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Let’s Talk Science

By Katherine Welch, on 13 March 2015

Collections École Polytechnique : Jérémy BarandeDo lines of equations make your head spin? Do you ever sit staring at a journal paper and not know where to start? Probably not. Many of those reading this will be accomplished scientists themselves and those that aren’t probably experience most of their science through mainstream, or increasingly, science-specific media.

Such is the role of media in our world today, and I say we are all the richer for it. Life is a series of choices and better communication of science means we are all able to make more informed ones from the way we use energy and value the environment to what we eat and the way we exercise.

Hit or miss-information

That isn’t to say science communication always goes to plan, and we have to remember the vast majority of media professionals are not also trained scientists. The case of the MMR vaccine proves a prime example. The media storm around a small study that linked the vaccination to autism in the UK in the 1990s led to an almost 20% decline in MMR vaccination rates and subsequent increase in measles cases[1]. More worryingly the case has had a wider and more profound legacy with an increase in the number of parents distrusting vaccinations in general, despite further research showing ‘no evidence that MMR vaccine causes autism’. So much so that even magician duo Penn and Teller have gotten in on the act with a YouTube video about vaccination.

Whichever side of the vaccination argument you fall on, it remains that poorly or inaccurately reporting science can have profound impacts. In an editorial for Science in 2012, Alan I. Leshner wrote: ‘there is no shortage of topics where policy-makers or other members of the public seem to persistently misunderstand, misrepresent, or disregard the underlying science… consequently, the call for scientists to do a better job of communicating both the meaning and the nature of their work is getting louder.’ [2]

Climate science is another arena where this is the case. Just saying the word climategate can send shivers down many a scientist’s spine, and there is a perpetual sense that a negative media campaign or simply miscommunication of the underlying research can have major implications on the wider issue, the overall direction (and funding) of the research area and even a scientists own career.

Do not despair however, as a study by Oxford University suggested that ‘while such media events are visible in the short-term, they have little effect on salience of sceptical climate search terms on longer time-scales’. [3] Basically, our collective short attention span means that such ‘media events’, although they register, don’t cause lasting damage if the wider research is sound (the case of the MMR vaccine and public health may be an exception to this rule).

But these cases do have something important to teach us about how we communicate our science. If the public is to have any trust in science it needs to be above all factual, robust and open to scrutiny, but also accessible and relevant.

As Leshner writes ‘science is complicated and often jargon-laden’ and there is an art to effectively communicating it to wider audiences. People are also, generally, most concerned about issues that affect them personally, or that they have a personal ‘buy in’ to so we need to make research speak to people on an individual level. Its no easy feat communicating to the masses, but fortunately I am far from alone in my crusade.

Popularising science

I’m all for communicating science. It makes up a large proportion of my job, but most of all I’m just interested (keen as mustard) and I want others to be too.

Thankfully I’m not the only one, and facilitated by social media, over the past decade science has become ever more popular. YouTube, TED, Digg, Twitter, blogs, science is everywhere, and thanks to some pretty nifty science and engineering we can access it anywhere through our smart phones, over wi-fi. Not to mention engaging people face to face (Google ‘science festival’, there are loads!) and really engaging, not just informing, through growing movements like citizen science.

So I’m ending this blog with a plea to all my fellow scientist and science-enthusiasts out there: don’t just do science, talk about it!

 


 

[1] Offita P.A., Coffina S.E., Communicating science to the public: MMR vaccine and autism Vaccine, Volume 22, Issue 1, 8 December 2003, Pages 1–6       doi:10.1016/S0264-410X(03)00532-2

[2] Science 17 August 2012: Vol. 337 no. 6096 p. 777 DOI: 10.1126/science.1227898 http://www.sciencemag.org/content/337/6096/777.full

[3] William R L Anderegg and Gregory R Goldsmith 2014 Environ. Res. Lett. 9 054005
doi:10.1088/1748-9326/9/5/054005

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