Scientific Communication: Battling Ignorance?

Sorry to have not posted in so long – I have been very busy this year! Now that I have some experience doing research and coming up with findings, the question of how your work is perceived by the wider public is much more apparent. The major question I have had this year is: what do you do? My answer: Honours in Structural Biology is an immediate conversation stopper. Structural Biology? Sounds complicated. Even when I do explain a bit about what I do (proteins…life…important to humans), the nods of polite indifference are quite apparent (or perhaps that is too harsh – more like nods of catatonia until I stop talking). Due to the complicated nature of science and the required sub-specialisation, even understanding another scientist’s work in a slightly different field is quite difficult; so how do we expect the average lay-person to do so?

Scientific communication to a wider audience is often seen as what one might term ‘battling ignorance’. Now, by this I do not mean the bad type of ignorance (which I think should be otherwise termed “stupidity”) which leads people to hold bigoted opinions. Ignorance, in this case, means that the person does not know the intricacies of your topic. In fact, all of us are more ignorant about what there is to know compared to what we actually know; for example, I don’t know much about 17th century attire, species of birdlife, architecture, or many other topics. Framed from this angle, the job of the communicator is to slightly lift this veil of ignorance by explaining what they do in simplified, easy to understand language (there has been noises about academic jargon inhibiting understanding, but that is material for a separate post). Easier said than done. Some people are very good at explaining science to the masses (such as Ben Goldacre, Phil Plait and to a lesser extent Richard Dawkins), but I think it is tad simplistic to equate good communication only with the person. It is intuitive that some topics are harder (or easier) to explain than others. Consider the case of Ben Goldacre, author of the Bad Science blog; he makes a superb job of explaining complex ideas but his task is made much easier by the fact that everyone at least has some idea of what a drug is (something you take) and what it does (makes you feel better). You are not required to understand the exact mechanism of how the drug acts for Goldacre to explain that sometimes drugs do what they are not supposed to (termed “side-effects”), and that drug companies sometimes make a drug look better than it actually is by manipulating drug trial data.

Previous familiarity matters. It is how people learn, by comparing new information to what they already know. This acts as a neat heuristic for learning, however contributes significantly to the mental confusion sown when a totally unfamiliar topic is presented. For example, you do not need to have seen every single hat to know that the statement “Some hats are black” is likely to be true. Consider my Honours project: I looked at a protein, specifically an enzyme known as a nitrilase. If I Google protein, the top explanation is this (from Wikipedia):

“Proteins are essential nutrients for the human body. They are one of the building blocks of body tissue, and can also serve as a fuel source.”

I can tell you, without blushing, that this gives a patently wrong idea of what proteins actually are (to get a good idea – look here). Yet, this is what I have to work with when I attempt to explain my work to a lay-audience. In order for someone to really appreciate my work I first have to explain what a protein is and does (fundamental work-horse of life) in order to rid them of the notion that protein is only “what you get in meat”. Once that is done, I then have to explain what an enzyme does and how nitrilases fit into that. All in all, a good explanation would probably take at least a decent paragraph (far more than is possible with emoji science explanations).

I believe that we should shift the emphasis of science communication from one of only battling ignorance to that of expanding familiarity. Astronomers do not need to explain the details of how optics works in order for people to appreciate what telescopes do and how they are useful (everyone is at least familiar with the concept of the night sky). In this case, it is easier for astronomers to explain their work and elicit public appreciation. When your work is less familiar your task is that much harder. Instead of shying away from the task (and henceforth labelled as ‘uptight purists’), it is important to first stress that what you do is not that well described by common knowledge. It is also an important point for those who decry explanations of unfamiliar work as unnecessarily complicated or long-winded.

Communicators should be able to say things like: “People have the wrong idea about proteins. They are not simply what are contained in meat…”, or “In order for me to explain the implications of my work I first have to quickly say what a gene is.” So, no, I don’t subscribe to the reductionist notion that science communication is only explaining things simply to an ageing and perhaps senile grandparent. First, it assumes that the only job of the communicator is to mould their topic to the limited common knowledge of said grandparent. Second, it supposes in a rather elitist fashion that people in general are not interested in expanding what is termed common knowledge and that they would preferably be happy with a short but misleading explanation of a given topic.

Familiarity, or “common knowledge”, is not a static conduit between scientists and the general public. Continental drift, the age of the universe, evolution; these are all topics which entered public consciousness at some point. Now we have harder work ahead of us; genes and genetic engineering, familiar yet wrongly pictured. It is only when we realize that ‘battling ignorance’ is in part about expanding and giving scope to familiarity that an accurate picture of science and its workings will be presented.

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