Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Science communication

Following on from yesterday's banter, I thought I'd say a bit more on the communication between scientists and the general populace.

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to hear a talk given by Michael Jones, Chief Technical Officer at Google and one of the brains behind GoogleEarth, GoogleMaps, and GoogleScholar. His talk was titled 'The Spread of Scientific Knowledge from the Royal Society to GoogleEarth and Beyond', and presented a whistle-stop tour of how the communication of science has changed over the past thousand years (he actually started a little bit before the Royal Society).

One of his major driving points was that, when the Royal Society was at its peak, this coincided with a peak in the effective communication of science to the general public. This was because science at that time, rather than being presented as a a paper in one of a few dozen scholarly journals, was presented in the form of lively, open debates that could be attended by anyone. Effectively, data analysis was being done on-the-fly, in a similar manner to the theological debates of Ancient Greece and Rome. As a result, the quality of the science wasn't always of the highest standard, but the communication of ideas between scientists and the public was instant and free-flowing. Today, however, we are at the other extreme. All the analysis is done behind closed doors, with the data kept a closely guarded secret until it is ready for publication in a peer-reviewed academic journal that requires a subscription fee, and is therefore never read by Joe public. As a result, the quality of science being published is extremely high (on average), but very, very little is being filtered through to a non-scientific audience.

One outcome of this is the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of science in the media. There is no wonder the issues surround the LHC occured because most people had never even heard of the Higgs Boson before, much less knew people were looking for it. However, another more sinister result of this poor communication of science is the drop in kids taking science subjects beyond the compulsory level. It's all well and good teaching children about Newton or Maxwell (there is no doubt they are hugely important and what they did for Physics is without parallel), but they can't empathize with a guy who died 300/400 years ago. They can however connect with someone who is alive today, someone who can stand in front of them with a giant tank full of water and mud explaining how beaches are formed, for instance.

Yes, they might not understand the finer details of why this ocean model is better than that ocean model or how you grow cocolithophore cultures in the lab, but if the science is pitched at the right level they can understand why it's important and will be interested. The vast majority of children are, by nature, interested in just about everything as long as it appears relevant.

Michael Jones argued quite strongly that we should actively be trying to move toward the middle ground. Finding some kind of status quo where the peer-reviewed system can be used to maintain high standards of science, but whilst also effectively communicating recent developments to a wider audience. I couldn't agree more.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Hunter S Thompson

'Too weird to live, too rare to die,'
Hunter Stockton Thompson (1937-2005)

On Saturday I welcomed in the New Year by going to watch the film '
Gonzo: The life and works of Dr Hunter S. Thompson'. This new documentary by Academy Award and Emmy winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, is a humorous and thought-provoking ride into the mind of one the most iconic journalists and writers of the 20th century.

Concentrating mainly on his most productive and, arguably, most influencial early career throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, it follows his development from a bit-part, freelance writer riding round California with Outlaw motorcycle gangs, through into becoming the most notorious journalist of his era (probably any era), punching, tearing, and slicing chunks off any authoritarian figure who dared stand in his way. One of my favorite parts of the documentary was Thompson's reply to a TV interviewer asking about the comments made in his 1972 Rolling Stone article that Senator Edmund Muskie was hooked on the obscure drug Ibogaine:

'I said there was a rumour going round Milwaukee, and I should know. I started it!'

Given my most recent post (Social detritus) on journalists stretching the truth, it may appear somewhat contradictory to now be applauding Thompson for driving a wrecking ball through someone's campaign just because he didn't like him. However, this is where I think there is a big distinction between Social Journalism and Science Journalism.

In the former, facts and figure are considerably hazier, being largely governed by one's own social and economic view point. So, when covering events such as political campaigns and policies, it is important for all the different view points to get aired because what is good for one social group will invariably be bad for another. In this manner, having journalists who are willing to take a stand against things they don't believe in (such as Thompson did against the Vietnam War) are an important way of balancing the status quo, otherwise the politicians (who represent a very small portion of the overall social demographic) would have far too an easy time of it, and we would likely see policies favorably cantered toward their peers.

With the latter, facts and figures are considerably less hazy. Indeed, one could quite easily argue the opposite, that, in fact, there is too much information out there at the moment as the number of peer reviewed journal swell in ranks, each demanding larger wads of money from increasingly cash-strapped academic libraries. The main problem with this area of journalism is that the increasing trend towards sensationalism has lead to several radical theories that do not represent the consensus of scientific opinion (e.g., The Day After Tomorrow) getting blown completely out of proportion, and/or articles completely misunderstanding the fundamental science (e.g., LHC).

However, I think that, given the times in which we live, it is unfair to point the finger solely at journalists saying that they should use one approach for one type of article, and a completely different approach for another. That bold articles standing proudly in the face of authority should be confined to only certain subjects. A good proportion of the blame for the public misunderstanding of science is the poor communication skills of most scientists. Lets face it, we are terrible at explaining what the hell we do all day - even to each other!