The Challenges of Science Communication

To give an insight into their research is an important task for scientists, but not an easy one. Photo/Credits: janiecbros/iStock, Prostock-Studio/iStock.

The 1633 trial of Galileo is a cautionary tale in science communication. The saga began in 1609 when Galileo’s studies led him to support heliocentrism – a model of the universe with the sun at its center – over geocentrism – the prevailing model of the universe at the time with the earth at its center. The astronomer published these findings as a series of dialogues between two philosophers and a layman; an attempt to promulgate this knowledge to the lay public and not just academics. However, it may have been this widespread access to his ideas that led to an equally widespread backlash against his views. Twenty four years after his first experiments, he was tried by the church, found guilty of heresy and sentenced to formal imprisonment (later altered to house arrest). His books were banned and he was forbidden to publish in future. It is interesting to note that no such fate befell Nicholas Copernicus, the discoverer of heliocentrism, who made no effort to demystify his dense academic treatise.

Difficulty in Conveying an Opinion

While such perils may not threat scientists today, some issues with science communication do exist. A common problem is the difficulty in getting one’s message across to groups holding opposing views. Righteous outrage coupled with intransigence can make the task of science communication particularly frustrating. Another issue comes up when scientific consensus changes due to new information and data; in such scenarios, communicating updated scientific views is challenging without coming across as a hypocrite or an imposter. Lastly, and perhaps of most consequence to the scientist themself, is the dilemma as to how one may navigate public opinion should certain views and ideas be reappraised in the future as inappropriate. It is perhaps unfair and definitely unfortunate that collective memories, in the form of online content will continue to exist, and can dog one’s career when ghosts of online content from the past are deemed unfit as per current societal judgement.

Galileo Galilei was found guilty of heresy for his finding that the earth moves around the sun. Photo/Credt: egal/iStock.

Ideas for Science Communication

The Online Sciathon 2020 organized by the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings generated some excellent ideas and methods for communicating scientific knowledge, especially about climate change. Here, however, are some of my ideas on dealing with the communications challenge.

There are no perfect solutions to the problems mentioned above. However, certain precautions may be taken. The first two problems can be tackled by minimizing interactions on what I call ‘snappy social media’. This includes sites and apps that allow limited forms and quantity of expression. On such snappy social media, one cannot honestly expect to have an in-depth debate on any topic. Rather all conversation is reduced to snazzy one-liners and comebacks: forms of expression that delight the consumer of that content but mostly lack depth. It is also easy to get embroiled in bitter and farcical arguments on such outlets, wherein one may attempt to actually engage in a sensible conversation but where the opponent merely engages to rouse sentiment and garner social currency.

On the contrary, presenting any idea requires a structured, logical and clear line of argumentation, one that can be achieved only with longer discourse. Therefore, essays or blogposts may be a better means of communicating science. While these forms can seem outmoded and tedious, they provide a solid means and framework for outlining scientific rationales, thought processes and the resulting conclusion. Such means of communication are less likely to generate vituperative attacks since any response can be formulated only when the content, and hence the carefully laid out argument, has been assimilated.

The third problem with science communication, as outlined above, is the trickier one to deal with, and in all honesty, I have no solution for it. My only suggestion would be to, in the course of reappraisal of views, clarify that given circumstances in the past, certain views may have been justified. This again, requires a longer and more in-depth style of communication and is best avoided on snappy social media. Ultimately, I think we have to realize that we cannot succeed at convincing every single person on any aspect. However, a positive change in the opinion of just one person is sufficient reason to continue with science communication.

Panel Discussion 2018: Science in a Post-Factual World

During the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting 2018 I participated in the panel discussion on Mainau island about “Science in a Post-Factual World” with Steven Chu, Peter C. Doherty, Brian Malow, Adam Whisnant and moderator Adam Smith. We discussed where the scientific community stands today in its fight against a “post-factual” world. Which strategies worked, which did not, and what needs to be done for the future? You can watch the discussion here.

About Arunima Roy

#LINO18 Alumna Arunima Roy is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa. She studies the effects of environment on mental health disorders, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). When not at the lab, she will be either playing computer games or trying her hand at writing fiction. She is passionate about science communication and hopes one day to parent two dogs whom she will name ‘Crispr’ and ‘Cas’.

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