Science Communication: Where Does the Problem Lie?

Written by: Richard Lenski

Primary Source: Telliamed Revisited

When concerns arise about the public’s understanding of science—say, on the efficacy of vaccines vs. their risks—I see many articles, tweets, etc., bemoaning poor scientific communication.

Communication involves multiple parties and several steps. The science must be published, discussed widely, explained openly, and eventually stated in terms that non-specialists can understand. It also must be heard—and not merely heard, but fairly considered, carefully weighed, and then accepted, rejected, or put on hold by the intended receiver.

That’s not all, of course. There are generally intermediaries—including teachers, reporters, doctors, business interests, politicians, religious leaders, and others—who must also convey the scientific information, but who may block, change, confuse, or distort the message either accidently or deliberately.

And none of this is a one-way flow of information. There are multiple voices, and there are feedbacks as questions are asked, answered in new words or with new evidence, and so on.

So it’s a complex problem, too complicated for a poll to shed much light. And of course, a poll here will get a highly non-random sample—mostly scientists, students, and others with an interest in science.

But perhaps some professional pollster or organization interested in the communication of science can develop a proper poll along these lines (with information about a respondents’ professions, ages, affiliations, etc.), and with proposals about how to improve the situation at the various roadblocks. (Or maybe similar polls already exist. Please feel free to suggest useful references in the comments.) It might also be interesting to run the same poll except with prompts about different issues such as vaccinations, global change, and evolution.

So here’s the poll:

If you had to say, which one of the following groups shoulders the greatest blame, and thus has the greatest room for improvement, when it comes to the problems of communicating science?

  • Scientists
  • Professional intermediaries such as teachers, reporters, and doctors
  • Other intermediaries such as businesses, politicians, and religious leaders
  • The public

[The image below is from the British Council / BBC World Service site on teaching English. It is shown here under the doctrine of fair use.]


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Richard Lenski
Dr. Lenski is an evolutionary biologist. He writes about evolutionary science – past, present, and future – and some of the goings-on in the life of a scientist.
Richard Lenski

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