Accepting uncertainty

As a contribution to National Science Week, the University of Brighton ran an afternoon of seminars on the topic of “Science Communication and the Media”. Although two of the four speakers didn’t turn up, which was somewhat disappointing, the event was still interesting, informative and thought provoking. National Science Week’s purpose is to promote a better understanding of science to the broader community. With Professor Brian Cox taking home a series of TV awards for his “Wonders of the Solar System” physics show, the topic is particularly interesting. Organized by Professor Callum Firth, head of the School of Environment and Technology at Brighton University, Professor Iain Stewart and Robin McKie spoke to an audience of around 70 people of their views on science and the media.

Iain Stewart, who apart from being a Professor of Geosciences Communication at the University of Plymouth, has also participated in a series of BBC 2 science programs, presented us with the issue of how the media and scientists deal with natural catastrophes. A talk entitled “Communicating Calamities”; it was particularly topical following the recent Japan earthquake and tsunami. Through a series of beautiful pictures, he explained the problems this area of communication has to face. First introducing us to the mysteries of why some people simply refuse to move from dangerous areas even though they are properly informed on the risks involved, he then asked some important questions: why is the level of sophistication of predicting volcano eruptions, for example, still being belittled by a population’s personal beliefs? When did we go from a population who understands and works with nature to one that has no grasp of its dangers and their implications? Taking us through the history of climate change communication, it seems the consensus among the laymen population is that they do not know who to trust. Even though there is no real debate among scientists that global warming is an issue (with 95% agreeing), only 55% of the population accepts this. This is a problem often propagated by manufactured uncertainty. Now in many ways, science is always uncertain, that is its nature. But instead of embracing this uncertainty, it has been used as tool in maintaining opposing views. Manufactured uncertain is an easy thing to install. Three short sentences do the trick: 1. The cause and effects have not been linked 2. Statistically data means nothing to the individual 3. Further research is still needed. The problem behind this issue surrounds the role of the science communicator. Is it their job to persuade or simply to entertain? With in mind that most people get their information from TV, the debate on this is still on. Professor Stewart clearly outlined his views on why scientists should communicate. Not only to gather trust from their public and to minimize misinterpretation, he believes it is their professional responsibility and that they should be able to communicate to a lay audience.

Robin McKie, editor of Science and Technology at The Observer, followed this, bringing up similar topics and issues but from a print point of view. Having worked as a science reporter for 40 years, he is in a great position to see how the world of science communication has evolved. From the spectacle of non-savvy writers propagating nonsense to teams of experienced journalists working alongside scientists, it certainly has evolved, although bad science journalism is still alive and kicking today. He also believes misinterpretation is a serious issue. Science has a lot more impact than it used to and it is important its newfound power is used properly. In cases like that of the MMR vaccines, GM crops and here again, climate change, the media has sometimes found it difficult to set aside the correct information. Without the tools necessary to analyze it, information just becomes noise and as we have seen, enough noise, even nonsensical, can create chaos. In McKie’s view, scientists are now better at coming forward, although this is still a slow process. He believes for example that in the case of animal experimentation, scientists should be able to defend its necessities, though many would not agree on this particular case. Most importantly, the topic of communicating uncertainty to the public, brought up in his speech also, seems to be the message of the moment. A particular apt example was used in communicating numbers: it is mathematically the same to say that something has increased by 100% or from 1 in 2 billion to 1 in a billion. But as the interpretation of these data when confronted with disease incidence is likely to be very different, it is important one be used and not the other. This brings us back to the role of science communication: educate or entertain? Is it simply there to give us the raw facts or should we use its expertise to understand these better? McKie maintains that “science journalism is in a healthish state and has provided me with the best experiences of my life”. Let us hope it can go grow even healthier and provide us all with a better understanding of ourselves and the world around us.


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About me

Natacha is a research scientist and a lover of all things science! She love finding out interesting facts about all aspects of life, whether it’s how genetic engineering works or what the difference between crimped and straight hair is. There’s a bit of science behind every mystery and the Science Informant will help find the clues for everyone to enjoy and understand the amazing world of science!

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