by Marina Watanabe
I once attended a lecture by a famed physicist, and left convinced that physics was the biggest sham in the universe (or multiverse, if you believe him). At one point, the professor answered an audience member’s question by “clarifying” that if you were on the inside (of what?!) looking out (to where?!), time was time. However, if you were on the outside (WHERE AM I?!?) looking in, that same thing that was time, was now space. Or maybe I got that backwards. I don’t know. I genuinely had no idea what he was saying. This statement was followed by a moment of silence, then the hysterical laughter of an auditorium full of biologists who had no idea what was going on. Even now, I have a residual fear of physics and have yet to understand what he meant. Between fake news and alternative facts, we are constantly told the importance of making sure our news is trustworthy and accurate. However, even when the source is credible, the data solid, and the author an expert, we cannot expect everyone to know something is “trustworthy and accurate” if the information is impossible to understand without an interpreter.
As scientists, we are generally passionate and more than happy to talk about our work. In fact, sometimes, we are too excited and this leads to long, rambling conversations and terrible first dates (true story. Survivor here). However, when discussing our research, we often fail to remember that not everyone has a background on the topic we study or even has a solid scientific education (Bill Nye videos only get you so far). We use jargon the average person has never heard of, methods they’ve probably never seen, and the topic that we’ve spent years studying might be so complex that our explanation barely seems to scratch the surface of what is going on. Scientists should (obviously) do good science. However, it is also our responsibility to communicate that good science to the public in a manner that anyone and everyone can digest.
When scientists fail to make science accessible to all people and only communicate their research at an overly complex level, their work may be misinterpreted and appear sinister, leading to misunderstandings and fear. Recent work done at the Salk Institute attempted to see if it would be possible to integrate human stem cells into pig stem cells in hopes of eventually creating life-saving human organs. However, there was a subset of people who believed the goal was simply to make The Pigman Monstrosity From Hell. Scientists need to make our goals clearer and explain what exactly is the objective of our work, how we did it, and why. It is estimated that 22 people die a day while waiting for an organ transplant, and there is a very real need to address the global organ shortage. The scientists at the Salk were hoping to utilize pigs as a way to create human organs because they are similar to humans in organ size and developmental timelines—not because they just felt like merging two species together. Somehow, the objective of the Salk scientists got lost, and their work on a potentially life-saving technology became grotesquely skewed to creating the aforementioned monster.
We, as scientists, need to educate the public and show that science is being used for the betterment of humanity. Our responsibility is to engage the public in conversations about what we are actually doing, and we cannot afford misunderstandings and confusion that will lead to misconceptions that set science back because of unfounded fears. Interestingly, all articles I found about this research clearly state the purpose of the work, so it is highly possible Team Pigman did the typical internet thing and merely read the headline, not bothering to actually understand what was done. Scientists cannot prevent people from doing this, but they must be willing to engage with a public that does not always automatically take advantage of available data in order to form well-educated and informed conclusions.
In addition to the Pigman Monstrosity, other prominent scientific discussions gone awry are the mistaken beliefs that there is a link between vaccines and autism or that the chemicals in vaccines are harmful. With the help of the measles vaccine, this highly contagious and potentially deadly disease was declared eliminated in the US in 2000. However, due to pockets of unvaccinated children, there have recently been outbreaks of this easily preventable disease. Why weren’t we, the scientists, able to convince the parents of these children about the safety of vaccination? Education and communication is key for understanding. How is it that scientists have been fighting the misinformation about the safety of vaccines for decades now, but there are still parents who refuse to vaccinate their children?
A part of the problem is that trying to understand a scientific topic can often feel like slogging through a book in a foreign language, and we are desperately in need of translations and effective translators. Scientific literature is incredibly difficult to wrap your brain around if you are not already in the field. As scientists, we are experts in our specific field of study. As experts, we should be able to break down our work in a manner that everyone can understand. This is a skill unto itself, and is something that we should all be able to do or strive to learn how to do. For inspiration, look to podcasts that explain science to the general public, and see how the featured scientists communicate their ideas. Organizations like Science in the News help close the gap between scientists and non-scientists in order to make for a better-informed public. Through these avenues, the average consumer can actually understand the science and logic behind an issue or topic, and more importantly, draw their own conclusions from the data. There is nothing wrong with having a belief about a topic as long as that belief is a well informed one supported by accurate data.
The ability to effectively speak to a broader audience is critical considering the current political climate. Politicians and voters often do not have a science background, but they need to understand the real science and real facts of the topics that affect them. Currently, we have an administration that is largely perceived to not prioritize scientific advancement. They have questioned climate change, courted anti-vaccination advocates, planned to defund scientific research, and proposed cuts in medical research. Politicians, voters, and the public at large need to know the importance of research and how the work being conducted will help (or maybe even harm!) their future. The purpose of science is to fundamentally understand the universe, and this information helps humans move toward healthier and more productive lives. Science is not a partisan issue, it is composed of hard facts and truths—two things that don’t change no matter how much people emotionally debate and rage over them. Measles doesn’t give two shakes if people are Republicans or Democrats. It will tear through a community and infect their unvaccinated children all the same.
Again, I understand that sometimes despite the science communication and efforts put into reaching out to the public, some people don’t or even want to listen. There is sometimes mistrust of scientists, and we need to work toward fixing that by continuing our efforts to reach people and engaging them in conversation. You don’t have to go on a grand adventure to start! Grab your non-scientist friends and family and ask them to listen to you describe your research and help you explain it in a way that makes sense to them! When the beautiful day comes that you get to publish your research, write an accompanying article that makes sense and doesn’t require a PhD to understand (eLife has a great series of articles describing the significance of research papers)! Keep up with science news and makes sure you know it well enough that you can explain it to any of the aforementioned friends or family if they have questions! This one is genuinely important because sometimes, you may be the only scientist a person knows, and your thoughts and analysis have the weight to change theirs! Check out this amazing piece published on the SITNBlog detailing ways to be a socially conscious scientist; it is an absolute must-read full of great ideas and suggestions.
After Physics Man’s talk, I left that auditorium feeling that he was a horrible speaker who had wasted my time. In fact, my negative assessment of his presentation was so bad that I almost felt he was possibly even a horrible scientist. However, I realize now that one’s communication skill and scientific skill don’t always match, and that it is supremely difficult to communicate one’s research in an accessible way. Science can be incredibly hard and excruciatingly complex—these are statements that most people agree on. Science is also a huge part of the world, and this is reflected in its presence in political issues such as climate change, NASA, vaccines, the medical field, and national parks. Scientists have a huge responsibility to not just do the actual science, but also effectively communicate our work to the public. Conversely, the public has a responsibility to educate themselves in topics that affect their lives. If we keep these responsibilities in mind, the public will become a more scientifically literate society that can make informed and thoughtful decisions.
Marina Watanabe is a PhD student in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences graduate program at Harvard University.
Where to find more accessible science:
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Resources for scientists who want to make a change:
Share your science in rural areas with Science on the Road
Mentor and educate 6-12 graders with Open Labs
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