The Way Scientist Talk

2017 Earth Day Science March Logo

Science is under siege. If Trump’s newest budget proposal isn’t evidence enough, consider that 91% of scientists believe that GMO food is safe for consumption, but only 37% of the American population agrees. Or that 90% of scientists agree that climate change is occurring, while only about 50% of the population “believe” in it. The fault is nobody’s and everybody’s.

A recent article in Scientific America has made me think about my obligation to communicate what I know in a way that is honest, accurate, and accessible.

Science skepticism starts in the way we teach science to our kids, and compounds in the way media coverage, politics, and industry deform studies to further an agenda. To combat this, scientists themselves must step forward, taking time outside their labs and their data to talk about what it is they do, how and why they do it, and what it really means. This is a big ask, considering the hostile environment they are surrounded by.

It is important to remember that science communication is not a way to tell people what we know, but a way to teach people how to think critically about information. 

The truth is that I don’t care if people “believe” in climate change. What I take issue with is that climate change is something to be “believed in”. A phenomenon to be taken on faith, with the connotation that it cannot be proven. And granted, climate science is complex, and to a large extent unpredictable, but the trends that we are seeing in terms of severe weather, heat waves, droughts, famine, and increasing ocean temperature linked with what we know about how greenhouse gasses act in the atmosphere makes the evidence for it as irrefutable as science gets.

Global Temperature. Photo Credit: NASA

Things get messy when science tries to predict impacts, and governments try to mitigate effects. Both of these actions are easily embroiled in controversy, entangled with industry, and convoluted until they are barely recognizable. At the end of the day, climate change becomes nothing more than a phrase used to intimidate, mock, and confuse.

At this point, science communication has failed. Arguments about climate change revolved around emotion, and politics, both sides becoming indignant at the close mindedness of the other. Scientists, myself included, often fall back upon what we know; graphs, statistics, data, but we have spent years of our lives dedicated to critically analyzing this information, and I have found, that it rarely changes understanding. Instead it seems to drive a deeper wedge between the facts and the fiction.

So how do we address the disjunct between knowledge and understanding? I wish knew. For now, the best we can do is keep having the conversation.

Read the article from Scientific America here


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