On Science Communication (1)

As I mentioned before, science communication is A Big Thing these days. I’m incredibly pleased by this. There’s so many benefits to it, and only a few downsides. They’re all worth talking about, though. Let’s dig in.

I’d say science communication (in the UK at least) has never been in a bad shape, at least for as long as I can remember. Popular science books have been a popular genre for a long time, and there’s always been a decent number of TV shows and such which bring science to non-scientists. Think of how long The Sky At Night has been running, for example. Not to mention, the New Scientist magazine has been publishing in the UK for almost 60 years. If you wanted to find out what scientists were doing all day, there have always been a few ways to do so. Most importantly, though, science has always been a respected field. I think it’s fair to say that the public and the government have always considered scientists worthy of their attention, and as valid sources of knowledge in their fields (even if the government rarely acts on the recommendations of scientists).

Patrick Moore hosted The Sky At Night for over 50 years before his death in 2013

As with so many things, however, the internet has changed everything. One of the internet’s defining features is how it allows anyone to access any kind of ‘content’ they want (‘content’ is a bit of a dirty word on the internet these days) on-demand. This creates a massive variety of new niches for ‘content’ that would never have existed before. Now, if you want to find out what scientists do all day, there’s a problem of information overload. There’s almost too many places to find out! There’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to science news and information online.

There’s more to it than that, though. There’s been a cultural shift in the way we perceive scientists and science. No greater summary of this exists than the Facebook page I Fucking Love Science. Started by Elise Andrew, a biology undergrad student in 2012, the explosively popular page (over 20 million ‘likes’ and counting) created a full-time job for her as a science communicator. The page is now backed by a website, and continues to post science news and cool science facts and images on a regular basis.

The success of the page is clearly down to the quality of the content featured on it, in part, but in my opinion a large part of the success is down to the name. The name taps into the zeitgeist surrounding science extremely effectively. Science, as the primary driving force behind so much of the modern world, is being recognised by the general public for how amazing it really is. Places like IFLS are tapping into that awe, and provide readers with a glimpse into the everyday life of people in the lab.

IFLS’s logo

There’s other examples of this trend, too. Think of how many Hollywood films have scientists and engineers as their protagonists. The most popular superhero right now arguably is Iron Man, who, yes, gets his ‘powers’ from his industrial prowess and business skills (i.e. his money), but also from his genius-level scientific intellect. Both Avengers films feature long scenes of Tony Stark just geeking out about science stuff with his buddy Bruce Banner (who, as The Incredible Hulk, also gets superpowers from science). How many kids are going to grow up wanting to be inventors just like their hero Tony Stark?

On top of the social media popularity of science education, YouTube has proven to be a phenomenal source of quality science content. At last count, I’m subscribed to over 15 channels whose primary content is for science education purposes. These channels are mostly not about science news (and therefore fill a slightly different niche to IFLS), and usually feature entry-level introductions to abstract, complicated scientific concepts. Part 2 will be a long list of these videos, and other science communication sources I love.

All of these things make me very optimistic for the future of science. Hopefully, with more and more people getting interested in science, we’ll be able to break down the barriers currently keeping large numbers of people from seeing science as a worthy career choice. I’m especially hopeful that things like the visibility of people like Elise Andrews will greatly increase the number of women who choose to take up science. Sadly, science is still a very male-dominated field, but recently I’ve seen some promising proto-steps to fixing that, and this is all part of it.

As optimistic as I am about how much science content is out there for enthusiasts, there are a few nagging concerns I have. As great as it is that people are being kept up-to-date on what happens in labs, the actual reporting of this leaves a lot to be desired. For decades, tabloid papers have claimed every week that scientists (or ‘boffins’ as they’re usually called) have found that x causes cancer, but y cures it, despite only the most tenuous of correlations.

This problem has not gone away in the digital era. If anything it’s become worse. The real story is always something like ‘x has been found to correlate positively with a specific cancer given very specific conditions, and the effect is very weak; more study is needed’. Almost all science news outlets are still guilty of reporting this as the headline-grabbing ‘x causes cancer’. Frankly, I’m getting tired of this shit. It’s just not good enough any more. I’m hesitant to single out a single culprit because it’s so ubiquitous.

Presenting science as a long series of definitive proof after definitive proof of various phenomena and causative links is such a frustratingly warped view of how science actually works that I’m hesitant to even call it science. It harms everyone, including scientists. It creates the impression that only studies with positive results are worthwhile and publication-worthy, which contributes to the shameful publication bias problems endemic to many fields. It contributes to the ‘p-hacking‘ problem by suggesting that getting p<0.05 is synonymous with true, as that’s what leads to press reporting. It’s a nasty feedback loop that needs to be broken.

Christie Aschwanden's article on Fivethirtyeight is excellent and well-worth a read
Christie Aschwanden’s article on Fivethirtyeight is excellent and well-worth a read

I don’t want to end on a downer like that, so I’ll restate that in general I’m very optimistic about the future of science and science communication. Getting scientists out of the proverbial ivory tower can only be a good thing, and I hope to play a small part in doing that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *