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.

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