A better formula for science communication

Why is science so hard to communicate? Andrew Huff/Flickr

Foundation Essay – Getting certain points across can be difficult. And yet democracies don’t function properly in the absence of broad, public discussion based on well-sourced information.

Especially when it comes to complex ideas based in science, providing such information in ways that are both accessible and comprehensible presents major challenges.

Of course, distinguishing between statements based in painstakingly acquired data, statistically valid analysis and probing discussion versus commercially, ideologically or emotionally driven opinion can be extremely difficult for even the educated among us.

Most of us are not trained to approach the world through the prism of probability and relative risk, the central philosophy underpinning all primary research and scientific consensus.

The human condition is such that, while our “immediate”, lower-brain “fight and flight” instincts are well-honed, science-based warnings of long-term threats are harder for us to take seriously, especially when the necessary counter-measures require a degree of behavioural change now.

Also, science is increasingly up against deliberate disinformation.

We see this currently with issues such as climate change and childhood vaccination, where committed organisations and individuals will, for whatever reason, seek to discredit the reasoned scientific consensus reached by active researchers and responsible professionals.

We see information sources that should be reliable, including “quality” newspapers, increasingly failing to report major news items and well-developed analysis that could throw doubt on their particular editorial “spin”.

Then there’s the problem of the scientists themselves. Most are dedicated to what they do in the field or in the laboratory. While they might like to get this or that general message across to a broader public, they have little idea how to go about it.

When active researchers talk on radio, for instance, they often use words such as “abrogate”, “rigorous”, “systematic”, “probabilistic” and so forth that, while central to the way they think, are simply not in the general vocabulary.

Listen to any real scientist talk and you will get an opinion that is reasoned and nuanced, whereas journalists want to tell a straightforward story that isn’t laced with “ifs” and “buts”.

Science communication just isn’t easy, and there are issues at every level.

Some strategies do work. Narrated by people such as David Attenborough, well-produced TV nature documentaries are watched by the type of viewer that tunes in to the Discovery Channel or National Geographic.

But the focus on what is visually stunning often detracts from the underlying scientific message. We remember something but, unless we buy the DVD, the nature of TV viewing is such that we retain impressions and forget the complexities, even if they do surface in the narration.

That’s why the written word, whether encountered in a book, a newspaper or an online blog is so important. The record is there, and we can go back over and reflect on what is being said.

After a decade and a half spent trying to get some science-based ideas across to a broader public while still practising as a research investigator, I’ve come to the somewhat depressing view that the only safe form of communication is via direct-to-air TV or radio; or to write books and opinion pieces that (if edited) can be scrutinised before publication.

Otherwise the results can be disastrous. After talking on the telephone to a print journalist, I customarily approach the paper the next morning with a sense of what too often proves to be well-justified dread.

It’s not that I blame the journalist, or the sub-editor for that matter; it’s just that I’m left feeling personally compromised. Was I so unclear? Did I really say that?

This is not, I think, an uncommon sensation for scientists who try to interact with the media. The two cultures are fundamentally different, and competent science journalists are an increasingly threatened species.

That’s why I think that the idea behind The Conversation is terrific. Whether in science, history or the arts, those who have the capacity to discuss complex issues from the basis of evidence rather than opinion tend to be found in Australia’s universities and scientific research institutes.

It is essential they are neither silenced nor discouraged from speaking out, particularly when it comes to matters of vital, immediate interest.

This Foundation Essay is part of a series of articles to mark the launch of The Conversation. Others in the series are:

Better connecting the university to the public debate by Glyn Davis

When the science is so clear, why is the argument so clouded? By Ross Garnaut

What’s the point of universities? It’s the ideas, stupid By Patrick McCaughey

The science of reporting climate change By Brian McNair

How universities learnt a lesson in humility — and are all the better for it By John Keane

The modern university must reinvent itself to survive By Simon Marginson