Misnomers and Mixed Intentions: Communicating Science is Hard

Reposted from the Teaching Evolution in Action blog

By Chris Symons

Chris SymonsThe route of information between the raw data of scientific experimentation to the public’s understanding is convoluted. The murky water of scientific communication is problematic at best, if anyone ever hopes to get the public united behind a scientific issue, they will need to learn to navigate these problems with science communication they can expect to encounter.

There are a couple key factors, notably term misuse and biased/sensational media, to be blamed for many communication misconceptions.

Term misuse causes inaccurate understandings of definitions. For example, pop culture and video games are sources of evolution being used incorrectly. In the Pokémon series the ‘evolution’ that transpires in the game is actually a metamorphosis, and while this mix up is certainly innocent enough, it is term misuse that reinforces evolution as being a deliberate, linear, immediate process. In other words, that two chimpanzees suddenly birthed a human child, for example. This is a common misunderstanding, that evolution occurs in a single glorious moment and a new species is born. Evolution is a process that occurs over generations, with no specific direction, resulting in very gradual changes to the gene pool.

Pictured: Not evolution

Another word that is under constant contention is ‘theory’, which suffers from different use by scientists, as opposed to the general public. People attach the uncertainty that the common understanding of ‘theory’ has, to the way scientists use it, and this is highly confusing. When scientists use the term ‘theory’, it means an idea that is heavily tested, and heavily reinforced and supported by evidence. Gravity, evolution, continental drift, heavy bombardment, and relativity are all theories- yet we do not see the heavy doubt and denial with all of them.

There is another great divide in communication, due to differing goals of all the people the information must get through to get to the public ear. The scientist may want to convey his data neutrally, and make sure she is not making any assertions her colleagues and fellow scientists will question too harshly. That information could be picked up by a researcher, who wants to use particular points from the dense and technical write up of the findings for a specific purpose. The researcher will emphasize these specific points to suit their purpose. If the media gets involved, their prerogative is getting as many viewers or page views as possible, so they will often lean towards sensationalism by exaggerating points further. Even though the information is still the same, the way it is presented and viewed changes the way it is received and understood. This leads to misunderstanding.

Both of these processes occur commonly, and warp the public’s understanding of scientific information. Communication is critical for re-establishing a higher degree of trust and understanding between the public and the people who do science for their careers. The potential oversight of these roadblocks can be nothing short of disastrous to the relationship between citizens and science. My advice to the general public would be to look hard at your sources of news, and stay engaged and curious about the world. My advice to scientists is to avoid highbrow scientific jargon, or writing too dryly and complexly, when dealing with the public. I also highly recommend every scientist engage actively in social media. What better way to relay information directly to the public than to access them directly? For citizens to obtain information from scientists directly, would be a fantastic step towards a more educated public body- and I have no doubt this educated public would be more united to act on issues like climate change, vaccinations, and evolution.

I have recently discovered a wonderfully inspiring TEDx talk delivered by Sheril Kirshenbaum, all about communicating science. Check it out here-

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