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Do Scientists Understand the Public? 511

Posted by timothy
from the to-a-high-degree-of-probability-no dept.
Mab_Mass writes "The American Academy of Arts & Sciences has an interesting article on the relationship between scientists and the public. [Here's the paper itself, as a PDF.] Rather than point the finger at an 'ignorant' public, this article chastises the scientists for a poor understanding of how to communicate with non-technical people. With a look at the issues of climate change, nuclear waste disposal, genetics, and the future of the Internet, the article provides examples of how the experts in these fields are failing to present their message in a way that encourages public discussion and support."
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Do Scientists Understand the Public?

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  • That would not end well for the scientists.... Their brains would explode from having to dumb everything down for "public consumption."

    • by pilgrim23 (716938) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @05:07PM (#32764924)
      my father (who is a scientist) subscribed to Science; the AAAS journal among others. Weekly in my youth I was required to read the Abstract on every article. "I do not care if you understand it, just read it." was his instructions. One thing I learned was: Command of a discipline was seldom accompanied by a ability to communicate it in simple English sentences. The reason Sagan and people like him were popular was that they had such an ability. It is so rare among scientists that having it becomes noteworthy.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by ehrichweiss (706417) *

        "The reason Sagan and people like him were popular was that they had such an ability. It is so rare among scientists that having it becomes noteworthy."

        Agreed. I have come to realize that it's all about the metaphor or parallel understanding that too often exists but we choose to ignore. For example, back in 1999 when someone with a grudge decided to DDOS eBay(and I think CNN?) all of my friends were asking me, since I am an old skewl hacker, what happened. I explained that a ping is like sending someone a

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by sortius_nod (1080919)

          I think the key here is that people want a translation of the science into terms they understand. To say it's up to a scientist to both be able to think in terms beyond the average Joe, then they have to dumb it down is stupid.

          I don't walk in to a fast food shop and demand that they explain their meals in highly technical terms.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by nelsonal (549144)
            If you want to change something, it's the responsibility of those who agitate to explain their desire. To have any success, those who must change need to understand why the change would be beneficial (at least for everyone in total, if not them personally).
          • by Roger W Moore (538166) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @06:25PM (#32766160) Journal

            I think the key here is that people want a translation of the science into terms they understand.

            Exactly! When explaining science to the public my aim is not so much to "dumb it down" as to not use technical jargon and to avoid worrying about unnecessary details. A large fraction of the public can generally understand the basic concepts once they are explained without the technical vocabulary and without all the unnecessary details.

            The big problem with talking to the public is that we scientists have developed highly technical vocabularies with precise meanings in order to be able to communicate complex concepts very precisely to each other. Even if we remember not to use this vocabulary there is the strong urge to fill in all the details which less precise, "everyday" vocabulary does not specify.

            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              by story645 (1278106)

              we scientists have developed highly technical vocabularies with precise meanings in order to be able to communicate complex concepts very precisely to each other

              When I see a paper that has a really high jargon to English ratio, it often seems to be cause the author is trying to hide his inability to understand what he did. I see it all the time in undergrad technical reports and the like and recently in a journal submission. Other people in academia generally seem to share my opinion.

              • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

                by drewhk (1744562)

                Don't forget, for the public even "linear" and "exponential" is jargon -- it is extremely hard to avoid these simple words, and there are a lot of others.

                Maybe it would be useful to make a list of these "simple" terms that are unknown for the general public.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by smaddox (928261)

        Sagan was an astronomer. The macroscopic world tends to be much comfortable to the layman than the microscopic world. You can talk to the average person about planets, stars, and even black holes, but the minute you mention quantum mechanics, photons, or quarks you will lose them. In addition, the average person seems to be incapable of really understanding statistics (which is very important for climatology). A intelligent person told me just a few days ago that a skydiver who has 5000 jumps is more likely

    • by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @05:45PM (#32765552)
      More like the dumbed down version of science is generally wrong and easy to attack. Consider the theory of evolution -- the dumbed down version says that humans are the descendants of monkeys (the theory actually says that we share a common ancestor with monkeys), and creationists love to play up that imprecision in order to confuse people and weaken the position of scientists. The dumbed down version does not include details about the genetic evidence, and so we see creationists pointing to the fact that humans and other primates have different numbers of chromosomes (now we suddenly have to explain translocation to the public). The dumbed down version focuses on appearances, which are by no means the only thing that evolve, and I have seen creationists attack that (i.e. pointing to cro-magnon and saying, "looks human, so why do they call it a different species?").

      Dumbing down science is not the solution. The solution is improving elementary education, so that people can read and understand what scientists publish, as well as making scientific journals available to the masses and encouraging people to read them...oh, sorry, I wandered into fantasy land there, where we are not driving everything by greed.
    • Communication != dumbing down. In fact, that's probably one of the worst ways to communicate because it distorts the message. Take a course in communication. There's a lot to learn there. Communication is a two-way street, and if you're not presenting your message in a way that amenable to your audience, you might as well be speaking Swahili (to a non-Swahili speaking audience, that is).

      I think attitudes like yours King InuYasha, probably have a lot more to do with the constant miscommunication than anythin

  • HTML Version (Score:4, Informative)

    by jrivar59 (146428) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @05:01PM (#32764834)

    HTML Version [google.com] via Google Viewer

  • Hmmph. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @05:01PM (#32764842) Journal
    While it would certainly be nice if scientists, as a class, were better at public communication, I think that this consideration misses an important point:

    If somebody happens to be the best available information source on a given issue, failure to communicate with them is a major failing on your part.

    All men may be created equal; but only some of them are worth consulting for advice.
    • Re:Hmmph. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 01, 2010 @05:07PM (#32764926)

      There is a quite nice term for this in German, it is called "Fachidiot" literally translated Subjectidiot. Basically it entails that the person might be a complete genius concerning his / her respective field but lacks the necessary skills to communicate and have empathy for the in his/her eyes ignorant. Sometimes when one is so lost inside one's own world it is hard to see the outside world through the eyes of another, external person. hey, how many times do couples fight about this! its all about people skills.

      Like the poster of this thread pointed out: information is only as good as the quality of its communication.

    • Re:Hmmph. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by mangu (126918) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @05:08PM (#32764946)

      it would certainly be nice if scientists, as a class, were better at public communication

      If they were, they would be marketroids, not scientists.

      There are some, very few, true scientists who are also good at communication. Robert Forward and Isaac Asimov are two that I know of, but we could have many more of those.

      If somebody happens to be the best available information source on a given issue, failure to communicate with them is a major failing on your part.

      True, very true, but, sadly, the human mind does not work that way. People are egocentric, they usually see their failure at understanding as the other party's failure to communicate.

      • Re:Hmmph. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Americano (920576) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @05:21PM (#32765186)

        If they were, they would be marketroids, not scientists.

        Being able to explain scientific concepts to non-scientists is not "lying" or "marketing", it's fucking called "teaching".

        How would slashdotters feel if *real* lawyers came here and started laying the smack down on some of the "IANAL, but I play one on Slashdot!" types here? Lots of smart people with degrees in computer science, physics, math, and a million other technical fields, and they don't grasp the first thing about how the law actually works. Does that make them stupid? or just - not expert in the field of law?

        Too often scientists and engineers make the mistake of assuming that "because you don't understand my field of expertise, you must be an idiot." There are plenty of very smart people who simply aren't expert at physics, or computer science, or chemistry, or biology. Talking to them with the presumption that they are intelligent and capable of understanding does not mean you have to lie, or be inaccurate in your statements.

        • Re:Hmmph. (Score:4, Insightful)

          by mbkennel (97636) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @05:43PM (#32765534)

          Too often scientists and engineers make the mistake of assuming that "because you don't understand my field of expertise, you must be an idiot." There are plenty of very smart people who simply aren't expert at physics, or computer science, or chemistry, or biology. Talking to them with the presumption that they are intelligent and capable of understanding does not mean you have to lie, or be inaccurate in your statements.

          I don't encounter that often at all. They know that plenty of people don't understand their field of expertise because they know how hard it was to gain that level of expertise---and how much they have to learn when hearing about other scientific results.

          What does happen us that they assume that "because you don't understand my field of expertise, your opinions about scientific results in this field are infrequently accurate."

          Which is undoubtably true.

          Some of the worst crap you can see say on slashdot where you have lots of high-IQ people making apparently clever but often very wrong and misleading howlers about climate (I hypothesize, because the consequences don't agree with their political or social preferences.) The smarter the non-expert is, the worse.

