Mixed signals: Communicating Science

9 04 2007

Everyone seems to have their own take on the recent article by Nisbet and Mooney in Science (although I can’t see it because I only have a subscription to Nature, rats). Even so, watching out for the flying frames, I decided to wade through the many super-posts made on a subject that has seemingly gotten bloggers more riled up than the infamous Judge Jones School of Law idiocy that arrived just in time Christmas. Overall, I think everyone agrees with Nisbet and Mooney to a point, typically the general truth espoused by the one sentence summary I have access to;

To engage diverse publics, scientists must focus on ways to make complex topics personally relevant.

Nothing that controversial there. Science takes a rather sizable personal investment to understand (time, money, and brain power come to mind), and if the subject holds little personal relevance teaching science more resembles the adage “You can take a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” Then again, differing aspects of science are hotly debated at the moment (most notably evolution, global climate change, and stem cell research) and seem to be prominent in the public consciousness, but the debates seem to be more about what faith has to say than what science has to say. Indeed, the religious beliefs people hold directly influence their political stance, and it seems to me that science issues (like those I just mentioned) have become more about politics than science. In fact, last summer I was visiting a friend and my most favorite subject came up, and my friend said “Well, do you believe in microevolution or macroevolution?” My friend then proceeded to mention things like woodpecker skulls and bombardier beetles (classic creationist examples), and all of this information came not from a science book, but from his pastor. Indeed, while many are not now nor have ever been scientists, pastors all over the country feel the need to weigh in on scientific issues, and being that they have authority from God they can’t be wrong, right? Last October a creationist speaker was visiting my own church, and I wrote a detailed e-mail to the lead pastor explaining all the misinformation the speaker was using to support his point and offering to give a lecture of my own about evolution. I was never taken up on the offer and the speaker was allowed to stand on the stage and call Icthyosaurs “fish” (among other major blunders) for an hour because he was actually a friend of the lead pastor.

Global climate change has also raised some hackles in the religious realm, fossils like Focus on the Family leader James Dobson trying to keep Christians on-task (anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion, etc.) and chastising Christian leaders who rightly consider the threat of global climate change to be a reality. Whether these leaders actually understand the science of global climate change or not, however, I can’t say. Even so, before I go into some other issues involving science communication I think it’s important to recognize a few facts about people in America. In recent years, more conservative (and fundamentalist) evangelical churches have been gaining more influence, especially with the rise of the megachurch. Evangelicals aside, many people (even non-church going folk) have some sort of belief in God or the spiritual realm and church leaders/spiritual leaders hold a lot of sway as to what is moral or what is “true”. Given that, it would be great if scientists were able to communicate with church leaders and teach them about the science behind the hot-button issues being discussed, but unfortunately this often takes the initiative of the church and requires the desire to have a dialog with scientists, and more often than not scientists get snubbed. Indeed, there are people who consider science to be the handmaiden of atheism (and therefore the devil), and not wanting to jeopardize the faith of their flocks church leaders would rather pick and choose verses from the Bible to support their own ideas, given that if it’s in the Bible it must be true and will help further God’s will. How can such people, either directly antagonistic to science or afraid of it creating more skeptical followers, be reasoned with?

Moving away from how science is mangled in sanctuaries, how is it handled in public schools? When I was in high school (I graduated in 2001) things were just starting to change, standardized tests becoming more and more important every year. To the best of my recollection, only the ACT (which was looked at like a supplement the the SAT in my school district) had a section on science, all other tests focusing exclusively on reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic. Hence, science wasn’t really a priority and treated more like electives; outside of standards like chemistry, physics, and biology (none of which were really required unless you were already interested in the sciences), there weren’t many supporting electives outside of oceanography. While I did take chemistry and physics (although I can’t remember much of either), biology is what I remember more clearly, and the focus was certainly on microbiology. Ecology and evolution were relegated to about a weeks worth of study, almost as an aside, and I think it speaks to some of the larger problems we’re now having with the understanding of evolution and global warming. Students are taking science classes, surely, but ecology and evolution don’t seem to be very important, and rather than using the concepts of both those areas to illuminate others in biology classes they are often barely discussed (if at all), the inner-workings of the cell deemed for more important. Indeed, in my own experience biology classes always seemed more concerned with creating doctors and microbiologists than anything else (although I recognize this is simply my own experience and doesn’t necessarily hold true for all programs).

