Why Science Communication is Vital — Reflections on Professor Sir Peter Gluckman’s SCANZ speech

By Michael Edmonds 07/03/2011

Professor Sir Peter Gluckman’s presentation on the importance of science communication to the public’s understanding of science at the recent SCANZ (Science Communicators Association of New Zealand) conference raised some interesting points. A full transcript of this presentation can be found here.

The following discussion covers some of the key points from this presentation which I found the most interesting.

The era of postnormal science

Professor Gluckman described how some areas of science can now be described as ‘postnormal’ science in that they have moved beyond the more straightforward areas of science that people are familiar with, and into areas involving complex systems, examples of which include medical science and climate research. Complex systems require scientists to talk more in terms of limits, risk and probabilities, terminologies which the public (and indeed some scientists) have yet to come to terms with. In these areas science is used to focus on the reduction of uncertainty, rather than on its elimination.

Science vs values

One of the areas where science runs into trouble is where it comes into conflict with the values of different groups in society. Thus Professor Gluckman asks of recent public debates ‘where does the science end and where do values emerge as the key determinant?’ He also warns that ‘scientists should not be arrogant enough to think that their view outweighs that of the community.’ While this seems like very sensible advice it also raises some challenges. What should a scientist do when certain values (e.g. the belief in unrestrained economic growth by some sectors of the business community) may result in scientifically identifiable risks to our environment? The potential conflict between science and values needs to be thought through very carefully in my opinion.

Governments cannot move beyond public consensus

This statement seems obvious, but how often is it overlooked by scientists who complain about their government’s stance on scientific issues such as GE (genetic engineering), climate change or the underfunding of science. As representatives of the voting population, politicians must be conscious of the public consensus on any issue. If they choose to make a decision that goes against the public consensus, they must make sure that the value of their decision is recognised before the next election or they face the very likely risk of being removed from office.

My take on this comment is that if, as scientists/science educators, we want to get the government to make changes we must first show that the public support it. If the public don’t support what we consider to be a scientifically valid decision, then we need to prove to them that it is important.

Poor reporting of science

Professor Gluckman discusses at length some of the issues around the poor reporting of science and suggests blame lies both with scientists and with those doing the reporting. From scientists who refuse to admit what they don’t know to journalists who over-hype a story, Professor Gluckman lists a number of areas where science is misrepresented and misused in the media.

Reflecting on these comments and on other comments made by media representatives and scientists at the SCANZ conference it seems obvious to me that many of the challenges with science communication are due to the marked differences between the two careers. Journalists require fast turn arounds, while scientists are used to working slowly and methodically. Journalists like snappy sound bites, whereas most scientists prefer to describe their work in detail. Journalists like simplicity and bold statements while scientists talk about complexity and levels of uncertainty. The list goes on.

So perhaps this is the true value of a science communicator. Standing with one foot in each camp, that of the journalist and the scientist and acting as a translator and negotiator (and maybe sometimes as a referee) to smooth out these differences. Making sure that science is communicated simply, clearly and accurately while making it interesting, relevant and succinct.

It can’t be that hard, can it?  J