          For example: physicians are apparently very heavily targeted by financial con-men; the doctors think they're so smart in doctoring that they're smart in other areas, but they often aren't.

          • by Americano (920576)

            I don't encounter that often at all.

            Really? You've never read slashdot then? There are thousands of otherwise intelligent people here who spout this view of "the public" every chance they get.

            What does happen us that they assume that "because you don't understand my field of expertise, your opinions about scientific results in this field are infrequently accurate."

            Which is a nice way of saying, "You don't know what I know so shut up, moron."

            When science informs society's policy decisions, there are going

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by Roger W Moore (538166)

              When science informs society's policy decisions, there are going to be questions, concerns, and issues. Refusing to give them a legitimate hearing (and a reasoned response) is going to only foster conspiracy theories and harden the position of people who feel their valid concerns are being overlooked, ignored, and waved off.

              While that is true the problem is that, no matter what you do, there will always be people who refuse to listen to anything you say and continue to claim that their concerns are being ignored - a good example of this is the LHC end-of-the-world scenario. So at some point you simply have to ignore these idiots otherwise you will never get anything done. The problem then arises where do you draw the line? Wherever you draw it there will always be some malcontents who, no matter how provably wrong they are, w

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by cusco (717999)
              "Involving the public earlier on, and spending some time educating them"

              Are you serious? They tried to educate the public for TWENTY FIVE FUCKING YEARS and no one paid attention to anything except newspaper headlines screaming "We're All Going To Die!"
        • How would slashdotters feel if *real* lawyers came here and started laying the smack down on some of the "IANAL, but I play one on Slashdot!" types here?

          That would be AWESOME, how can we convince them to do it?

        • Re:Hmmph. (Score:4, Insightful)

          by martin-boundary (547041) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @05:54PM (#32765742)

          Talking to them with the presumption that they are intelligent and capable of understanding does not mean you have to lie, or be inaccurate in your statements.

          True, but if they do not know the jargon, as 99% of them don't, then I have to be inaccurate or shut up. That applies to science as much as to law, btw.

          The fact is that a specialized field with a substantial body of knowledge tends to compress complex ideas into convenient aliases, which leads to jargon. When the jargon is in a dead language such as Latin, it is easy to spot for outsiders. But the more modern trend is to overload the meanings of common words and phrases in contemporary languages, which leads to the unfortunate result that a nonexpert can understand the words, but completely fail to understand the message conveyed by the words.

          Unless the true meanings are decompressed - which can take years of study - the only option for the public is to hear vague descriptions and arguments that usually fail to hold up under scrutiny.

      • by Locke2005 (849178)
        Wasn't explaining complicated things in a way that anyone could understand something that Richard Feynman was famous for? A hallmark of true understanding of a subject is being able to put it into layman's terms. [wikipedia.org]
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Yvanhoe (564877)
        Exactly. Read the IPCC full report (which is written like a summary of science reports) vs the small report for decision maker (which is written "for the public" and for governments). Then, read the millions of internet trolls about climate change, IPCC political bias, yadadi, yadada. It all comes down to the "dumbing down" of the original report. Then it becomes clear why it is a bad idea.

        Sometime, science explains complicated things. The public doens't like to rely on authoritative figures (a trait it s
    • Re:Hmmph. (Score:5, Interesting)

      by SoupGuru (723634) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @05:17PM (#32765106)
      I think the interaction between scientists and the public has changed over the years.

      In the heady days of yesteryear, it seems science was respected. People went to school for a long time to learn an aspect of science and people respected their expertise. The scientist would come out and say "It turns out X is affected by Y." People listened and anyone who wanted to know more about how or why X is affected by Y could hit the books and find out for themselves.

      Nowadays, it seems healthy skepticism has turned unhealthy. Science isn't as respected... in fact, there's a lot of mistrust from the public. A scientist can devote her whole career to puzzling out some fact of the world, only to be second guessed by high-school dropouts. "X is affected by Y." People don't accept that anymore. Explain why. Explain how. Spell it out for me in great detail, this X and Y business. "The detailed methodology is in the research paper." But that's hard to read and involves lots complicated terms and references tons of previous work. Tell me in simple language, preferably in two sentences or less, and don't bore me...

