Tuesday, August 07, 2007

How should scientific findings be presented to the public?

The Scientist has an article (h/t to Medpundit) examining this controversial issue. If the raw facts are too complex or boring for the general public how should scientists present information in a way that informs? One commenter, Greg Van Citters, comes close:

We need to approach communication for the masses at an entry level that assumes perhaps exposure to one high school course in biology. This in no way implies we should "spin" the facts or omit anything important. To the contrary, we need to provide the basic story anyone can understand, and also provide resources for more in-depth investigation. This tiered approach to communication allows the outsider to understand the basics and the more experienced to go beyond, all the way to the original research articles if they so desire.

The best scientists can do is to present the facts in plain language and direct the audience to primary sources. But Professor Matthew Nisbet and author Chris Mooney, writing in Science and the Washington Post apparently don’t think presenting the facts is enough. Their Washington Post piece is titled “Thanks for the Facts. Now Sell Them”. They write:

We're not saying that scientists and their allies should "spin" information; doing that would only harm their credibility. But discussing issues in new ways and with new messengers can be accomplished without distorting the underlying science. Good communication is by its very nature informative rather than misleading. Making complicated issues personally meaningful will activate public support much more effectively than blinding people with science.

Well, it sounds like spin to me. How, for example, can an issue of science be made “personally meaningful”? What can that possibly mean, other than the presentation of an issue in such a way as to play on public fear or special interest? And what does it mean to “activate public support” if not to advance an agenda?

Science should have nothing to sell. Science must remain objective. Scientific discussions at their best are sterile and boring. When such discussions enter the arena of public debate great caution is needed.

1 comment:

iskandar said...

To support the ideas of the first commenter about "the tiered approach", I would like to say that I appreciated the method followed at the plos.org journals especially i mean their journal of biology. They first give their readers Synopses about the research articles that make the issue understandable to the general public then it is followed by the more in depth research article. Although I have not the time to read many things there but I just liked the method when I noticed it for the first time. Anyhow I would prefer more detailed synopsis.