Divorcing Science

We have all heard that poor communication is one of the top reasons for divorce. And although the specific results of studies making these claims may differ, I am sure that we have all experienced frustration from miscommunication in professional or personal relationships. Currently, there is a serious communication breakdown between science and the public. Although there are various reasons why scientists and the public are growing more frustrated with each other, these frustrations are slowly, but surely, driving a wedge between the public and science.

In my experience, here are a few reasons why the relationship between science and the public is breaking down:

“If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we cure cancer??”

This question summarizes people’s frustration with science: the public doesn’t understand why scientists haven’t solved certain problems. As scientists we set false expectations by making generalized claims of progress to win research funding and media attention. Even worse, we oversimplify problems by assuming that a general audience is unable to understand our work. Although scientific jargon does make research authentic and definite, part of communicating effectively is maintaining an accurate message using terminology accessible to your audience.

So what can we do?

We can be a little more vulnerable. Show the struggle. Even let our failures show sometimes. Yes, fallibility doesn’t help win funding. And yes, it’s scary to let people see your bad side. But it’s real. Most experiments fail. Scientific progress is slow. Researchers spend years focusing their attention on one tiny problem that is part of a massive group of research. But that’s science. Just like celebrity anti-photoshop campaigns attempt to reset realistic expectations of body image, placing scientific discoveries in proper context by accurately depicting day-to-day life of research can reset realistic scientific expectations.

The public is scared of science. Or worse, doesn’t “believe” science.

In an age where information is easily accessible, people are looking for answers. A mother using an autistic child’s handicap as emotional appeal was able to turn thousands of people away from extensive rigorous trial-based studies that show that vaccines do not cause autism. When choosing between simplified messages filled with promise and complicated trial-based research studies, I would probably choose the simplified message as well. From a young age we learn that science, math, and numbers are HARD. And when things are hard, we think we can’t do them. We get scared and would rather listen to a simplified voice that makes sense to us. STEM fields miss out on brilliant and creative minds by losing them in elementary school years because of our own inadequacies of teaching and engaging students (I have so much to say on the inadequacy of STEM education…but that is for another time). And now as adults we are losing them again.

So what can we do?

No one likes to be talked down to. Often as scientists we think that we don’t need to explain ourselves. We went through the training. We understand the process. We spent years of our lives thinking about and solving these problems, why can’t the public just believe us?! As scientists we are pretty good at communicating to those in our field in order to publish papers and present our research at conferences. We are even fairly adequate at communicating to scientists in other fields. However, we are really bad at communicating to those without scientific training. For many scientists, the public (government) funds our research. Just as businesses must report back to investors and stake holders effectively in order show progress, why shouldn’t scientists work harder to effectively communicate research progress to the public?  We submit progress reports to funding agencies, but these are written in complicated scientific jargon and are only read by program directors. Why shouldn’t we work harder to make sure that the public understands what we actually do and where we actually are?

“I think the way to live your life is you find the study that sounds the best to you and you go with that.”-Al Roker, The TODAY Show

John Oliver recently did a piece discussing how misunderstandings between science and the public stem from generalized claims made by the media. I think he does a great job of highlighting the hazards of oversimplifying messages for the sake of a catchy headline. The danger here is that the public hears generalized messages without seeing the broader context of the research. This quote by Al Roker depicts just how confusing science can be. It’s true, there are a lot of studies that seem contradictory to each other. There are very few definitives in science. We look at trends and averages more than single studies. However, media reporting often neglects to capture the full background of single studies leading to misinterpreted results and a less-informed public.

So what can we do?

John Oliver also begins to dissect the dangerous line many scientists walk of maintaining scientific integrity while trying to gain funding and acknowledgement in a competitive market. I have often heard humorous stories about press releases for published research that depict the research in a manner never mentioned by the researcher during the interview. Although the market for scientifically trained reporters is expanding, it still isn’t common or required to have a scientific background to report scientific news. Knowing that most journalists lack scientific training, researchers can take a bigger role in ensuring that at least the initial press release contains accurate information. While I understand that catchy titles and overpromising results attract bigger audiences, I think the public is smart enough to assess uncertainty in scientific statements if the scientist takes the time to educate and present the evidence.

And so…

And so I want to work on our relationship: the relationship between science and the public. And although there are thousands of blogs and science commentators across the internet, apparently there aren’t enough that trust the public with the right mix of evidence, non-condescension, and excitement. And while I know there is a lot for me to learn about science, I do know that communicating about science is important. I hope that this can be a place to talk about some cool discoveries in the biochemistry and quantitative biology. I also hope it can be a place to talk about effective scientific communication. I may even throw out a few opinions about my personal relationship with science from time to time. But mostly I hope that I can make some small positive impact in beginning to heal the relationship between science and the public.

“One person can make a difference. And everyone should try” -John F. Kennedy