Science communication why we should embrace the mess
This is a blogpost about how I think we should do science communication. It’s a simple argument, insomuch as I’m making essentially the same argument I used to make when my mother asked me to tidy my room. With science, like my teenage room, we simply need to embrace its messiness.
To explain why, let me describe two ways of thinking about science. First, science can be thought of as an inexorable march towards truth and progress. It is considered free from bias, objective and authoritative. This is science perceived as an idealised form of knowledge.
The second view is to see science as a human activity. Science provides ways of knowing about the world, but it can be uncertain, complicated. While it aims at objectivity, biases, mistakes and disagreements will happen. In fact, this is part of the process.
One of the troubles with science communication is that scientists practice the second (i.e. human) version of science, but are often encouraged to communicate the first (idealised) version.
We can see this in Sian Townson’s recent article in The Guardian that provides a rallying call for scientists. She argues; “If we’re going to dispel myths, we need to improve our ability to communicate.” To fight pseudoscience she says, scientists need to “offer people something else to believe in.”
I think we need to bust this myth-busting rhetoric and eschew the idea that scientists simply need to be ‘better at communicating.’ This is both counter productive and does science a deep disservice.
First it’s not effective. We can see this by looking at one of the examples of pseudoscience mentioned in Townson’s article, that of quacks who take advantage of vulnerable people, selling them false hope in the form of alternative medicines. This is clearly deplorable. To that extent I agree with Towson’s diagnosis, but I don’t agree with her cure. The answer is not, as she argues, to help people understand science better.
People might make decisions that are ‘unscientific’ but still perfectly logical. If you have, for example, terminal cancer, it makes sense to try anything. The chances may be small, sure, but if you’re dying anyway why not give alternative medicine a go? Scientific? No. Logical? Yes.
Furthermore, many people turn to alternative medicine because they are desperate and want hope. If we are to stop people being exploited in these situations we need to have a compassionate and properly funded palliative care system. That’s the answer. Not to tell people that what they really need is a better understanding of the science.
But what about the truth! I hear you say. If people only knew how to counteract these biases in their thinking, they would not be exploited, that’s the point of myth busting! Well, like it or not, people like myths. They give us hope and provide meaning in our lives and that’s fine. More often than not, people are not seduced by myths but rather they choose them. Science communication will always struggle if it limits itself to ‘busting’ forms of knowing that people value. If people are being exploited, the answer lies in a social policy; fighting poverty and inequality, properly funded health services and a compassionate welfare system. Telling people that they are being exploited because they don’t know enough science is victim blaming and patronising.
An additional issue is that if science is perceived as a universal, objective truth, then how are people able to make sense of its competing claims? Food is a classic example; one week something’s good for you, the next week it’s not. One week carbs are the enemy, next week you’re positively encouraged to munch away on pasta (I like these weeks). We see this problem in the more serious subject of climate change. This is obviously a significant topic and we want people to take the science seriously. However, if we insist on communicating an idealised form of science, any disagreements will be seen to contradict the whole theory. When science is communicated in a way that conceptualises it as ‘The Truth’ (i.e. your myth busters) it becomes a struggle to explain how scientists deal with uncertainty and competing claims. This leads to the perspective where there’s either complete consensus (the science has been solved!) or all competing claims are equal. This explains the frustrating state of affairs where climate change deniers are given equal airtime.
However, if disagreements, artistry and biases were considered part and parcel of what is means to do science, then it would be a lot easier to accept that climate change is a real and significant problem, despite there being on-going scientific debate in the field. Disagreements among scientists would then be seen as part of science being ‘done’, as opposed to evidence climate change is all a big swiz.
Where does this leave us for science communication? First we should stop all this myth busting nonsense. People have beliefs that are unscientific, that’s called being human. Science should not set itself up in opposition to these. If for no other reason, than it’s simply impractical. Second, we have to stop treating science with such reverence. When this idealistic version is matched with the reality of actually doing science, failure to live up to expectations only breeds distrust and disillusionment. It’s the academic equivalent of the maxim ‘never meet your hero.’ This distrust then validates other perspectives (such as alternative medicine and climate change denial) as having equal status. Instead of ‘communicating the science better’ we should engage people about how science reaches its conclusions. This can be messy, ambiguous, challenging and biased. In short, it's a human activity. Science communication should embrace this.