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Why Communicate Science?

By Carl Safina

By “communicate science,” I mean professional scientists explaining something about science to non-scientists. My question is, “Why?” But many scientists are still debating whether we should; many see why they should not.

Communicating science takes time away from research, from teaching, from being home; from something else we need to be doing. The time is not adequately compensated. Doing interviews with reporters, or visiting legislators, has no assigned “impact factor” that boosts vitae-value. Appearing on the radio or TV or in the news, giving talks to civic groups, writing op-eds or articles geared to “popular” audiences, or even a translational book for the general public; all count little, sometimes nothing, towards tenure. Sometimes they actually hurt. Communicating science can be seen as unprofessional. Peers may think less of you. It may seem absurd that many scientists would think it unprofessional to explain science, but that thinking is a fact in academia. And anyway, communicating is the job of communicators such as professional science writers.

All the above reasons not to communicate science are valid. Next question: Are those reasons sufficient? Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein apparently didn’t think so. Granted, we’re not them. We all juggle priorities and make compromises on how we can and must spend our time. But it’s my conviction that scientists should elevate communicating science as something important and worthwhile. That brings us to “Why.”

Some scientists believe we should communicate because public support is crucial for continued public funding. That’s circular and self-serving. In the long run, it’s likely self-defeating. Simply explaining that the space program resulted in such marvels as Tang and Teflon–two oft-cited benefits of science that, in fact, everyone can live without–doesn’t adequately elevate the power of science above everything else vying for public money, such as military spending, bank-bailouts, infrastructure, etc., etc.

I believe it’s important for people to get to know scientists as people, as members of civil society in their communities. And I believe the message is not one of facts, nor reports about the latest research, but of the overarching and deeply penetrating grandeur of science: how it uniquely has the power to unlock the secrets of life and the universe–and how scientific thinking can help people evaluate claims, think for themselves, and demand proof.

People Need What Scientists Have; Scientists Need People to Have it.

Science is the human mind’s greatest invention. It is the only endeavor designed to find out what is really going on in the world. It is the only system of thought and action capable of unlocking secrets of the universe.

Compared to the power of science, the workings of law, politics, and business are just so much fooling around. Take out the subjectivity and compromise in law and politics, remove the money from business; you’re left with ideology and stuff to sell.

What passes for professional conduct in law, politics, business, and religion lets practitioners just cherry-pick the fragments of argument that support their narrow, often short-term, self interests, and–rather incredibly–to forcefully argue them!

To succeed, people in law, business, and politics must sometimes resist or hide the truth. In popular obsessions like sports, fashion, and celebrity, truth isn’t even part of the equation.

Science wields objectivity in an elevated search for truth. In every other endeavor, people of different genders, faiths, parties, ethnicities, or economic backgrounds are bound to differ. But in a science lab, if Palestinian and Israeli scientists do their work right, they will get the same result. If Democrats and Republicans repeat the procedure, they will get the same result. That is true power. There’s nothing else like that.

Science teaches people to be skeptical of claims. In fact, a scientific approach–using information to sort through one’s own biases, and demanding proof as a way of evaluating conflicting claims–is necessary for good citizenship. It is necessary for avoiding being preyed upon by people with ambitions, ideologies, and advertisements.

Scientific thinking requires us to consider all available information bearing on a question, to face the possibility that even our own best guess was wrong, and to advance what we know even when it’s different than what we thought we knew. Scientific thinking is what everyone could use.

By being ferociously honest, science has given us real comprehension of our place in the universe, in time, and in the splendid pageant of life. Science has curiosity, self-motivation, and the quest for what’s real. Science is often magnificent, and occasionally–let’s face it–truly awesome.

But few people know any of this.

Scientific Thinking in Decision-making. Science–being the collective endeavor of scientists–isn’t perfect. Scientists are people. People make mistakes. Scientists have egos, jealousies–science is human. But science is an attempt to avoid what’s worst about being human and to bring out what’s best. It doesn’t have the hubris to think it knows everything. It holds no dogma. It is a system for working around bias and cutting through preconceived notions and prejudices.

As science progresses through time, it has a strong tendency toward correcting its misperceptions, accepting those corrections, and spiraling in on the truth. Indeed, science may already have found some absolute truths about major aspects of reality, such as laws of physics, chemical principles, geological history, and biological evolution. Perhaps best of all, science inhabits the frontiers of great mysteries and great questions: where did we come from, where are we going.

Science has limits. Science can’t answer moral questions such as whether we should allow gay marriage or mandate racial equality, or when a “human life” begins. But it is uniquely able to factually inform those debates.

Since science tries to honestly know what’s going on, and good decisions require at least that, scientists are often those best-informed to advise society on what should be done. Academic scientists, particularly, are the closest thing civilization has to a non-biased reservoir of truth.

Many scientists believe they should avoid “advocacy.” But that in itself is advocacy, because the word “should” implies that you’re advocating something. If scientists decide not to engage, less-informed policy makers, pressured by less-objective advocates, will make decisions anyway. They’ll often do so without the benefit of the best advice they might have gotten, or without anyone arguing on behalf of the facts.

