We need science in our lives. It does everything from enabling us to understand and function within our day-to-day lives, to inspiring a sense of awe and wonder about the world (and universe!) around us. It also plays a vital role in personal and public decision-making in virtually every sphere of our existence. Given the degree to which people need and use science, it is vital that those of us who generate and/or understand science are able to communicate it clearly.
Science communication is the practice of informing/educating/raising awareness about science-related topics. It is a simple definition but not a simple task. Engaging the public with science can be complicated for a variety of reasons, some of which are listed below:
- Science is the “domain of experts”, with a unique vocabulary, and for that reason people often feel that it is inaccessible or they fail to see its connection to their everyday lives.
- Scientific information is generally complex and fraught with uncertainty and changing conclusions.
- Scientific ‘data’ can be interpreted very differently depending on the political, social, cultural, and religious lenses that people are looking through.
- Knowledge and attitudes toward science vary greatly from country to country and among different social, cultural, and economic groups.
- We are living in a ‘post-truth’ era where information, true or false, can be instantly communicated with a global audience. Not only has it become difficult to know what is ‘real’ versus what is ‘fake’, this distinction does not even matter for some.
- We are undergoing a very major shift in the way we receive information. This is best exemplified by the rise of the internet and social media — tools that provide both challenges and opportunities for communication.
- There is also a massive increase in the amount of information that we can access and are bombarded with every day. This has led to an ‘attention economy’, meaning that it can be challenging for scientists to get people to listen to them, let alone think about, understand, and act on their messaging.
All that being said, the main barrier for effective science communication (also called scicomm) is usually us — the scientists. Scientists have traditionally been very poor communicators, dedicating little time or effort to communication and placing little value on the art of science communication. Perhaps because it has traditionally been viewed as an ‘art’ — a frivolous task that is unworthy of the cognitive space it requires. This has resulted in a culture in which scicomm is often very ad hoc — the afterthought of a project, a box that has to be checked for a grant application, the first thing cut when time or money are tight. Scientists that do make an effort to communicate often follow the ‘knowledge deficit model’, believing that if people have the facts they will understand science and make better decisions. However, research has shown that greater understanding does not correlate with public buy-in.
Unfortunately, as Randy Olson explains in his book Don’t Be Such a Scientist, this sets up a negative feedback cycle where poor communicators communicate poorly, get little return on their investment, conclude that scicomm is not worth their time, make no effort to become better communicators…and so on and so forth. On the other hand, good communicators often have tremendous success with their communication programs, see the value of good communication, and therefore invest more into scicomm thereby becoming better and better communicators. It is this positive feedback loop that we hope to initiate with this course and textbook.
The state of science in Canada
A 2019 report shown that skepticism about science is increasing in Canada:
- Only 4/10 Canadians saw science as crucial in their lives.
- 8/10 Canadians admitting to knowing little to nothing about science.
- 44% of Canadians perceive scientists as elitist.
To address these findings, the report authors suggest that “scientists need to analyze how they communicate their findings. We need to ask ourselves: Do we talk about science in a way that someone who isn’t a scientist can understand? Do we give people a reason to care about scientific findings? Do we make science relevant?”