Issue Date: May 1, 2017 | Web Date: June 27, 2017
Curiosity and science
If you have one hour to spare, I’d recommend that you watch the recording of “How science can save us, how we can save science,” an event that was held in New York City a few weeks ago. Scientists continue to worry about the perception of science, the politicization of science, and, more generally, science communication—and this event makes some interesting points about all three subjects.
The format was that of a fireside chat with actor Alan Alda and paleontologist Neil Shubin, who were interviewed by journalist and educator Claudia Dreifus.
Alda kicked the conversation off reminiscing about his experience as host of “Scientific American Frontiers,” a PBS show on science that aired for more than a decade. During his time at the show, he met and had conversations with hundreds of scientists. He admitted that he got interested in science not because the scientists were not good at communicating science—in fact, quite the opposite. They were very good at communicating science: “They were lively, they were funny, they told stories, they showed passion about their work.”
One of the main barriers to communication of science is the use of jargon. Both speakers agreed that what the lay public need is “plain language. We need vividness too, we need emotion, we need stories,” despite many scientists’ obvious unease with the loss of precision that moving away from jargon confers. I have encountered this attitude on many occasions, when very often we (scientists) interpret the use of plain language as dumbing down or oversimplifying. It could be argued that in many cases, even other scientists outside one’s area of expertise would struggle to understand what we are saying.
So it is not just the public but also scientists who need this clarity. And politicians. Legislators have difficulty investing money into something they don’t understand. Alda told the story of a member of Congress who recounted how in a meeting with a group of scientists who were presenting to a c ongressional committee, the members of Congress sat at one side of the table, the scientists at the opposite side. As the presentation evolved, the members of Congress started passing notes to each other that said, “Do you know what this guy is talking about?” “That is not good for science, for scientists, for the country, or for the future,” said Alda.
Are we approaching a crisis in science communication? Alda and Shubin agreed that society is disconnected from science, and this disconnect is more acute now than it has been for some time. Society needs to make decisions that are based in science, whether it is about agriculture, health, or the environment. But although we are increasingly in need of scientific knowledge in society, Shubin says, we have a population that is sometimes “naïve” and in other cases antagonistic to science, the scientific method, and the importance of evidence. Yet more people go to college than ever in history.
As we lose the emphasis on eviâdence-based thinking and communication, we do indeed risk a crisis. Scientists should be against ignorance, and that’s not political.
Alda spoke about various kinds of ignorance. The best kind is the one that combines with curiosity and makes you want to inquire and learn. He described himself as being part of this group, the group that approaches science with “natural ignorance and curiosity,” an approach that was key in making the PBS series successful. On the other hand, one of the worst kinds of ignorance is “when you think that what you know is what is known by anybody, and you don’t want to know any more because you obviously know everything.” Anybody who says something different is obviously wrong. Both speakers saw this “attack on expertise” as part of a more general trend, not specific to science.
Science has taken us to the moon and has given us understanding of DNA. There is a lot we don’t understand, so we need to be humble and curious and fight ignorance.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.
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