      In other words, the public wants to be pandered to and scientists have better things to do than explain in small words every detail of their work to people that have the attention span of a gnat.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by nine-times (778537)

        Nowadays, it seems healthy skepticism has turned unhealthy. Science isn't as respected... in fact, there's a lot of mistrust from the public.

        I think the problem is science reporting. Every couple of years, we hear about how "scientists have discovered that coffee is bad for you!" A couple years later, we hear "scientists have discovered that coffee is good for you!" It just alternates every couple of years. Every couple of years, we hear about some wonderful new Theory of Everything that is about to change physics, and then it never materializes. We hear about "teleportation" and something-or-other traveling faster than light, only to hear

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by SleazyRidr (1563649)

          Can I mod the first half of your post insightful, and the second half troll?

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by DragonWriter (970822)

          I think the problem is science reporting.

          Yes, I think its probably a bigger social problem that science reporters, as a class, aren't particularly proficient about communicating scientific results accurately to the masses than that scientists aren't.

          Its also a big problem that schools aren't particularly effective at teaching people to interpret information well (including, but not limited to, science reporting.)

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by nine-times (778537)

            ...science reporters, as a class, aren't particularly proficient...schools aren't particularly effective...

            Yeah, and there's a pattern here. I think we generally aren't good at our jobs and we don't value people who are good at their jobs. We look up to reality TV drama queens. We've lived with the propaganda that "people are only motivated by money" for so long that we actually believe it. We've gotten to the point where reporters and teachers are part of the underclass, looked down on by businessmen and technologists. The teachers and reporters themselves are uneducated and ignorant.

            Sorry. All that's c

        • Re:Hmmph. (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Steve Max (1235710) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @07:06PM (#32766706) Journal

          That's more of a problem with journalists, actually. Someone writes a paper, say, on "50 ml of coffee every day increases the memory abilities of people with AB-type blood". To journalists, this means "NEWSFLASH: Science Says Coffee Makes You Smarter!!!!!". Then, someone else writes another paper: "200ml of coffee every day increases the chance of a heart attack on heavy smokers"; journalists turn that to "NEWSFLASH: Beware! Coffee Can Kill You, Say Scientists!"

          The main problem is that people should need some sort of basic scientific training to report on science news. Scientists sometimes may be guilty of being too naïve when explaining their work to journalists. This happened with quantum entanglement effects, where someone may have told a journalist (when working on first principles of entanglement, or an early experiment) that "this works as if we have teleported the particle from one side to the other"; the journalist turned that to "Physicists discover Star Trek-style teleportation!!!". Another example, more recent, happened with some people who modeled the quantum vacuum in a curved spacetime, and they found that this vacuum state could have more energy than we had imagined (and that this vacuum energy can "clump" in some points). Journalists saw the paper, interviewed them, and made a headline out of it: "Physicists Discover a Way To Create Energy Out Of Nothing!!"

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by apoc.famine (621563)

            The main problem is that people should need some sort of basic scientific training to report on science news.

            As a scientist, let me play devil's advocate:

            The main problem is that people should need some sort of basic legal training to report on legal news.
            The main problem is that people should need some sort of basic financial training to report on financial news.
            The main problem is that people should need some sort of basic medical training to report on medical news.

            Really, what it comes down to is that we've allowed "omg, joe says so, and Brittany got a DUI" to replace actual journalism, where an actual j

      • Re:Hmmph. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by wanax (46819) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @07:20PM (#32766888)

        I think it's a bit more insidious than you describe. The problem is that various entities (starting with cigarette companies) realized that they could lobby and shape public opinion more effectively if they sponsored ostensibly scientific research. It's difficult enough to describe complicated scientific ideas in simple language by omitting the complexities without saying anything that is wrong -- and when you're suddenly competing with 'scientists' who have no such compunctions and are willing to lie to espouse a single point it becomes impossible. And this is before we consider the complexity of modern public relations and media dynamics, which require a whole different set of expertise to navigate, much less exploit.

        So now we're in this strange environment, where real science speaks through the public defender.. erm, I mean science journalist.. and the pseudo-scientific special interests groom the 'data' and the message together. So, what does the American Academy (which was specifically founded to deal with this type of issue) have to say about it?

        Scientists and the public both share a responsibility for the divide. Scientists and technical experts sometimes take for granted that their work will be viewed as ultimately serving the public good. Members of the public can react viscerally and along ideological lines, but they can also raise important issues that deserve consideration.

