Bridges to Understanding

Scientists, educators and the media must span the chasm of public confusion –Dick Evans.

Recent high profile media coverage of science and technology issues has yet again highlighted the urgent need to consider ways of raising the J general understanding and awareness of science and technology. Typical examples of these issues concern: the health benefits or otherwise of drinking red wine, tea, coffee; the questions associated with animal husbandry and food production, for example BSE and the GM crop trials; the dangers of using mobile phones; and the ethics of bio-sciences. Too often the general population is confused with contradictory and paradoxical statements as a result of the reporting of research findings in the media and is often at a loss to make a balanced judgement on the issues presented.Growing concern about the validity and accuracy of scientific findings is increasing where the race to publish and be cited in scientific circles far outweighs the application of the scientific method of replication. One worrying development is that only 1% of a research exercise is repeated I always thought replication and verification were key elements of the scientific method.

I prefer to use the expression ‘general understanding of science and technology’ as opposed to the ‘public understanding of science and technology’. The latter reinforces the false demarcation between science and public, namely between a priesthood (a guild of scientists) and the stereotyping of an unwashed populace.

Trust and amorality.

The current debate is further exacerbated by questions being raised about the validity of a great deal of research that is published. Because of the pressures on researchers from the Research Assessment Exercises (RAE) and the need to publish and to maximise citations for that work, very often research findings are published without thorough refereeing and these are picked up by the media when the scientific community questions a piece of research. This again raises questions of uncertainty in the public’s minds about the truthfulness and reliability of scientific research. The recent meeting at Sheffield University of the British Association focussed on the theme of trust between scientists and society. The general public has always thought, possibly quite wrongly, that science is an absolute discipline and have had confidence that the refereeing regimes would truly validate research findings before they go into the public domain.

The current debate begs a whole series of fundamental questions about how members of society can more effectively understand and appreciate the scientific and technological principles underpinning current developments. The general population also has questions about why particular research is being carried out; what it aimed to achieve in the first place; whether forethought was given to the impact it might have on societies and the world. Scientists increasingly give the impression of being amoral, which is not the same as value free.

It means denying responsibility -a kind of selfishness?

Alienating the public.

A continuing concern is how scientists are perceived by the general public. Too often a particular stereotype is projected by the mass media, in films, television and the press. This seemed to have reached its apogee by the portrayal of Dr Pretorius -played by Ernest Thesiger, in James Whales’ classic film Bride of Frankenstein – an eccentric, frizzy haired individual obsessed with his research with little regard to research findings on society. This image continues and even most recently, when science spokespeople have appeared on the mass media to explain some of the high profile cases cited above, they often come over as being very distant and unable to communicate the basic ideas to the audience.

It is not only about communication, it is about a moral stance too. There are obviously a few very good communicators, many of whom are non-scientists. They seem to have a greater ability to communicate the excitement and the detail of some of the key issues. A good example at present is Melvyn Bragg and his recent broadcasts on science and interviews with scientists together with the resulting publication based on the radio series.

Clearly the media are to blame when they use headline-grabbing statements on research and make an issue of it. They lose sight of the more fundamental meanings that underpin a particular piece of research. Also at present the situation is not helped by the hype of the new millennium. The advocates and supporters of para-science are having a field day with best selling books about the end of everything or the assertion that science as we know it is destroying the planet. The media are often only interested in ‘stories’ and scientific research has become fair game just to provide mere stories.

All these ingredients and factors mean it is essential that a concerted effort is made to raise the general understanding of science. It is appreciated that science is a complex discipline and issues around lexical complexity* (Hayes) are a primary factor in alienating the general public. The words and the jargon reinforce the culture of a closed and isolated sect or guild. Science communicators need to be careful not to trivialise the subject or patronize the audience with evidence, but to communicate the basic concepts.

Walking with curiosity.

It is interesting to note that ‘big science’ and ‘nature related’ programmes are always received well by the public. Programmes such as The Planets, and Walking with Dinosaurs and all aspects of cosmology e.g. aspects of time, the creation and the end of the universe always attract large audiences, but the fundamental question that needs to be answered is whether this does add to the general understanding in the public’s eyes of the basic concepts and principles that underpin science and technology. The programme Walking with Dinosaurs has provoked comments from some scientists that such presentations ‘are not about science’. Whether or not this is the case is not the real question. Such programmes awake an interest and curiosity in science and offer real possibilities of building bridges from that general interest and curiosity to a greater understanding of the underpinning scientific principles.

These divisions within the scientific community reinforce some of the fundEimental issues associated with how scientists ‘see science’ and its subsequent communication to the general public. Perhaps, if these bridges can be built then some of the difficulties may be resolved. The roles of the media and education are pivotal at this stage.

One real problem, arising perhaps as a result of bad experiences at school, is that science is perceived as being difficult. It is too often taught in a mathematical and abstract fashion. Most people cannot easily identify with science and scientific ideas.

At school and college, students are required quite rightly to undertake practical work, but the results are already known and usually reinforced by the presence of a text book with the method, procedures and the result! It is therefore not surprising that many people see science as absolute, determined and controlling their lives. In addition there is a common perception that science is damaging the environment and people’s way of life.

As our lives become even more dominated by science and technology the issues associated with scientific literacy and the general understanding of science and technology become more important, indeed essential. It is truly a challenge for the science community, the media and, equally important for people in all sectors of education, to start building the bridge from the inherent interest in science and technology that the public possesses to a greater understanding of these important subjects.

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