Communicating Science

The new Cosmos series now playing in the US is not the only effort to communicate science to the public. Livescience.com recently reposted an article from the Australian site The Conversation on this topic. “No matter how strong the scientific argument and consensus among scientists there will always be people who reject the evidence. It happens on so many scientific topics, from climate change and vaccination to nuclear power and renewable energy… These are, of course, vastly different issues. Many of those who agree with one of the positions noted above will be horrified to find themselves included in the same sentence with another group.”

Neil_deGrasse_Tyson_-_NAC_Nov_2005

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Scientists tend to think that the way to resolve a disagreement is to get more facts, but when well-established science confronts hot-button, public-policy issues, this approach fails. To borrow a phrase from Stephen Jay Gould, the misunderstandings are “conceptual locks, not factual lacks.”

The Australians chose man-made climate change as their topic and approached the problem of communicating to the public from (what else?) a scientific perspective. They take climate experts on a series of public meetings to talk to and – most importantly – listen to ‘regular’ people. They suggest scientists must share their emotions and their passions – something scientists are trained to avoid in their professional papers. There is a short documentary available embedded in the article if you’d like to hear from the Australians in their own words.

Stephen_Jay_Gould_by_Kathy_Chapman

Stephen Jay Gould

As others have noted, people usually base their opinions on their intuitive moral values and subsequently seek evidence to support those positions. People believe that some things are noble and pure, others are degrading and base; that some people have earned their loyalty while others are unknowns or opponents. These factors are more important than disembodied facts.

Science is not always intuitive, which is why it took civilization thousands of years to discover the scientific method. But our lives are better today because of science and it is well worth anyone’s effort to understand the science involved in public issues. The science does not dictate what policy should be followed; our morals and values play an important and proper role in decisions. But decisions based on falsehood will never work out right.

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