        Mostly irrelevant.. How does this attention from the public arise without special interests and the media who caters to them? At that point pseudo-intellectual confusion has been deliberately produced by special interests to feed a visceral reaction regardless of veracity of the science involved.

        Scientific issues require an “anticipatory approach.” A diverse group of stakeholders — research scientists, social scientists, public engagement experts, and skilled communicators — should collaborate early to identify potential scientific controversies and the best method to address resulting public concerns.

        Taken at face value, this is a great idea. But where's the funding? Simply because the group of stakeholders is so diverse, and the opposition for any "specific controversy" (eg. smoking and cancer) so specific and intense, is this at all practical? Especially given the fact that once it's a "potential" controversy, special interests will be spending like crazy?

        Communications solutions differ significantly depending on whether a scientific issue has been around for a long time (e.g., how to dispose of nuclear waste) or is relatively new (e.g., the spread of personal genetic information). In the case of longstanding controversies, social scientists may have had the opportunity to conduct research on public views that can inform communication strategies. For emerging technologies, there will be less reliable analysis available of public attitudes.

        This highlights the problem that science has: any new finding that conflicts with a current industry is going to be subjected to withering, ostensibly scientific criticism, until it is controversial regardless of the fields previous status. The current interests will try to re-frame the debate into language that has not been previously studied by social scientists, which if successful supersedes their research. In the case of emerging technologies of course, there nothing stopping industry or other special interests from running amok until they get caught.

        Since the current conundrum is due in large part to the vigorous and successful attack by the post-Nixon republican party over the last 40 years in the US (and yes, I'm fully aware the left cherry picks data all over the place, but they don't pay as many people to make it up), I doubt there is a simple way of reconstituting trust of scientists in general within the current media environment. But the great thing about science, is that it always has a potential to push the reset button on the status-quo through a massive discovery.

    • Well put.

      Any way in which scientists can learn to better engage with the public is a good thing. However it's ultimately an uphill battle.

      Allow me to uncharitably divide 'public communication' into two classes: the first is where the priority is a given result, and knowledge/truthfulness is secondary. Marketing fits into this category, as well as most political speeches and evangelism (religious or otherwise). A marketer doesn't really care if the public misinterprets a commercial, is misinformed abou
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 01, 2010 @05:01PM (#32764852)

    The Media already has a monopoly on informing the public, scientific discoveries included.

    Scientists strive to be factual and complete. Media strives to be sensational and give people what they expect, or want, to hear.

    Some of the most exciting discoveries are those that indicate existing beliefs are incorrect. That doesn't jive with...well, you can see where I'm going with this: insert faith here.

  • Does the public understand science? That doesn't take a scientist to answer.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by jfengel (409917)

      The public doesn't necessarily have to understand science. It's not their job.

      I would say, however, that it's their job to at least not actively be misled, and that's the rub here. When you don't understand something, you can be neutral, and you haven't made life any worse for anybody.

      But being vocal in the opposite direction, and showing an active aversion to learning it... that's something no scientist can fix. Worse, the more a scientist tries, the more you can take the multiple attempts to dumb it do

      • by sqlrob (173498)

        You're right, it's not the public's job to understand science. But neither is it the scientist's job to deal with the public. There needs to be intermediaries.

      • by 99BottlesOfBeerInMyF (813746) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @05:20PM (#32765158)

        The public doesn't necessarily have to understand science. It's not their job.

        The median US citizen goes to school for 12 years. During that time, they all have to take at least one course on science. If after spending an entire course studying science (and probably many more than one class) they don't have an understanding of what science is and how it works, then I'd say the average US citizen has failed in their duty to become a rational and thinking being.

        Science is one of the most basic and important mental tools for forming opinions based upon reason instead of irrational methods. Everyone should understand science, as well as some other, basic, tools for reasoning such as mathematics, logic, and critical evaluation. These should be core elements of every education.

      • by cosm (1072588)

        The public doesn't necessarily have to understand science. It's not their job

        I have to wholeheartedly disagree with that statement. The society we live in naturally conducive to the populace focusing on trends, fads, social errata, media sway, political jargon, boisterous uneducated opinions, bad mouthing, violence, theft, self-destruction, and the list goes on. I am not downplaying the aspects of society, but I am emphasizing what exist on the large hump of the civilized bell curve.