The point of the above paragraph is this; how can we expect people to understand evolution or ecology when they are not being taught in schools? Science doesn’t matter because it’s rarely on standardized tests, tests that can make or break funding for schools (given the disastrous effects of the “No Child Left Behind” Act), so why focus on something that they’re not going to be tested on? Such is the problem with teaching in general; do you teach for the test or try and actually educate the students? For my own part, after receiving an associates degree in 4-12 education I decided I didn’t want to be a teacher due to the fact that test scores seem to be valued more than actual understanding gained in the classroom. John Wilkins and Carl Zimmer also have identified the frightening deficit in science education, Zimmer writing;

Certainly scientists should think about why the rest of the world ought to care about their research. Certainly they should think about how it will get sucked into the political blender (and how they might want to jump in after it). But framing doesn’t seem like quite the right response to the fact that over two-thirds of people in this country don’t know enough about science to understand a newspaper story on a scientific subject. It seems more like surrender to me. Fixing high school science education seems a better plan. Don’t let kids come out of high school without knowing that a laser emits light, not sound; without knowing about standard deviations; without knowing what a stem cell is. Fixing high school science would be a lot harder than staying on message, but it would be a lot more important.

Indeed, if people are not garnering a basic understanding of science from their education, how is “framing” science going to help change their views when they’ve likely already mentally aligned themselves with one group or another? I don’t see many creationists reading Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory or Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale because they’re not interested in those books; they are going to read/listen to/watch works which edify their beliefs, already entrenched and will be very difficult to change. While children may lack the capacity to vote, they are our greatest hope for change if we can impart better scientific understanding on them, especially since children can be so enthusiastic about science. Last year, during my communicating ocean science course, I taught 5 lessons to a local 5th grade class, using clips from the BBC’s Blue Planet, dead fish, posters, games, etc. and they absolutely loved it. While not all the children really seemed interested or came away with the desire to be scientists (and who would expect them to?), based upon an assignment we gave out many retained basic information about why fish are shaped differently, what countershading does, the difference between a fish and a whale, etc. Hopefully, a year later, some of what they learned is still with them, but it can’t be said that science can’t be made accessible and fun to children.

So what about everyone else then? While children will hopefully receive better science education and therefore a better understanding of important issues involving science, there are many people who don’t. Scientists have been blasted quite often recently for being poor communicators, but I think this is too much of a generalization. In fact, ironically much of this communication debate is occurring via the blogosphere, where scientists are taking a step in the right direction in order to educate non-scientists about important issues. That aside, there are some scientists who communicate better than others, and I can’t help but wonder if part of the characterization of scientists as people who don’t know how to talk to the common man any more comes from a stereotyped idea of who scientists are. Once again, in my course last year we went over a brilliant exercise for the children; they were to draw what their mental image of a scientist was. Most of the pictures vaguely resembled Einstein, or at least an old, balding white male with glasses, a lab coat, and a test tube (often containing green fizzy stuff). Then we had them watch a video of people who are actually participating in scientific studies, people of both sexes and of all different ages, skin colors, nationalities, backgrounds, etc. Regardless, the image of the old, caucasian scientist toiling away in a lab is entrenched and difficult to change.

