Updated: Jun 18, 2022
There has been a breakdown in communication between scientists and the general public over the past few decades. The USA, a country which built its economic prowess on technological feats, is now battling against rampant misinformation. Reforming the way we communicate scientific information is going to be key to retaining our position on the world stage and helping the planet heal.
A Breakdown in Communication
In the latter half of the 20th century, national pride in the USA was linked inexorably to scientific progress. The world watched breathlessly as the crew of Apollo 11 took mankind’s first steps on the moon in 1969. Coincidentally, that was the same year ARPAnet (the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), a precursor to the internet, sent its first “node-to-node” message; the two nodes were computers located in UCLA and Stanford. Just two years later, in 1971, Intel introduced the first microprocessor, which opened the door for modern day personal computers. In 1990, the US government launched the Human Genome Project, a 13-year long worldwide collaborative effort to sequence the entire human DNA code. These achievements and many more cemented the USA’s position as a global leader in scientific discovery and innovation.
Fast forward a decade or two and suddenly, the USA’s public’s perception of science seems to be teetering on a knife’s edge. In 2020, the world was struck by the rapidly spreading COVID-19 pandemic. With it came a slew of conflicting information regarding prevention, treatment, and vaccinations. While scientists had the monumental task of disseminating scientifically accurate data and recommendations on a faster timeline than ever before, they were also fighting against a tide of misinformation from politicians, celebrities, and memes on social media.
The lack of a unified message on how to handle the pandemic inevitably led to chaos as many people chose to listen to the advice of public figures who had no significant scientific background instead of health experts - to arguably catastrophic results. The country that once proved its scientific prowess by putting the first man on the moon, is currently still struggling to cope with a preventable virus. The USA is 17th on the list of countries with the highest percent of COVID-19 related deaths (as of this article’s publication). Compare that to Russia, our formal rival in the space race, which comes in at 35th. Or our neighbor to the north, Canada, which comes in at 67th. Or India, a developing nation with a huge population and limited resources and yet is 86th on the list. Finally, China, where it all started, comes in at 154th due mostly to their totalitarian approach to stopping the viral spread.
Even within these statistics, we can see the discord between politics, the public, and science. All of these countries, the USA included, are guilty of underreporting the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths at one time or another. Even now, more than 20 months since the initial lockdowns, the accuracy of these numbers is in question. Without solid data, scientists have a hard time tracking the spread of the virus and issuing guidelines to maintain public health and safety. Most disturbingly, in a world thrown into chaos, the USA is no longer seen as a strong leader in crisis management. The apparent dissociation between patriotism and science is causing the USA to loosen its grip as a global power and many other countries are all too eager to fill the void.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the fight against climate change. In fact, our response (or lack there of) to the COVID-19 pandemic can be viewed as a dismal dress rehearsal for climate action. Once again, the world is faced with impending catastrophe. Once again, US citizens are mired in conflicting information, this time in regards to global warming, carbon emissions, weather-related disasters, and fossil fuels. Once again, other countries are forging ahead with scientifically-backed solutions; China is now the forerunner in solar power, India is rapidly becoming a leader in renewable energy, and the EU is working quickly toward decarbonization.
The parallels between the USA’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis are disturbing and unless we can rebuild the trust in science fast, the USA is likely to lose much of its economic power and leadership. But why did science lose the public faith in the first place?
The Ivory Tower of Science
The idea that scientists are an elite species of pretentious geniuses seems to be a large contributing factor to loss of trust between researchers and the public. Somehow, the fact that most scientists go into research in the first place because we are curious about our world and want to help humanity is often forgotten. This in large part due to a breakdown in communication on both sides: the scientific community and the rest of society.
From a scientist’s perspective, the way we report our latest discoveries needs some serious work. According to a study done at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, science papers are getting more and more difficult to read due to an increase in scientific jargon and use of difficult multisyllabic words.
To be fair, this is in part because the more about how the world works, the more complex things start to become. However, the authors note that this lack of readability should be a cause for concern since part of the scientific process is communicating your findings with the world. If findings are not reported clearly, other researchers may have a hard time trying to reproduce the data or use the findings to make further discoveries. Plus, if those within the scientific community have difficulty understanding a manuscript, it will be nigh impossible for most people outside the scientific community to decipher.
However, for any type of communication to be effective, there must be a two-way relationship. The public also needs to be responsible for seeking out information from verifiable scientific sources, thinking critically about the information presented, and keeping a watch out for misrepresented or cherry-picked data. There are many companies and individuals with enormous political power who have been spreading misinformation as far back as the 1970s, when the link between rising carbon dioxide levels and global warming first became apparent. Identifying such false narratives and understanding the scientific process are important skills which should be instilled in the public early on within the educational system. This way people can continue to study various types of information and stay up-to-date with the latest findings regardless of their ultimate career path.
While the educational system is slowly changing to place more emphasis on these skills, the sad fact is the planet doesn't have time to wait for another generation to take over. Scientists must change the way they communicate complex information.
Science Communication Bridges the Gap
Science communications is a field that brings together the STEM fields with the creative arts. Careers in science communication include teaching, journalism, business consulting, writing, podcasting, film making, and so much more. Communications can be created for the general public or tailored to a more specific audience. For example, if a start-up company is having trouble attracting funding, a science communicator might find a fun, simple way to explain the company’s technology that appeals to the public for a crowdfunding campaign or present a comprehensive analysis of the competitive edge the technology gives to investors and venture capitalists.
Science communicators have often pursued higher education in STEM courses and therefore have an intimate understanding of the inner workings of research. This allows us to critically analyze data from various sources and form a coherent picture of the research landscape and how the latest scientific breakthroughs change that landscape. We then find ways to present the scientific concepts in a way the target audience will, not just understand, but feel a connection to. This could be through colorful animation, a song, a metaphor, etc. For example, most people cannot intuitively understand how greenhouse gases are causing global warming, but most people can connect to how uncomfortable it is to get into a car that’s been sitting out in the sun on a hot summer’s day. Once that initial image is in place, you can start breaking down the metaphor into pieces. Not only does this help people understand the science behind climate change, but also the clear need for a solution. Unlike a car, we can’t simply roll down the windows or turn on the air conditioning to fix climate change but unless we all start working towards a solution, life on Earth will become just as unbearable as getting trapped in a hot car.
Science communication is going to play a key role in solving the climate crisis. Researchers in academia and company start-ups are working night and day to create viable solutions that will help humans either mitigate or adapt to the effects of climate change. However, these solutions must be implemented at a large scale, to be effective. For that to happen, researchers need the help of investors, politicians, business owners, and everyone in between. Science communicators must act as translators between scientists and the public to stress the importance and effectiveness of these climate technologies. Only once we start truly taking large-scale action to stop climate change can we help both the planet and society’s trust in science heal.