AT a recent dinner party, a man who did not believe in anthropogenic climate change asked me how I could know it was “true”.
When I told him I was relying on the consensus of climate scientists who knew far more about the issue than I did, he replied with an exasperated “Scientists!”, followed by a lecture on vested interests and the corrupt academic systems that forced researchers to toe the official line in order to get grants.
Ideology can, of course, play a role in grant assessments — as it can in just about any human activity — but what struck me about this exchange was how in some circles “science” and “scientist” have become dirty words.
From climate change to vaccination, the people who know most about the subject can be regarded as somehow inherently compromised, unreliable — even corrupt.
There was a fair bit of soul searching about precisely this at last week’s Australian Science Communicators’ conference. Why, many delegates lamented, has it become so hard to get the scientific message across?
Dr Rod Lamberts, who teaches science communication at the Australian National University, was one who argued there was no point in just battering people with the facts on issues like vaccination (prompting one Twitter wit to comment that lightly frying was so much better).
Perhaps, Dr Lamberts suggested, we should abandon the word “science” and instead talk about “useful stuff”, to give people the impression this was something they might actually want to know.
Or — and Dr Lamberts may have had his tongue slightly in his cheek here — we could adopt some of the techniques of the anti-science brigade to get the point across: be emotive, use data selectively, and so on.
Personally, I’m rather fond of facts. And I think scientists need to hang on to the things that distinguish them from the shysters, scaremongers and quacks — which means staying true to the evidence.
But I do think science could often do a better job of getting its message across and one way to do that would be by harnessing some of the standard tools of good communication: telling human stories, making the message relevant to the audience, making them laugh and, above all, keeping it clear and simple.
Hmm … clear and simple. The standard objection, of course, is that science isn’t always either of those things. True enough, but coming up with clear messages about complex topics doesn’t have to mean dumbing down.
Certainly, you can respond to somebody from the wilder fringes of the anti-vaccination movement with detailed data on vaccine efficacy and side effects, explaining what a 95% confidence interval means along the way.
Your arguments aren’t going to sway the truly committed (“85% effective? You mean it doesn’t even work in 15% of children?”), but they might convince some waverers.
Equally truthfully you could say: “If these people get their way, babies will die.”
I’m not saying the second approach is necessarily the best strategy, but I do think science needs to expand its repertoire when it comes to getting its message across.
Drama, emotion, humour, personal stories: these are all important aspects of the human experience and incorporating them into the communication of science could help to win hearts as well as minds.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.
Posted 5 March 2012