        Civilization was not created by the public. The amenities we enjoy are the fruits of science so

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Tsiangkun (746511)
      The public doesn't understand the meaning of words. Thus, they are not able to understand science. We agonize of the words we use in our publications, because we want it to be unambiguous. The public lacks the ability to care about the subtle differences between words.
  • Slashdot (Score:3, Funny)

    by chargersfan420 (1487195) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @05:04PM (#32764884)

    the experts in these fields are failing to present their message in a way that encourages public discussion and support

    Isn't that what Slashdot is for?

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by ljgshkg (1223086)
      We're not general publics. We're people used to reading and understanding technical stuff. No matter if you're math/cs/science/engineer, you're nowhere near general public.
  • by yogidog98 (1800862) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @05:06PM (#32764912)
    and what's with this metric system. Why can't scientists use standard measurements like football fields, ping-pong balls, "around the Earth," and "to the moon and back," like our brilliant news media?
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Locke2005 (849178)
      I don't know about you, but the speedometer on my car is calibrated in furlongs per fortnight!
  • by JesseL (107722) * on Thursday July 01, 2010 @05:07PM (#32764922) Homepage Journal

    Many scientists need to realize that their goals, ideals, and ethical standards may not be universal.

  • Cue the standard slashdot response of, "If they're too fucking stupid to understand it, that's not my problem," in 3... 2... 1...
  • Proposal for a New Form of Government

    After watching a disaster after a disaster that is taking place in this human world for the past three decades, I decided that it is time to put forward a proposal for a new form of government that may help to reduce the number of politically caused problems for nations.

    Disclaimer: I am not political scientist, the following is an idea not a full recipe.

    The entire framework will be based upon 2 seemingly simple laws, here they are:

    1. Government must not attempt to con

  • People are hard (Score:3, Interesting)

    by rwa2 (4391) * on Thursday July 01, 2010 @05:14PM (#32765044) Homepage Journal

    I became good at math and physics because I was bad with people.
    If we understood people, we wouldn't have become scientists.
    Ob. xkcd : http://xkcd.com/55/ [xkcd.com]

    Best way is probably to get a politician or diplomat to mediate and translate. Scientists don't like to lie or avoid topics or spin shortcomings; all things that are necessary to control the course of public discourse, which can easily be led astray. The public wants a clear, definitive message from a leader-type. The job of scientists and engineers is to make sure all of the little details and minor considerations are in line and questioned.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by SleazyRidr (1563649)

      Damn straight. I keep getting told that I need to communicate better with my managers. I didn't become an engineer because of my fantastic communication skills, but my managers became managers because of their communication skills.

      Scientists aren't the ones who need to explain it to 'normal' people, we need layers from scientists, through press offices, to journalists, who all need to do their job without claiming every minor discovery will change the world.

  • People would be much more interested in science if science had marketing degrees.

    Science just isn't interesting enough to most people, so most people are utterly clueless about it. I mean, who cares how microwave ovens work as long as they cook your food and do a decent job at doing it? Most people do not need to think about science at all in their lives. The closest they come to chemical reactions is knowing not to mix bleach with ammonia and that baking a cake is a one way process.

    Just like math. How

  • Well... (Score:4, Funny)

    by DoofusOfDeath (636671) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @05:14PM (#32765050)

    Do Scientists Understand the Public?

    It's not really that simple. They construct models of the public, which can be disproven by counter-example, but never proven.

    This approach is being questioned, however, as the scientific community is growing increasingly discontent with not getting laid.

    • by Nadaka (224565)

      If I could just construct a model, I wouldn't have to worry about being rejected by one, thus solving the latter issue.

    • Do Scientists Understand the Public?

      It's not really that simple. They construct models of the public, which can be disproven by counter-example, but never proven.

      Where's Hari Seldon when you need him!

  • Some scientists are great at communicating.
    Some scientists are great at communicating with intelligent interested people.
    Some scientists are great at communicating with intelligent people.
    Some scientists are great at communicating with simpletons.

    Who do you want? Richard Feynman? Ira Flato? Sanjay Gupta? Xeni Jardin? Who you want depends on what you want.

    At the end of the day, I think most people ignore and deny even the simplest science, and they aren't interested in listening or thinking, so i

  • Or... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Black Parrot (19622) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @05:16PM (#32765102)

    Science had a *huge* positive mind-share during the 20th Century, and the participants basically didn't have much problem with trickle-down to an eager public.

