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How we can make science issues mainstream

Is there a dichotomy between public awareness and avoiding controversy?

On the place of science in public discussion, most people agree with two things. Firstly, it doesn’t have much of a place. Secondly, it is a virtue of science that it stays above politics.

Most people also agree with a need to raise the profile of science, engineering and technology. (In this post, “science” means all these collectively.) That’s no trivial task. Of course we can do more to explain what we do. But how do we get people to pay attention?

I’ve been giving this some thought in recent months. We want science not to be relegated to page C8. But we also want not to be mired in controversy. The thing is, I don’t think we can have it both ways.

When do people listen?
Science is hardly alone in bemoaning the media’s choices. Every time gossip about the Duchess of Cambridge takes the front page, a familiar chorus rings. “What about the children starving in Africa?” people ask, pointing out far more “important” issues.

Media attention choices can seem odd, but they’re not incomprehensible. Media outlets want readership, so they emphasise things that people will read. Oddly, this isn’t the same as what’s “important”. People are drawn to things that are interesting—a very different concept.

There are countless factors to what is “interesting”, but some are easy to see. Novelty is one: you’re not learning if you already knew. Personal obsessions factor in too. But have a think through all the major front-page issues, and (things like disasters excepting) you’ll see a common thread: controversy.

Why? Because it stirs emotions, it gets people thinking. People like to take sides. (This includes uniting against an unpopular group.) That’s why extremists often get unfairly more attention than moderates (e.g. religious groups). That’s why evolution theory makes headlines, while advances in broadband get the page-C8 treatment.

Can a topic get attention without controversy? Sure, but it needs some other “shock” factor, like disasters, accidents and crime. So if a nuclear power plant blows up, that’s big. But other than natural disasters, these lend to controversy too.

Almost all scientific headlines have controversy. Here’s a list: the Italian seismologists convicted of manslaughter, CERN scientists who thought neutrinos might be going faster than light, the 2009 scandal about evidence on climate change used by a UN advisory panel, teaching evolution in schools. An exception is the Higgs boson, but only the science-inclined have been following.

Selling our souls?
So I’m pretty much proposing that science lend itself to controversy more often. A natural objection is that, while it’s good to raise awareness of science, it’s not worth selling our souls for. I beg to differ. Controversy isn’t alien to science. It’s just that our debates are kept within the scientific and technical community, away from public ears.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Science is all about competing theories, and engineering about competing technologies. We like to think we’re objective, but in reality, humans get attached to their own line of thinking. The 2011 Nobel laureate in chemistry battled for decades against the science establishment.

Laypeople do have opinions on science now, but it normally goes like this: “the scientists say climate change is a thing, therefore it is”. They skip the science and take scientists’ word as gospel. That’s not awareness. It’s deference to authority.

Opening up our debates means giving up our monopoly on scientific opinion. It’s a scary thought. But other professions already do this. Economists routinely debate their theories in public, as do lawyers, accountants and educators. We appreciate expert opinions, but we aren’t afraid of forming our own. Why is science different?

Some people will say that, unlike those fields, science is “evidence-based”. That’s true, but there’s no reason why laypeople, too, can’t have opinions on the evidence. Of course, the deepest technicalities are beyond laypeople. That’s fine, and also true of economics and law. They still do a fine job of explaining the overall picture to the public.

What it will take
Right now, it takes a talent rarely found among scientists to communicate science to the public. This was found in the late Sir Paul Callaghan, after whom the Callaghan Medal for science communication is named. Sir Paul is my biggest inspiration, and he made a good start. But there’s a long way to go.

Sir Paul tended to focus on making science accessible to the public. He hosted radio and television series explaining scientific concepts. It was an excellent initiative for laypeople who already wanted to learn more. That’s a small group.

What attracted more attention was when Sir Paul spoke out not just on science, but on New Zealand generally, such as when he pleaded expatriate graduates to pay back their student loans. When he last made the front page, he was fighting cancer (a fight he would lose). The newsworthiness was that he was trying a Vitamin C treatment. All controversial things.

What we need is for scientists to explain issues of public interest openly. Not all topics lend themselves to this: basic research almost never does, but many other topics do. Some are technical, like the next technological standards, fracking and genetic modification; others, like funding and education, are not.

To kickstart attention, this will require that rare talent. But we can’t forever rely on a handful of designated “communicators”. More of us need to speak our minds—even if it means criticising our own colleagues in public.

We’re afraid to do this. We’re afraid because we like the authority we have over technical matters. We don’t want laypeople to engage with us, we just want them to understand. But we have to choose. As long as we’re happy for the public to stay out of our debates, public awareness of science, engineering and technology will remain low.

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6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Alice Palace #

    I think the lack of science writers in New Zealand also contributes to the paucity of science stories in the papers. Most journalists have arts backgrounds and are often either not interested in scientific news or feel it’s too complicated for them to write about. Perhaps more people in the field of science should become regular contributors to major publications.

    2 December 2012
    • Chuan-Zheng #

      To be fair, journalists don’t often have backgrounds in law, economics or education either, and seem to cover all those topics just fine. But in general terms I agree that’s likely to be a contributing factor—though the question of how to get readers to care still remains.

      3 December 2012
  2. joy #

    “When do people listen?
    Science is hardly alone in bemoaning the media’s choices. Every time gossip about the Duchess of Cambridge takes the front page, a familiar chorus rings. “What about the children starving in Africa?” people ask, pointing out far more “important” issues.

    Media attention choices can seem odd, but they’re not incomprehensible. Media outlets want readership, so they emphasise things that people will read. Oddly, this isn’t the same as what’s “important”. People are drawn to things that are interesting—a very different concept.”

    So scientists are feeling ‘taken for granted’, I think that is the problem, join the vast majority of women out there in ‘feeling taken for granted’, which may be the reason so few girls take an interest in stem, Why double the problem?

    Controversy does not solve the problem. Facing life without the stem products would be a massive change, a nightmare in fact. Getting more people involved in ~recreating from scratch~ could possibly have the desired effect.

    I will be using this comment as the base for a blog, hence the inevitable duplication.

    3 December 2012
    • Chuan-Zheng #

      I agree with your diagnosis for why too few enter STEM careers, but I think we’re talking about different problems—I was concerned with the lack of public discourse on science topics.

      In saying that, I think one factor in why we feel (and are!) taken for granted is that our work is out of sight of the public (and out of mind). If science featured more prominently in public debate, I think we would be more valued (in more than just lip service!).

      3 December 2012
      • joy #

        I was thinking back to childhood and family meals that ended up in “debates”, maths v biology v chemistry, they lost us every time, so it was it will take a bit of everything to get anywhere please may we leave the table.
        I feel Public debate will only interest scientists, and probably only those in the relevant field. 50 years ago there was a real need for interaction between disciplines which seems to be happening now.
        You can go round in circles ‘interpreting the evidence’ in so many different ways

        8 December 2012
  3. joy #

    Reblogged this on Thinkings or thoughts? and commented:
    Possibly too technical a problem, needs simplifying.

    3 December 2012

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