Science: Blind Date, Advocacy, Advice or Communication

As a scientist, I can't believe how Americans don't trust scientists. Within that context,
I have had lots of interesting conversations lately with scientific colleagues on what the role of scientists, as well as science, is in our society.

One of my friends (I'll call him John) says that as soon as scientists start advocating for a position we lose our scientific credibility. He says our role is to explain what we know, what we don't know, what we need to know, but not what we should do. Here, if we are asked for advice on an issue, we can provide it. Others say that when we start trying to "dumb" down the science for a lay audience that we lose the real message which is complex and nuanced. Then there are the many scientists which are quite content to study our world and find solutions and new opportunities to attack problems without ever communicating them to the public.

So where on the spectrum from lack of public communication, to some communication, to advice, to advocacy should a scientist be? Those who agree with John would communicate, offer advice when asked, but never advocate.

However, there are critical, complex, and desperate problems out there that need to be addressed soon that scientists could help solve. One example of this is climate change. Many scientists think that people are paying attention to our information on these problems, but they are not.

One person who has tried to explain why is the actor Alan Alda. I was privileged to see him recently give a talk "Helping the Public Get Beyond a Blind Date with Science". One of his points, is that only those who are already attracted to science are listening to scientists. For instance, you are one of those people as you are reading this blog.

Another point is that to go beyond a blind date with science, to be memorable, there must be emotion involved. The way we connect is important, and we need an intimate tone. He doesn't suggest dumbing down the science, but we have to find a way to bond with the audience. At the end of the talk, a question echoed some of a scientist's concerns: "What advice do you have to communicate complicated topics to people who may not understand all the intricacies?" This question actually gets at what I perceive is the chasm on communication.

Because scientists aren't used to communicating with non-scientists, we are intimidated and we fear that it is going to be misunderstood or misused (as it often is). For instance, with the U.S. military, finding a 20% chance that something might happen is enough to make them start to take action. Whereas, for scientists, unless something is over ~90% certain, it is not reported beyond our academic journals. I think that scientists can no longer wait to be asked for advice, we have to get emotional and communicate our message better, even if we are not 100% sure.

I agree that we have to be careful when we advocate for solutions, but if people don't know that we are passionate about what we do, and what we have found, they won't care. It is possible to get beyond the blind date with science, but scientists have to start dating before we can communicate, give advice, or yes, even advocate. Help us help you!