Here’s the problem: Virtually no one outside of science understands why and how any of this matters. Inside of science, hardly anyone gives it a thought, nor realizes the exceptional value that scientific thinking, not just scientific findings, would have in wider society.

If we choose not to communicate what we do, who we are, and the power of scientific thinking, then our work, and the value of scientific thinking, will be too easily ignored. Long-term results include a lack of societal support for science, and society suffering the consequences of bad decisions. As we see.

Inequalities of Perception. Science can seem the most simultaneously trusted yet feared profession–and the most ignored. Gallup annually polls people on their perceptions of various professions with the question, “How you would rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in these different fields?” The fields given include everything from nurses to business executives to telemarketers–but not scientists. Scientists seem to be off people’s radar. But when the National Science Foundation asks specifically, the public accords scientists “a great deal of confidence” and “very great prestige.”

Yet there’s a chasm. Science is a factor in many things people use and do every day, yet virtually no one knows a living, working scientist–or can even name one. Search the Web for the phrase “can you name a scientist?” and in the sites that come up you’ll discover: • about half of Americans can only muster Albert Einstein, a quarter can’t name anyone, and respondents in the single digits mention Marie Curie, Louis Pasteur, and Thomas Edison. • When asked to name a living scientist, two-thirds of Americans can’t name anyone at all, 15 percent name Stephen Hawking, and 19 percent name other people, mostly those who’ve been on TV a lot.

My impression of the problem, in two sentences, is that scientists ask: “Why don’t people care about science?” Non-scientists ask, “Why don’t scientists care about people?” When Pew looked into this issue, they discovered that, “Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public” and that “While the public holds scientists in high regard, many scientists harbor unfavorable assessments of the public’s knowledge.” This relationship between science and society is not a healthy one. And since the public seems to be expressing a certain amount of unrequited love, it behooves scientists to pay more attention.

Why Scientists Need to Engage. When I was in grad school working toward my PhD in ecology, I was told by a member of my own PhD committee that doing applied work toward solving problems in society, “is for people who aren’t smart enough to get a PhD.” Did they mean I was not smart enough? Should I prove how smart I am by not being concerned about the world’s problems? Apparently so, because later, a professor at an ivy-league school told me–with apparent pride–“We solve puzzles, not problems.” Well, that’s the ivory tower for you. But even in the ivory tower, the rent comes due.

By estranging itself from people and problems, science suffers a perception of irrelevance–a perception science itself too often chooses. To the extent that scientists think they’re above society’s problems, and academic institutions give no credit to the communication activities of faculty members, and scientists cast aspersions upon colleagues who try to engage with decision-making in the wider world, that is the extent to which science helps facilitate dilemmas that it could help to solve. In practice, science cedes to less benevolent interests much of its own power to help guide society.

Good communication skills are learned, but talent and instinct are also involved. While I do think we have a responsibility to share what we know, it’s not for everyone. On this, one has to be one’s own judge. Some people are best as teachers, others add illumination to hotly debated issues such as climate science. The important thing is to find the right fit, and feel the right balance, for you. But the other important thing is: do something. Wield the knowledge, the value, or just the informed perspective that you have.

So What’s the Message? So what messages should scientists “communicate?” Many scientists assume that to “communicate science” would be to translate scientific findings, putting journal articles into plain language in a press release, in case anyone’s interested. And sometimes it is. But that’s not what I’m getting at.

I’m getting at something less prescriptive, more amorphous, more persistent and more penetrating. I’m saying that scientists should be a much greater presence in society, should be brighter on the public’s radar, and that how, exactly, we do it, is up to each of us.

Don’t think you need to teach the public a lot of science facts. Instead, show what science is, what it means, why we need it. Find a way to have a presence. Choose what to comment on, how to be involved, and what actions and issues to engage in. Be a source of wisdom.

The public doesn’t need to keep up-to-date on journal publications. What people do need to know is that scientists are people, that science is an honorable, trustworthy, and powerful endeavor that people should look to for answers, and as a way to help think through decisions. Every child asks, “Why is the sky blue?” People need to know that scientists are the ones among us who never stopped asking that question–and who found the answer.

I’d like to see more civics-minded scientists, because the society that we live in needs more science-minded civics. In my ideal world, I’d like the public to hold impressions as friendly as, “Science–there’s nothing like it;” questions as persistent as, “Got science?;” and messages as simple as, “Science: it’s what’s real.” It would help us all if people felt good about scientists and knew that they can look to science for answers and informed opinion. People can’t do that without our help.

Mainly, people need to know we’re here. And that we do have something pretty special to share.

Carl Safina is founder of Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University, where he also co-chairs the Center for Communicating Science. He has won the National Academies’ Science Communication Award, Lannan Literary Award, Orion Book Award, Pew and Guggenheim fellowships, the John Burroughs Medal, and a MacArthur prize. He is author of six books and will host the upcoming series Saving the Ocean on PBS television.

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Editor: Alan Chodos