certain circles of society to view science as a precise, efficient discipline, where results are absolute and solutions can be found, if only one looks. The mantra of “Science, it works bitches” was even wheeled out by Richard Dawkins in 2013, and has since been gobbled up by sections of the public, sung out in YouTube videos and printed onto t-shirts. The reality is that scientific progress comes in small steps, and will always have an inherent degree of uncertainty. Science is messy. Science takes time. Often, science takes funding that isn’t forthcoming. The workarounds and caveats that we often have to accept as scientists aren’t what non-scientific people think of when asked to describe our jobs, but they’re a frustratingly large part of it. A recent Jon Oliver piece laughed at science’s attempt to genetically engineer a woolly mammoth, when the result looks more like a mossy elephant. But the truth is that this is a realistic view the scientific process; one small, not necessarily pretty, step along the way to long-term progress, using technology we haven’t quite mastered yet.

I do love the xkcd web-comic, but I cannot stand this saying
I do love the xkcd web-comic, but I cannot stand this saying (Image Credit: Mobilus in Mobili, CC BY-SA 2.0)

This uncertainty and step-wise progress is not something we skirt around within our own borders. Yet in other sections of the public, there is a tendency of skepticism towards science which seems to have arisen lately as a product of our apparent uncertainty and unwillingness to speak in absolutes, an uncertainty which has always been there. This has been further undermined by the historical eagerness of political figures to speak with certainty concerning the effect of environmental, political and cultural changes, which they are no more qualified to do than we are.

So how do we give the public a more accurate interpretation of ‘how science works’, without accentuating skepticism? An earlier introduction to the nature of scientific research, as Adam Sol writes, one “full of qualifications, admissions of speculation and incomplete data, and conjectures about mediating or conflicting factors”, could be crucial in a more accurate interpretation of science by the general public. And whilst it may lessen their confidence in our ability to gain of short-term wins, it could increase their confidence in our findings long-term.

Moving Forward

This is a problem that needs to be solved, and as swiftly as possible. With the threat of climate change looming more ominously than ever, we cannot afford for our findings to fail to break through into the public sphere. Some organisations are taking steps to ensure better public engagement with science. The UK’s National Environmental Research Council mow mandates that upon submitting grant requests you declare how you will communicate your findings to the public, and make available smaller grants, the purpose of which is to carry out that communication. But I believe it is equally important that the next generation of scientists has the importance of efficient scientific communication imprinted upon them at the early stages of their careers.

Additional disciplines need to be promoted. Whilst there is always difficulty crossing the language barriers between scientific and cultural studies, they are barriers worth breaking down. As Professor Anand writes, we need to encourage a broader education, to ensure that “[students] have some broader context in society, so that when they come out as scientists, they’ll have some other skills, whether in writing, communication or just knowledge of history… if you’re trying to connect with different people, different cultures, then any sort of additional knowledge you have around those areas is going to help.”

I’ll admit, it isn’t solely our fault that the world seems to be marching head-on into global environmental meltdown. But the least we can do is ensure that within the next few decades, we arrive at a point where we can be confident that studies of genuine importance will be freely available to a public that has an understanding of their value and content.

If only, for no other reason, so that we can say “we told you so”.

Full interviews with both Madhur Anand and Ian Winfield are linked below.

Madhur Anand: Finding Poetry in Global Change Ecology

Ian Winfield: Advancing Scientific Communication Through Cultural Anthropology


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