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Do You Hear An Echo?

Before it can communicate, science needs to discover the world outside

by Rick Mullin
September 16, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 37

Credit: C&EN
Words used in the editorial on communicating science to the public.
Credit: C&EN

Ten years ago, I stole a C&EN headline, “Amateurs Attack Science with Science,” and shortened it to “Amateurs Attack” (C&EN, Aug. 4, 2003, page 20). I used this to top an Insights piece in which I took the science enterprise to task for its failure to communicate effectively with journalists, lawmakers, and the public at large. Writing from the perspective of a business journalist with a degree in English literature, I took aim at the expert’s instinctive reluctance to engage with the layperson.

My article evoked a speech made in June of that year by Carl B. Feldbaum, the outgoing president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, who warned that scientists refusing to come out of their “scientific shell” will find that public discussion on key science issues is happening without them. We amateurs will be involved, I wrote, and we hope to be taken seriously.

Little has changed since then, despite requirements in federal research grants for public engagement and an uptick in discussion of the subject at National Academy of Sciences colloquia. And scientists are unhappy. Ask one, and you are likely to hear that the public has become less “science literate” over the past decade. Pointing to political efforts to establish creationism or “creation science” in the public school curriculum in recent years, some will say that the public has become unreasonably skeptical of science if not aggressively science-averse.

Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, made this point in a recent editorial in the New York Times titled “Welcome to the Age of Denial.” In it, he shares the results of two recent Gallup polls: One indicates that the number of people who believe that God made man “as is” has actually ticked up 1% since 2003, and the other reveals a dip in the number of people claiming to understand climate change as a problem, from 63% in 1989—when the term first surfaced—to 58% now.

Such polls raise questions, of course. Didn’t Gallup have Mitt Romney up by 5% going into the election last November? But I am more than willing to accept that climate change has become more contentious over the past 25 years and that no headway has been made in converting the religious believer to a scientistic view of nature since 2003.

One thing that has advanced, however, is exactly this polarized view of the world in which the public is offered a binary choice between religion and science, creationism and evolution, gobbledygook and reason. Scientists seem to want us to accept science as the sole arbiter of truth and the path to progress.

Meanwhile, newspapers, which have guarded against this oversimplification, are on the decline. Science sections are disappearing from major newspapers faster than art classes from public schools. Readers are gravitating instead toward social media, which have experienced explosive growth since Feldbaum’s speech. The reader becomes the publisher on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.

Although online communities tend to correct or at least challenge questionable information entered into this open system, their emergence also poses a problem. Bloggers I have spoken with agree that even the good science blogs tend to be echo chambers, read largely by like-minded scientists.

The public is also turning more to TV, with its widening selection of “infotainment” for news. Many tune in to cable news channels where the journalism tends to be on par with, or worse than, that of Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Prominent news networks, we have come to accept, report from a distinct political perspective.

Yes, newspapers have always been identified as conservative or liberal in their editorial policies. But the hot medium of televised entertainment has scorched all nuance, pulling science into a seemingly irreconcilable and culturally divisive political debate. Biologist Richard Dawkins chatting with comedian Bill Maher on TV ties the science enterprise to the mast of intolerant atheism, which in turn provokes a populist antiscience backlash. Science reacts by dismissing the science denier, creating an environment in which Jenny McCarthy, a model and actress, can effectively mobilize TV viewers against vaccinating children.

Amateurs of all kinds are attacking on all fronts!

Okay, so what has the public done to strike up an adult conversation with scientists about science? Nothing. But the ball is not really in the public’s court. If the populace does not recognize a benefit in becoming more science literate, it will not take the initiative. Scientists, on the other hand, have a huge incentive to engage.

For scientists confronted by skepticism and “creation science” to declare a dark age of denial is troubling. The applause in the echo chamber will be deafening upon such pronouncements, but that applause will only serve to desensitize scientists and cut them out of the conversation with skeptics who can be reached.

Scientists, Frank writes in his Times article, “must become fierce champions of science in the marketplace of ideas.” Engaged participation might work better than fierce championship, but it certainly is time for that adult conversation.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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