By Ada Hagan
Imagine this. The check engine light comes on in your car.
You drive it to an auto parts store to get the check engine code read free of charge and an employee gives you their best guess for the needed repair. Feeling you have the solution, you drive to your local repair shop (that would have charged $100 to read the code!) and request the repair.
Proud of your resourcefulness, you pay, pick up your car and leave with a swagger to your step.
Until 3,000 miles later when the check engine light comes on. Again.
While useful in narrowing down the needed repair, the same check engine code might result from any one of thousands of options. The only way to identify the problem is for an experienced mechanic to use the code as a clue. Then get their hands dirty by running diagnostics to find the real problem.
The story of the check engine code is very similar to another, how science is communicated with lay audiences.
In this scenario, the car is like our lives and the check engine code is scientific knowledge or “truth”, helping us to guide our decisions in life. Whether it’s which shampoo we use, whether or not to vaccinate our children or to purchase genetically modified (GM) foods.
The problem is that the code is difficult to interpret, and there are two options for answers. The media (auto parts store) or scientists (the mechanic).
An accessible, free answer is usually preferred to one you have to work to find or has a high cost. So many people get their take on scientific research from news stories, some of whom tend to overstate the findings or drive an agenda. The fact of the matter is, the media isn’t entirely to blame for misunderstandings about scientific research. They’re giving their best guess of what the research means for everyone. But we (scientists) are failing to communicate well. In our attempts to define the limitations of scientific research to other scientists, we fail to address the public.
And this is disappointing, particularly since a new study by the Pew Research Center tells us the number one influencer of public opinion about certain scientific topics (e.g., GM foods and animal research) is education. Not politics. Not religion. Not race or ethnicity. Education.
Let’s consider the controversy surrounding GM foods. About 57% of U.S. adults feel they are generally unsafe. In contrast, 88% of scientists belonging to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) believe they are safe to eat. Additionally, 67% of U.S. adults don’t feel that scientists have a clear understanding of how GM foods impact human health.
Clearly, there is a knowledge gap. Over 1,700 papers investigating GM crops were published between 2002 and 2012. A recent paper reviewed and collated all of this data, concluding that scientific research has yet to identify any direct dangers from GM crops.
Why isn’t this vast amount of research making it to the public?
Well, it’s part of why asking popular media for the answer, instead of scientists, is easier. We (scientists) write academic articles for readers who have a strong, recent background in related topics and the expertise to wade through the jargon and complex language of an academic article. What’s more, we tend to speak the same way we write.
The complexity of a standard research article is easy to demonstrate. I randomly pulled nine articles related to GM organisms and ran them through an online readability scoring software (readability-score.com). This software uses the number of syllables per word and sentence structure to estimate how difficult something is to read based on education level.
The results are striking. All of the articles are less than 46.5 on the Flesch-Kincaid scale for reading ease (1-100, higher is easier to read). The average grade level varied from 10th grade to college sophomore. These things almost require a college degree in science to read them!
By comparison, this article is a 65 and written for an 8th – 9th grade reading level (clearly, I still need practice). Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea? Written for 4th graders.
Don’t get me wrong, more complex writing styles for other scientists is fine (though I could argue it isn’t helpful for scientists in other fields and Steven Pinker would agree). But to me, it isn’t enough. If our scientific research isn’t impacting the decisions people make then we (scientists) aren’t reaching our goals. How can we expect science to help humankind by solving complex problems if no one else can interpret it?
We know from the Pew Research study mentioned earlier, if people get the correct reading from the check engine code (i.e., education), they’ll make better choices.
If given incorrect or incomplete information, however, the consequences are costly.
This isn’t another $100-1000 bucks and a couple days to repair the real problem.
This is decades. And millions of dollars. And maybe that many lives. Changing someone’s mind is much harder than simply giving the correct information in the first place. We’ve learned this lesson all too well in the “controversy” surrounding vaccines and will learn it again with the denial of climate change.
One of the only ways to do this is to ensure accurate, timely, and easily understandable dissemination of science. To go back to my analogy, scientific publications are an aspect of that check engine code. Anyone willing to slog through an academic article can read them and give a broad summary.
Only a scientist, having the experience of academic rigor, however, can give the most accurate translation. A scientist who has had their hands under the hood. We (scientists) have the education and experience to not just translate the key points but help readers apply it to their daily lives, while staying true to the science. While helping readers recognize that science is a process.
Now, this isn’t to say all researchers need to stop what they’re doing and instantly become public celebrities of science. Not everyone wants to, or needs to. After all, there’s research to be done!
But what scientists can do is be more aware of, and invested in, clear science communication. Whether it’s taking a course on lay audience communication, supporting graduate students exploring it as a career, (kindly) helping your family realize the difference between a virus and bacterium at Thanksgiving dinner, or simply sharing good science journalism.
We (scientists, again) all want science news to be freely accessible and accurate, for it to explain the “ifs, ands, or buts”, and maintain the spirit of scientific rigor. And as I just discussed, we’re a great fit for ensuring those criteria are met in science communication.
Few scientists, however, are actively translating their science for public consumption. So, why haven’t more scientists joined them?
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series discussing science communication. Future articles will discuss why scientists hesitate to participate in, and how to get better at, science communication.