With scientific research being denied at the drop of a hat, Joanna O’Malley discusses the need for scientific studies to reach the wider public.
Most of our everyday devices, most of our everyday world, and most of our environment are due to or are affected by science. The majority of the population however, only has an incredibly basic understanding of what’s going on in the scientific community. I recently found myself, an undergraduate science student, sitting in a college seminar, in a room full of academics, post graduates and classmates listening to a discussion by Dr. Johan Hollander from Lund University, Sweden. He was speaking about a paper he wrote that discovered that there was no evidence of publication bias in climate change science.
In simple terms this means that scientific papers that had been published about climate change were unbiased, that the data had not been skewed by personal beliefs or opinions. Importantly, this paper proved that the scientific data telling us that climate change is something we need to be worried about is data we should be listening to.
We were informed that although the research of Mr. Hollander was utterly non-biased towards either side of the argument, a political conservative American lobby group had taken the paper and used it to reinforce their arguments that climate change isn’t a serious issue. The reason he mentioned this was then to bring a discussion to the room to ask what fellow members of the scientific community their opinons. He wanted to know if they thought that he should, or should not, continue to present data on the matter if it was going to be misconstrued as he felt he did not have the pedestal, or knowledge of media communication to defend himself.
An invisible barrier exists between seasoned scientists, and science undergraduates, as well as between scientists and the general public.
An invisible barrier exists between seasoned scientists, and science undergraduates, as well as between scientists and the general public. Perhaps this was why I was the only undergraduate in the room to put up their hand and ask a question. Unfortunately there can be an expectation in science that if you don’t have a certain level of expertise you are not allowed to question anything, and this can lead to people with less knowledge to be afraid of questioning scientific findings. Perhaps this is why so many people believe pseudo-science, because it’s more accessible.
Science for the sake of pure discovery and learning is beautiful in its own right, however is it sufficient? Is allowing our scientific community to slowly get slightly better at explaining their research good enough, or should we perhaps go back to the drawing board and figure out a better way to bring science to the masses? Do we have a burden on ourselves as scientists to act as advocators for things such as climate change awareness and environmental sustainability or as a scientist is it our job to simply do the research and once it is done move on to the next question? In order to truly advocate for climate change, scientistis need to be able to present their findings on a national level, in a way that an average individual can understand the experiment, the result, and why the results are important, and why they matter to the non-science person.
Part of the problem is the scientific community’s inability to lower their rigorous standards to let more individuals engage with the process.
So often, ground-breaking research or findings are being published in scientific journals but do not travel to a larger audience. We should not dumb down science, but we should be able to find effective ways of communicating science to everyone. Possibly we could offer tasters of science to the masses, to allow them to make the decision for themselves to learn more if they wish to. Part of the problem is the scientific community’s inability to lower their rigorous standards to let more individuals engage with the process. This is understandable, scientists are constantly liable to criticism from fellow scientists as well as others, and once discredited or challenged it is very difficult to rebuild the credibility which they worked so hard to achieve. In that case, why don’t we have more independent advocacy groups, more individuals whose job it is to explain the work of science, why it’s affecting us and what we should be doing in response to information.
The modern world was founded on scientific progress, and that so many politicians are blatantyly disregarding scientific data is worrying, but such behaviour is enabled in a world where so many are ignorant of that data. In order to truly affect change at political levels, scientists need the general public to be on their side, and that is something that requires work and effort.
In the presence of a Trump-like character who diminishes hard scientific facts, and indeed the effects of global climate change, we need now, more than ever, a group of well skilled communicators. Science communicators who can fight in science’s corner to reassure any reasonable individuals that science is not something to be feared, not something that should always be accepted blindly, but something that should be engaged with.