Can We Just Talk: Science and Communication

CommunicationThere were two article that came across my RSS reading list the past week. The first was an article about a meeting of the NSF Science & Engineering Messengers in New Mexico and the second was an article in the April 23 issue of Ars Technica How Science failed during the Gulf oil disaster . The two articles have one thing in common the inability of scientist to communicate to the general public and the especially the media.

In the case of the meeting in New Mexico the issue was how the inability of scientist to communicate scientific principals to the general public through the media, will affect the future of the US. An electorate that is more educated in the sciences is better able to make an informed decision concerning issues like water usage, the environment and infrastructure among other. In other words smarter people equal smarter policies. In 2009 the US students K–12 ranked 17th out of 34 countries in science and 25th in math. In 2008 51 percent of all patents issued by the US patent office were to non US companies. These are just a few indicators that the US maybe going in the wrong direction and that scientist are doing a poor job of communicating the importance of science to the general public.

The Ars Technica article discussed the inability of scientist to communicate during a crisis. The crisis in this case being the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Scientist wanted to help with the crisis, however they had trouble communicating through the media. Scientist find it difficult to explain issues in terms of black in white, to them there is always a grey area. In other words they don’t deal in 30 minute sound bites. The media on the other hand relies on the headline or the soundbite. Scientist often work slowly and deliberately while the media is looking for quick and precise answers. For example one of the unexplained events that occurred during the Deepwater Horizon spill was the plumes that flowed sideways from the source of the leaks instead of up to the surface. The media began to describe them as a river of oil, it took another month before scientist were able to explain what the plumes actually were, by that time the media had lost interest and had moved was on to the next crisis.

It is not all bad news though there is some good news coming out of both the meeting in New Mexico and the Deepwater Horizon crisis. The first is that scientist are beginning to recognize the problem. The second is that scientist are starting  to communicate with people outside the scientific community on a more regular basis.

Better communication between the scientific community and the general public through the media is important to our future. As Thomas Jefferson said “If a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was & never will be.”