While it is true that some scientists can have difficulty making science accessible to some people, I think it would be wrong to place the blame entirely on them. What about those in the media, looking to communicate science (or at least incorporating scientific ideas into their writing)? Science communication has not always been done perfectly and the trend of appeasing our ADD culture hasn’t changed things for the better. Case in point, I have lost the tape but one of my most favorite documentaries growing up was shown on Shark Week in 1990 and was about great white sharks in California. While the show featured a chilling account of an attack by Al Giddings and some time spent on Jaws, what I remember most was John McCosker with the corpse of a baby white shark, going over its anatomy bit by bit and why it was important to the survival of the animal. Even more vivid in my mind was a diagram of how great white sharks keep their body temperatures above the temperature of the ambient sea water because of little blood vessel complexes called rete mirable (tuna and a few other fish also have these structures). I was only seven when the documentary aired, but it certainly stuck with me as interesting and exciting. Compare that with the Shark Week programs over the past few years, featuring shows chock-full of attack recreations and “Death Tape Footage.” Hell, one odious program even went so far as to make fake sharks that were to bite a prosthetic leg in order to recreate an attack; there was no real science to be found in the show, just gory spectacle. Even the Walking With… series (and similar series like Dinosaur Planet rub me the wrong way, substituting CGI reconstruction and storytelling for actual education. While the shows are certainly pretty and not without virtue, there is little distinction between fact and speculation, and I think interspersing the reconstructions with explanations from actual paleontologists would amp up the education value of the programs (rather than being primarily eye candy).

Indeed, I’ve mentioned this a few times already this week but I recall a documentary from the late 80’s/early 90’s which said saber-toothed cats went extinct because their canines got too long. This idea was known to be erroneous by at least 1950, but continued on as a scientific myth because of its persistence in the popular literature. Even works that have little to with science, i.e. Clan of the Cave Bear books, can fuel misunderstanding and spread misinformation. Still, sometimes there can be good partnerships between entertainment and science, the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park being the result of a cooperation between scientists and FX specialists. Even after the film came out, various books and documentaries were made about the science of cloning and dinosaurs (and how it was more than unlikely there would ever be a real Jurassic Park), many using the popularity of the movie as a springboard to open up more understanding. The problem with this, however, is that the public needs to take some amount of initiative, and here we arrive at the next problem.

As PZ recently wrote;

I blame YOU. Yeah, YOU. Why aren’t you, the consumer of media, demanding better fare?

No matter how effectively scientists may communicate, no matter how accurately those in the media convey scientific ideas, the public has to take at least some amount of initiative. While I would agree that Gould and Sagan were great science communicators, I don’t think most people would be likely to pick up a copy of Bully for Brontosaurus or The Demon Haunted World unless they had at least an inkling of interest in the subject. If someone doesn’t care about science, science communication often hits a brick wall. This is where making science personally relevant comes in, although at the same time it makes science susceptible to becoming more political than anything else. Indeed, I’ve had conversations with people who have come to agree global climate change is happening, but then they say that maybe it’s not such a bad thing as it will make some areas more fertile for crops, for instance. The issue has thus been politicized, and once you’ve reached such a point it’s difficult to argue the science of the matter when the person you’re talking to has the political ramifications in mind. Also, I don’t think that many scientific issues are necessarily irrelevant to people; it’s the actual science that is irrelevant. Let me explain it this way; as far as evolution goes, many are opposed because it defies religious doctrine, and as long as those people hold on to such beliefs so tightly the actual science behind what you’re trying to say won’t mean much to them. The same goes for global climate change; if the person you’re talking to has a firm belief that God will save us from ecological catastrophe or that it’s a scientific conspiracy, arguing science with them isn’t likely to get us far. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try, but as others have noted it’s far more difficult to get those already opposed to science to accept it; if there is to be change we need to reform elementary education.

I think I’ve gone on long enough here. Overall, I don’t believe the non-acceptance of science is solely the product of scientists communicating ineffectively. No, while science communication needs to be a bigger priority, those working in the media also must communicate science responsibly (otherwise they end up creating long-lasting myths that only do harm), educators need to get their priorities straight, and the public needs to show some initiative. There is not any one cause, nor any one solution to, the problems we’re facing, and as I suggested I feel it has a lot more to do with “belief vs science” than “bad science vs good science”.

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9 04 2007
Laelaps

[…] Mixed signals: Communicating Science […]

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