Science and science communication: why we can’t win and what we can do

Times are changing and it seems like a scientist just can’t win. In the era of fake news and “alternative facts”, where people dismiss what an engineer says because he’s not a “real scientist” (regardless of the science not changing just because it was an engineer who shared it), where diseases long-thought dead are resurging thanks to parents thinking autism is a fate worse than death (and the “study” they keep bringing up that “links” autism to vaccines was disproved many, many years ago), it seems like searching for evidence and the truth is out of fashion.

The irony is that we need science (and scientists!) more than ever. We’ve got climate change, biodiversity loss, coral bleaching, and melting ice caps. We’re emptying the oceans of fish and replacing them with plastic. We’re clearing rainforests but wonder where the fresh air has gone. Stronger typhoons are battering our coastlines but we don’t have the mangroves to keep them at bay. There are areas of the deep sea where our trash got there before we did. If we want to keep living on this planet (and I’m assuming that we do, considering that we haven’t developed interstellar travel yet), we needed to start protecting it yesterday.

fish visual census
Counting fish underwater

Scientists can’t save the world on their own. Because they’re very much in the minority – in 2013, the Philippines only had 189 researchers in R&D per million people – scientists are banking on the results of their research making its way to the general public, thus educating them about pressing environmental and health issues and provoking planet-saving action along the way. If only it were that simple.

First, great scientists are not always great communicators. We are sometimes so used to talking to our peers that the idea of talking to “regular” people and using minimal jargon stumps us. I used to work as an environmental officer for an eco resort located in a protected area and it took me years to figure out how to talk to people. The first time I trained tour guides in basic biology and ecology was a harsh lesson: people are under no obligation to be interested in what you find interesting. My first attempts at writing, shooting, and editing nature videos earned me an A for effort and content but a C in actual production value and “interestingness” from my video producer husband. Over the years and after much trial and error, our team of three Biology grads learned to use used bingo games, underwater scavenger hunts, and selfie contests to make science fun. I’ve also given talks at our beach bar during Happy Hour, ruining quite a few childhoods in the process of explaining protandry in clownfish.

This is us at our 12th episode. Check the link and compare it against our first episode.

There’s also the potential bias within the scientific community as well, wherein scientists who dedicated chunks of their time to public outreach were historically seen as being “less dedicated” and “less capable” of doing good science (see: Sagan, Carl). The annoying thing is that it’s not even true! On the flipside, in a “publish or perish” world, there’s no incentive for scientists to do outreach. How are we supposed to inspire the next generation of scientists if we’re not out there promoting how awesome science is? We can’t let Neil deGrasse Tyson do all the heavy lifting.

Scientists need to go where they’re needed. In this case, talking to fishermen underneath a tree by the roadside.

When scientists do communicate, those who do it well have to struggle against the public’s perception of what a credible scientist should look like. While a quartet of adorkable, socially awkward researchers makes for popular TV, it further cements the stereotype of the bumbling professor. A recent study showed that researchers who are physically attractive and appear friendly generated greater interest in their work, but were also seen as producing lower quality science. In comparison, researchers who are relatively plain-looking and look unapproachable were seen as producing higher quality science but generated less interest in their work. Can you please make up your minds? Their test subjects were also more interested in reading news articles featuring the work of “interesting-looking” scientists compared to those who looked “uninteresting”. I didn’t realize I needed a good headshot to accompany my research.

While communicating science in today’s environment feels like a combination of pushing a boulder up a mountain and preaching to the choir, we have to do it anyway. We owe it not just to ourselves, but to the ones who will come after us. But we have to work together!

General Public, good science is inescapable and undeniable. Don’t attack just because the science doesn’t fit your world view. As a great man once said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” Attack the science if the methodology and the data used to arrive at that conclusion is wrong.

Good science is also good science, regardless of who is doing it (as long as they adhere to ethical standards, of course). While there are scientists who are admittedly weird and dorky (myself included), others climb mountains, star is musicals, play with fire, and race dragonboats. We’re a pretty diverse bunch. Judge us on how good our research is, not on whether we look good in a lab coat.

Once upon a time, I joined fun runs.

Governments, use good science to shape good policy. It’s hard, I know, but that’s the only way to do it. Fund not just the actual research, but the outreach efforts as well. You want an educated population, right?

Fellow scientists, we need to learn how to communicate better. While reaching out to the public may not be your life’s work, your life’s work depends on the support of the public. People can’t support what they don’t know about. The public are our partners in discovery, not our enemies.

Let’s also remember that we don’t have to do this on our own. There are media professionals out there who can help us craft our messages and present them in a manner that will get us the most buy-in from the public. Guide the professionals but let them do their thing.

Science shouldn’t stay cooped up in the lab and we have got to get better at setting it free.

 

Author’s note: I wrote this last year for the Asian Scientist Writing Prize. Obviously I didn’t win but I wanted to post this anyway with some minor edits.

Say it now!