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Science Communication

I’ve noticed an emerging trend in recent science news, podcasts and other information sources. That is the need for science and technology to be communicated to the rest of the world so that important messages get through to the majority. Important messages might include things like: the need to minimise the activities which cause climate change, the need to look for alternative energy sources, and the need to invest in fundamental research even during a recession.

So why has this become an issue recently? It seems that people are less trusting of science than they used to be. For example, the scientific findings on climate change are intensely distrusted by many people even though there is really very little doubt about the facts on the situation.

The problem is that science and technology are really the only ways that the world’s problems can be solved. Politics can’t really do it, economics and business can’t really do it, and religion certainly can’t do it. Science is really the only hope for the majority of the world’s population to continue to exist in comfort and safety.

Before anyone starts criticising me for neglecting the undoubtedly real effects of politics and economics I should say that I agree they play a part but only really to provide a mechanism of action for technology. The big revolutions have been the result of deployment of technologies like steam engines, railroads, roads, electronics, computers, and the internet. That’s why the major changes in the way the world works are called things like the enlightenment, the industrial revolution and the information revolution.

The internet has been an important factor in communicating science to everyone but not always in a positive way. Because there is little review and criticism of information on the internet it can be very polarising. For anyone who was determined to deny global warming for example there are plenty of web sites to support the denial viewpoint and many of them are superficially scientific.

Of course, its also possible to only visit sites which support the scientific consensus and that is also not the best option (although its a lot better than the alternative of following conspiracy theories, faulty logic and carefully cherry-picked data). Anyone who really wants to be informed should visit both sides of the debate and evaluate the big picture. Anyone who does that fairly will undoubtedly conclude that global warming is true but the facts do change and its always worth continuing to examine both sides.

One factor which is against science is that its hard. Anyone visiting an evolution site and comparing it with a creationism site will find it much more difficult and uncertain. While there is no doubt that evolution is real there is always doubt about the details, such as the exact dating of fossils, the ancestry of species, etc. Anyone seeing this and comparing it with the totally certain way the (false) information on creationists sites is presented could easily get the wrong impression.

The problem is that science is all about uncertainty and honesty about that uncertainty. Any good scientists will look for ways to negate his own theories and if he doesn’t his colleagues certainly will. Compared with this the purveyors of pseudoscience present a very united front. Even though its all fake that might not be obvious to a non-specialist who isn’t familiar with examining claims critically and skeptically.

I don’t think its reasonable to ask scientists to present their data in a form that is easier for the public to understand because that would be contrary to the way they usually work. That means that we need more specialist science communicators and its good to see how that is becoming a recognised academic area with many universities setting up programs in that field.

Maybe there’s hope. It only takes one truly brilliant communicator, such as Carl Sagan, to make a big difference. We haven’t seen anyone like Sagan since his death but, if science communication becomes a respected and serious subject itself, maybe it won’t be long before we do see someone else who’s almost as good.

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  1. Klem
    August 24, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    “It seems that people are less trusting of science than they used to be”

    They are? Why would that be? How about the Hockey Stick graph. How about changing the name from Global Warming to Climate Change. How about the UN IPCC saying that their last report was written by 600 scientist when it was really only 60. How about the EPA having CO2 declared a dangerous substance. How about Obama being instrumental in creating the Chicago Climate Exchange. How about “the debate is over, the science is settled” quashing af scientific debate. How about Al Gore trading carbon offsets with a company he owns. The list goes on. The public does not trust climate scientists or the Green movement anymore and I believe this has done damage to the scientific community in general.

  2. ojb42
    August 24, 2009 at 9:44 pm

    What exactly is the problem with the hockey stick graph? Have you ever read the original report which introduced it where they point out that there is need for more data and that the inaccuracies should be noted? Its only because of the superficial analysis by deniers that this has become an issue.

    And the IPCC has always been the IPCC (and not the IPGW) so I guess you can’t accuse them of changing the name. But really those are just popular labels for the phenomenon and little to do with the science anyway.

    Not sure what your objections are to the rest of those points but none of them really relate to the science, more the politics. Especially Al Gore. He has made people aware of the problem but that’s really nothing to do with science.

    So really you have started off with a bias against science then looked for trivial reasons to distrust the facts of GW/CC which means my original question remains: why start off with a distrust of science?

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