Science communication: hopeless?

Last year my colleague (and  I suppose  friend) Mathew McGann and I participated in the Canberra focus group for the Australian Science Communicators (ASC) audit of how the discipline is doing in Australia. The results of this audit should be out soon and I look forward to seeing if anything from our session makes it into the report.

Mat and I put forward the views that we’ve been debating among ourselves for years. No doubt those views will continue to change as we learn more, but at the moment I think I can summarise what we see as the problems with science communication (SC) with a few questions which don’t seem to be answered at the moment.

How do we measure the effectiveness of an SC activity?

Even if we devoted funds to measuring how SC events are implemented, it’s not clear that we have any metrics for measuring “science engagement” — whatever that is. Should we test people before they enter Questacon about their knowledge of seismology and then quiz them again upon leaving and then follow-up the study six months later? Should we conduct a longitudinal study of people, tracking their consumption of various SC publications, events, documentaries, etc. and then compare this with how their opinion evolves on climate change? It’s an open question and there are probably answers in the private sector from marketing and PR and maybe even in the public policy research community.

What are the goals of a given SC activity?

Not only do we not measure the effectiveness, or know how to, I think we don’t even know what counts as effective. Mat and I are still debating about this and I think it goes to one’s core political and philosophical beliefs as to which camp you belong to. I’m suggesting that the following are the implicit, tacit  goals of current SC and that we should pick one or two and make them explicit, so as to better focus efforts and move towards a situation where effectiveness could actually be measured according to some criteria.

The implicit goals of science communication

  1. The evangelical goal. Science author Mike McCrae was in our session and made a bunch of very clever contributions; he jokingly suggested the religious analogy which I’m developing. The evangelical impulse is to share the Word of science. SC people are people for whom science is wonderful. They are the enlightened Elect who have been touched by the divinity of the natural world and want others to see how great it is. We want others to see how incredible it is that a photon travels for thousands of years, from the other side of the galaxy, across space, into the eye of the observer of the night sky. If only others could be filled with the awe that we feel, then surely the world would be better off.
  2. The social engineering goal. Why is it that people abhor the idea of drinking recycled water? Why can’t people see you’re better off getting your kids vaccinated? And why can’t they get it into their heads that just because one crank says climate change isn’t happening, it doesn’t mean the jury is out on global warming. The social engineering impulse is almost Marxist in its attempt to try and enable the masses to achieve scientific consciousness, that they may become more informed voters, better able to recognise pseudo-science and help us usher in a new scientific utopia.
  3. The utilitarian goal. We need more scientists and engineers as well as a more scientifically literate public in order to cope with highly complex problems and to improve standards of living around the world. Therefore if we can effectively communicate science, more people will understand it, ergo, the world will be better off.

All of these approaches are easy to caricature and doing so is quite fun. But I really do think that if most people interrogate their SC motives, they’ll find they more or less fit into one or more of these camps  though I am keen to hear of any other goals people have. As for me, I think I tend towards the first, particularly now that I’m quite interested in the idea of appreciating science in the same way that people appreciate art and literature (more on that later).

Number 1 aims to convert people already interested in ideas to becoming interested in science. Number 2 wants people who are hard-core disengaged from science to become more scientifically literate  I believe this is very hard, perhaps impossible to do.

Which leads to the next question:

Who is the intended audience of an SC activity?

This question is probably a  bit of marketing 101 and taken for granted by anyone making an advertisement or conducting a public awareness campaign. And yet in most SC endeavours I’ve witnessed, there has been little or no focus on defining an audience for a given event, article or production.

This is crucial. I propose that the population of potential targets for an SC effort divide at the highest level between those whom it is practically possible to engage and those it is practically impossible to engage. Of the possibles, they branch off again so that there are those who are already engaged in science and therefore presumably receptive to more SC and then there are those who have not previously been interested in science, but who possess a potential to be interested. Within these two categories there are many gradations; some are on the cusp of being engaged, some will require an exceptional effort to be engaged. Personally, I feel an effort aimed at those who are primed to be engaged in science is the most fertile ground. I am thinking, — vaguely and without any empirics to back this up yet  of the set of people who are generally interested in ideas but who are somewhat allergic to science and numbers  The clever, artsy people who like learning but have not been engaged by the dreary model of “crystal clear” science communication or who just haven’t gotten around yet to reading that Bill Bryson book.

To conclude, these three, big questions are unanswered but I doubt it would take very long to answer them because there are such well trodden paths in other disciplines which can be used as models. Overall, though, the approaches of the discipline have so far been unfocused and scatter-shot, but have produced some wonderful works of non-fiction writingradio and TV documentaries.

Anyway, to end on a bathetic note,  here’s a quote from Bertrand Russell:

I do not believe that science per se is an adequate source of happiness, nor do I think that my own scientific outlook has contributed very greatly to my own happiness, which I attribute to defecating twice a day with unfailing regularity.

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One thought on “Science communication: hopeless?

  1. I like the idea of measuring what people know about a topic before and after entering/viewing a science themed presentation. I do think that the reasons for science communication are very much the same as any other form of communication though. Those three goals you mentioned are probably applicable to both science and other ‘awareness’ issues too.

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