    What has changed is that religions out of synch with reality and corporations that don't want to spend the money it takes to deal with reality have been running huge propaganda campaigns to cast doubt on many of the major findings of science, if not on the potential of science itself.

    What scientists have to realize is that the nest of little chicks with hungry mouths turned up has been partly replaced with a nest of well-funded vipers.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by phantomfive (622387)
      Right, because the Scopes Monkey Trail clearly showed how much science was respected 80 years ago.

      There are lots of reasons people have lost faith in science, Chernobyl, Bhopal, Challenger, Vioxx, WMDs, Cold Fusion, and the general lack of trust in authority that has grown since the 60s. Michael Specter makes a good analysis of it here [ted.com]. And really there is no reason to blindly believe scientists or anyone else: it's kind of health to ask for proof, as long as you don't keep denying once you receive it.
      • anti-evolutionists (Score:3, Insightful)

        by bledri (1283728)

        There are lots of reasons people have lost faith in science, Chernobyl, Bhopal, Challenger, Vioxx, WMDs, Cold Fusion, and the general lack of trust in authority that has grown since the 60s.

        With the exception of Cold Fusion, these examples seem to be reasons to not trust corporations and political expediency - nothing to do with science. As for Cold Fusion, I guess some optimists have been saying it's "ten years away" for 25 years and some frauds have been perpetrated but I don't see how science as a whole is painted with that brush.

        And really there is no reason to blindly believe scientists or anyone else: it's kind of health to ask for proof, as long as you don't keep denying once you receive it.

        Sure, but I think evolution is on pretty solid ground which makes about 40% of US citizens deniers and another 20% uninformed at best.

        Incidentally, you blame corporations, but a lot of the anti-science movement corresponds to the anti-corporation movement as well: the anti-vaccine and anti-GMO propaganda isn't coming from corporations any more than the anti-evolutionists.

        There are crack pots on both

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by lennier (44736)

      Science had a *huge* positive mind-share during the 20th Century, and the participants basically didn't have much problem with trickle-down to an eager public.

      What has changed is that religions out of synch with reality and corporations that don't want to spend the money it takes to deal with reality have been running huge propaganda campaigns

      I think actually what changed was World War 2 and particularly the atomic bomb, when it became clear that abstract 'science' could be used equally well for creative and destructive purposes, and that scientific advancement was not only no guarantee of peace or safety or utility, but could even be trending in the opposite direction.

      In the next few decades, nuclear war and MAD led the pack as the ultimate embodiment of self-destructive science, but there were also a number of high-profile failures: overpopula

  • I heard Paul Newman did some research in this area back in the 1960s.

  • Unless they're anthropologists, or involved in some related field, they shouldn't be concerned with the public. They should focus on their field of expertise. When they deviate from this they're out of their element, thus just another laymen.
  • by magsol (1406749) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @05:20PM (#32765166) Journal
    "If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself."

    That said, I'm having a hard time figuring out how one would explain Special Relativity - or, in my case, SVD-decompositions and unsupervised machine learning - to a six-year old.

    Of course, that could simply mean I don't, in fact, understand either one.
    • But a lot of the important issues that affect the public aren't well understood. We don't understand everything about the atmosphere or the environment or the human body. If we did have a complete and irrefutable understanding there wouldn't be any controversy. The problem is that the public expects everything to be black and white, but we're just not at level yet, so we have to make the best decisions that we can with the information currently at our disposal.
    • You probably don't understand unsupervised machine learning if you think you couldn't teach a six-year-old. Could you at least teach what it's trying to do? What general things it does to find clusters in the data? Yes, there's a lot of math, but the math is built on a solid foundation that you can explain.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by ascari (1400977)

      Does that mean the "For Dummies" series is some of the deepest, most insightful stuff ever written? Or simply that Einstein ran with some really exceptional six year olds?

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by steelfood (895457)

      I'm having a hard time figuring out how one would explain Special Relativity.

      Have you tried using a car analogy?

  • You can only dumb shit down so far. I'm sorry, if the public doesn't have the equivalent of a high school level understanding of science than it IS their own fault. Not that of scientists. Assuming they live in a country with a public education system that supplies it. Here in the US, public education in science is shit. But it's still enough to get a basic understanding of scientific methodology and literacy. In the same way that it's someone's own damn fault if they can't do basic arithmetic after graduat
  • I don't know.. let's kill some rats to find out.
  • That's why there's a career called "Science Writer." That's so scientists don't have to worry about how to communicate with the public. There's someone else to do that for them.

