Last week’s post dealt with the scientific portion of my work this summer. This week I’d like to devote my thoughts to the communications aspect of it, something that I would argue is becoming just as important as the science itself. I was talking to my mentor just last week when I spotted these curious words tucked away to the side of her cubicle:
People don’t trust what they don’t understand.
Simple and self-explanatory words, but powerful ones that I think are at the crux of the figurative wall that has existed between the scientific community and the general public for a great while. Check out this (somewhat maddening) clip of a professor futilely attempting to inform a congressman on climate change for a real life example of what I mean.
Now, this is an extreme case (and a particularly obstinate politician), but one that I think defines fairly well what occurs when there is a complete lack of contact and understanding between two parties. So what’s up? There are a few schools of thought on the matter. For one, the sciences span a mind-boggling number of disciplines and subfields that, in total, add up to be an overwhelming amount of intelligence for any person. Furthermore, the syntax and specialized jargon that scientists employ in their professional writing generate something of a language barrier. And through no fault of their own; scientists are not journalists by trade, after all. But they are communicators (albeit of scientific material), and all it takes is a little creativity to make the leap from one audience to another.
These days, that creativity comes in the form of social media, which is opening up previously unconventional avenues of communication. Facebook, Twitter, and a slew of other sites are cropping up as powerful means of relaying material to once inaccessible audiences. As an intern with the ODFW this summer, part of my job will be to help spread awareness via these platforms about the purpose of the marine reserves through blog posts and videos of what our team does. So far, the outreach program appears to be making headway. Of the marine reserves, Jeff Miles, a commercial fisherman who has plied Oregon waters for 40 years, says, “I think it’s already working. I think it’ll be a great asset for the community. I just don’t believe the ocean is an endless bounty, and I don’t have a problem with saving little spots here and there for future generations.” This understanding is the kind of goal that my mentor and I are striving towards in our communications work.
Of course, all of this begs one very important question – why should we trust scientists? As I was writing this, I was reminded of a seminar I attended last summer by Dr. Naomi Oreskes entitled “Why We Should Trust Science: Perspectives from the History and Philosophy of Science.” I pulled the following lines from a similar TED talk she gave earlier:
“Our basis for trust in science is actually the same as our basis in trust in technology, and the same as our basis for trust in anything, namely experience…Our trust in science, like science itself, should be based on evidence. And that means that scientists have to become better communicators.”
To illustrate her point, Dr. Oreskes brings up a straightforward, everyday example in cars. Our faith in cars as reliable machines is predicated by the efforts of the many previous scientists who have worked for years to build up the evidence that in turn could allow them to construct something so reliable so well. Yet few of us would even consider this when we step into our cars and turn on the ignition successfully time after time. This science that is unknowingly right under our noses is also the very same science that some of us fail to acknowledge in more pressing issues, such as in the climate change video I shared above.
I’d like to take it one step further and ask, why then do we put so much trust in something so complicated and potentially dangerous as a car if so few of us understand it? I would say it’s a matter of familiarity, which we obtain through one of two ways: personal experience, as mentioned in the talk, and also deferring to the experiences of people we know. Most of us grew up surrounded by people who drove cars, and later on, we were taught to drive them ourselves. Similarly, with such a vast amount of information present these days, much of what we trust is, by necessity, through familiarity, not complete understanding of a subject. To reiterate the quote at the beginning, people don’t trust what they don’t understand. However, they will trust familiarity, and to achieve that we have to incorporate it into their lives in some way, shape, or form.
And so, as Dr. Oreskes puts it, we scientists need to become better communicators, and that means we have to work harder than before if we’re to get people familiar with what we do. We now have tools like social media to help us along the way, although this isn’t by any means a permanent solution. Facebook and Twitter have come, and they will go. But we’ll keep coming up with new ways to get our point across. You can take my word for it.