Thursday, July 7, 2011

twice the Scientific communication?

I recently read two articles by Dr. Alan Betts pleading to the scientific community that more effort be devoted to communicating their science to non-scientists. This is indeed a potential benefit to the public but it does have serious implications.
The good:
1. The "public" has a translator for science reducing the sensationalism of every finding
2. The science could be beneficial
3. The "public" would become more aware of what their tax dollars pay for and why it is deemed important
4. Scientists could help educate the public through this type of outreach

The bad:
1. Scientists would spend time writing two papers for every paper they publish
2. Not all science needs to be communicated to everyone so who decides which papers are worthy of translating
3. The scientists would be doing the work of science journalists

In general it is a good idea IF we could figure out which science is deemed public consumable. Not every published paper necessarily needs to be communicated. Rather a body of work which presents specific findings on a public-relevant topic. Along these lines it would be nice to have a report, for lack of a better term, which describes what the funding accomplished. Usually this is described in a researchers CV or resume as what papers were published in relation to particular research efforts.

But again, it is time consuming. Time consuming though is code for not worth the extra effort since you already wrote up the paper to specifically communicate with those in your field.

This is why journalism was created: To report relevant information to a curious or demanding public.

So has journalism been doing a great job? In the words of Jon Stewart: "The bias of the mainstream media is towards sensationalism, conflict and laziness".  Thus I believe it is time to wake up the true journalists.

Journalists were good when they sought to lead people toward knowledge (at least I hope there was a time when that happened). As of now most journalistic efforts focus on dumbing down science ... on purpose. Even the words. As we all know this strategy has been implemented for centuries. In politics. With remarkable results.

In fact all news organizations employ the latest greatest strategy for attracting viewers: opinion. But not just offering an opinion, but soliciting your opinion. Everyone can have an opinion, but are all opinions equally qualified? The mere act of offering an opinion is like placing a bet in a poker game. You now have something to lose by playing. This is what politicians do. They comment on anything. Sometimes with great care, other times off the cuff. Off the cuff usually gets them in trouble, because someone holds a more informed opinion, and will find fault with your opinion (sometimes based on facts).

This is where social media enters the picture, because social media is an opinion playground. This is where you voice your opinion and others can agree with you, making it feel like you are correct because others hold similar opinions. Does that make your opinion correct? Maybe. Maybe Not.

What is clear is that communication is needed in all realms especially as more information is available. This requires education and "smartening" up the science to be consumed by a more intelligent public. The public is clamoring for more knowledge. They are seeking ways to not struggle, ways to not get screwed, and ways to succeed. It is clear that knowledge in all aspects of our lives is to our benefit, whether its how care for yourself so you have fewer health problems, to how to protect yourself from weather. They are rediscovering they need this knowledge to survive.

In this case, I like the idea of better scientific communication but not at the expense of science. The system as a whole needs to serve the public better. I don't think that a one sided solution will work so I propose that we fix the system. We need better education, less sensationalistic journalists, less sensationalistic information consuming habits, and more communicative scientists.