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Experiments in communicating science

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
January 9, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 2

This is only the second issue of the year, and while we are all still catching up after the holidays, I’d like to highlight a couple of stories—both on the topic of science communications—that I came across in the first days of 2017.

The first one is a story published by UnDark, the digital publication of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship Program. The article tells the story of octogenarian Donald McCartor, who managed to have a scientific paper published in the science section of the New York Times at the end of December. Newspapers aren’t in the business of publishing research papers, so this is highly unusual. So how did he do it? McCartor, who has no current academic affiliation, had originally submitted the paper in 2014 to Physical Review Letters, an American Physical Society journal, but it had been rejected without review. As you are well aware, this is a very common practice in publishing, known as triage or prescreening. Frustrated by the refusal and motivated by the desire to “share his ideas about quantum mechanics and free will,” McCartor got around the problem by publishing the non-peer-reviewed paper as an advertisement and paying the NYT for a double page spread.

But, if the author was willing to pay for its publication, why not publish it in one of the many predatory open access journals? It is unlikely the paper would have it made through in a bona fide open access journal, but their predatory equivalents have very relaxed rules for peer review. Here is where McCartor shows savviness: Had he done that, the paper probably would have gotten lost in the internet ether and wouldn’t have had the impact that he has achieved by publishing it in the NYT.

From the NYT’s perspective, because the paper is flagged as an advertisement, they do not judge the merits of its content and will publish anything that falls within their accepted standards, which rule out nudity, hate speech, and the like.

McCartor has achieved his goal of getting his views heard by taking his paper out of the arena where these fights are generally fought: the peer-reviewed literature. There are some ethical issues there in my view but, in any case, the approach he’s taken is unlikely to catch on because the final bill from the NYT came to $44,000. Still, given the publicity that doing this has afforded the author, one could argue that it is money well spent.

The other science communication story that caught my eye was a research paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Public Understanding of Science under the title “When science becomes too easy: Science popularization inclines laypeople to underrate their dependence on experts.” The researchers involved in the study caution that making science accessible for the lay public “may lead to the risk of audiences relying overly strongly on their own epistemic capabilities when making judgments about scientific claims.”

The researchers found that popularized articles led laypeople to agree more with the scientific conclusions described in the articles than scientific articles addressed to expert audiences. Interestingly, popularized articles were not deemed to be more credible but more comprehensible, which in turn influenced the ease of information being processed and thus gave the reader greater confidence to make a judgment. Conversely, popularized articles led laypeople to believe that the issues discussed were less complex and less controversial than did the scientific articles, leading individuals to rely on their own judgment despite lacking the depth of knowledge to make appropriate assessments.

The solutions recommended by the authors are unsurprising: including warnings that issues are complex and controversial (I’m not a fan of this) and improving science education. But there is a trend emerging here that is worrisome, and it is the idea that “popularization” of science is equivalent to trivializing, which is not the same thing. What are your views?

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


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