  • by al0ha (1262684) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @05:34PM (#32765378) Journal
    From the article, "Republicans who are college graduates are considerably less likely to accept the scientific consensus on climate change than those who have received less education."

    All I can say is, "Dang."
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by grcumb (781340)

      From the article, "Republicans who are college graduates are considerably less likely to accept the scientific consensus on climate change than those who have received less education."

      That's the crux of the problem right there. No, not Republicans - irrationality, distrust and dishonesty. It's not communication skills that we're short on, it's moral and intellectual honesty.

      The reason scientists are not believed now is because there is a deliberate campaign in place to discredit them by any means. Because they know most people can't or won't read the actual journals, the same cynical geniuses who bald-faced lied about the effects of smoking are teaching a new generation that scientists a

  • On why she didn't want to excel too much in med school: "The straight-A students end up in research. The B and C students are the ones that work with patients."

    Today, she has a very successful private medical practice.
  • by Junior J. Junior III (192702) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @05:43PM (#32765526) Homepage

    Give all the scientists breast implants. The public will have no choice but to love them.

  • by N0Man74 (1620447) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @05:48PM (#32765638)

    The job of science is to seek, explore, and prove truths. It's not their job to be spin-doctors and make it palatable to hicks, politicians, corporations, and Bible-thumpers.

    We don't need scientists to become more PR savvy, what we need is less sensationalist journalism, less politicizing of science, and less junk science originating from entities (corporate, political, social, or religious) invested in getting certain results that are all result in a woefully misinformed public, often stirred into a frenzy, with a mixture of half-truths or outright lies.

    Maybe the scientists could promote ideas better with more social skill, and maybe the public could understand the science better with more science education, but none of that matters when there's a machine in the middle drowning out the communication with it's own noise.

  • It's basically the same situation that arises when a developer tries to talk to the business. Many developers just don't know how to speak in plain english (or language of choice) when it comes to describing technology. As a result, developers don't seem to "get the business" and the business doesn't seem to "get technology". Enter the business analyst: the BA is the interface that has the ability to speak both technology and business.

    In the case of the media, they seem to lack really gifted technologist

  • by FridayBob (619244) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @07:46PM (#32767186) Homepage
    Too many members of the general public are ignorant of science, what its basic tenants are, how it works, why it has been so successful and therefore why it deserves everyone's respect and attention, especially when scientists warn us about things like tornados, the AIDS virus, volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, lead based paint, and releasing too much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

    Unfortunately, teaching people the facts about the universe we live in is difficult and expensive. But when society fails to educate its members sufficiently about science, to teach them to think critically, then the purveyors of disinformation -- typically organized religions and corporate marketing departments -- are always there to enlighten them with their own versions of the truth.

    What can we do about this? First, never cut back on education. An enlightened society is an educated one and maintaining it as such is a endless task. Second, make education accessible to everyone at no cost. Three, we have to be hard on ourselves to ensure that our teachers and educational institutions continue to live up to the highest standards. Four... spend money on marketing facts that are both generally accepted by the scientific community and important to society.

    How do we pay for all that? Higher basic taxes, I guess (it will eventually pay for itself), but perhaps also by levying a tax on top of what those purveyors of disinformation spend on advertising.
  • The good thing is (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Dunbal (464142) * on Friday July 02, 2010 @04:52AM (#32770448)

    We don't NEED to communicate with non-technical people. It has worked so far for well over 100 years of outstanding technological progress - why stop now? The drones can go on mopping floors, cleaning windows, and building buildings and we will go on doing our thing yeah? It's called specialization. Just like I don't expect my builder to understand or be interested in the carnitine shuffle, I have neither the time nor desire to get into the details of the local building code regarding a particular section of wall.

    The author deserves an "F" for failing to understand that specialization is a good thing, and specialized fields REQUIRE their own efficient technical jargon. When two doctors speak "lingua medica" it's because it's faster, more convenient and more specific than common English. It's not to "say bad things about patients without them understanding". However why should any technical person lower themselves to the level of the common burger-flipper?

If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts. -- Albert Einstein

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