The Next Frontier in Communicating Science

In the era of fake news, what challenges do science communicators have to overcome?
26 April 2017


In 2014, the British Science Association, in collaboration with the polling company Ipsos MORI and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills conducted a survey to discover the attitudes of the public to science and other STEM subjects. The survey was a huge success and some very interesting and encouraging results were obtained...

Firstly, the UK public are as interested and enthusiastic about science as they have ever been in the last 25 years. Secondly, 76% of the public polled viewed science as an integral part of the of the UK economy and contributor to its growth. Thirdly, and this is very encouraging for scientists, is that 79% of the poll's participants agree that, even if a piece of scientific research brings no immediate benefits to society, it should be funded. Overall, the public think it is important to know about science and want to hear more from scientists, government and regulators. Herein lies the caveat; what is it about science that people are interested in? Is it the rigour of evidence-based research, the objective nature of the methodological endeavour, or is it an interest in the findings of science?

Everyone loves science

I think you would be hard-pressed to find a member of the non-scientific community who didn’t find some of the grand ideas in science cool. Scientific programs on TV are drawing huge audiences (Star Gazing Live, for example, had over one million views in 2015) and it is clear that people are engaging in this side of the science. However, the next journey into communicating science is to try and teach the methodological underpinnings to the scientific process, such as hypotheses testing, objectivity and repeatability. This will be no easy feat, impassioning people about stellar classifications of stars is pretty easy, but trying to do the same with the fundamentals of hypothesis testing is going to be an uphill struggle. One question from the 2014 poll asked participants ‘When I talk about science, what comes to mind?’. The results show that potential topics related to the scientific method (denoted by the arrow), are low down in people’s minds.

Another question in the poll asked whether the maths or science people learnt in school have been useful in people's everyday lives? The results in the figure below show a clear positive application of maths, but less so for science.

This result is very intuitive: how many times do you use simple algebra in a day? Then think how many times the Krebs cycle or periodic table are used in your everyday lives (if you’re a biochemist reading this, then probably above average!). What is clear is that people do not readily see the application of the science they learnt in school to their everyday lives. What is drastically needed is for schools to teach components of science that are applicable to their everyday lives, such as evidence-based research skills and objective assessment of information.  Although the UK government website describing the science curriculum states that at Key Stage 3-4 pupils will learn about the scientific method, there is some suggestion that this engagement can be improved upon. For example, a study conducted in 2015 highlighted that 83.2% of pupils agreed with the statement that ‘you do research to confirm your own opinion’.

How science works

If we want people to really support and be sympathetic to the scientific cause we need to also invest more into teaching how science works. This will have three main benefits. The first is that this will allow people to understand what science can and cannot show us. This is imperative, as it is important to show that, boiled down to its bare bones, science can show only show us the most probable answer given the available data. Science is not a static, but rather a dynamic approach and that progress and change is continuous: what we thought we knew about something a decade ago may have been completing overturned. This does not show that science is a ‘stab in the dark’ pursuit, but rather an ever-evolving approach to understanding facets of reality.

The second benefit is that it will give people the skills to critically assess publicised science to some degree, for example understanding that pros of large meta-analyses over single studies, or identifying junk science. The implications for an increased public understanding of the scientific method will benefit both the public and scientists themselves. The public will be able to have a more wholesome understanding of science, which will increase public support for the sciences. For the scientists themselves, having a science literate public will increase support for ‘taboo’ areas of science, such as stem cell ad GMO research that have been wrongfully stigmatised. Not only that, public support for science will then hopefully be reflected in government support for scientific research. This support is much needed due to continual research budget cuts and the unknown impact of Brexit on scientific funding.

Thirdly, the scientific method is simply a jazzed up and more fun version of critical thinking, and promoting this way of thinking will surely have profound benefits in society. Scientific and critical thinking preaches logical, rational approaches to decision-making and analysis, embracing reasoned thought.

Shifting the focus

Science is currently on the edge of a dangerous precipice, an emerging culture of ‘alternative facts’ and dismissal of expert opinions on scientific topics threatens to undermine this wonderful discipline. Recent events such as the March for Science are showing that science is not willing to give up the fight and let the anti-science movement win. The scientists biggest ally in this fight will be members of the public, and as we have seen above, they are already on board with the wonders and benefits of science. However, we now need to shift the focus in communicating science. Us scientists need to engage with the public about how science is done, what it can and cannot show and what the implications are for our research. This is a hard task as there are many barriers for scientists to clamber over to broadcast this message, such as the general lack of incentive to openly engage with the public. A more recent Ipsos Mori poll published in 2016, identified how scientists are the 4th more trusted profession behind doctors, teachers and judges. It is clear scientists have the trust of the people, the ear of the people and the interest of the people, we now need to further help the people better understand the workings of the science we are so passionate about.


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