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Do Scientists Understand the Public?

timothy posted more than 4 years ago | from the to-a-high-degree-of-probability-no dept.

The Media 511

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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we should study this (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32764776)

to find out if its true.

Re:we should study this (4, Funny)

repetty (260322) | more than 4 years ago | (#32764930)

Absolutely right.

Form a hypotenuse and experiment the danged thing.

What's all this subjective shit?

Re:we should study this (3, Funny)

ta bu shi da yu (687699) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765188)

Perhaps after you construct a right-angled triangle you might want to form a hypothesis.

Re:we should study this (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32765754)

Whooosh!

Re:we should study this (1)

interkin3tic (1469267) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765354)

Or we scientists could form a hypotenoose and hang ourselves with it, rather than hearing protests about geoengineering. Or a hypothesis that this is going to be extremely annoying beardless of whether or not we are quirky.

Re:we should study this (2, Insightful)

2.7182 (819680) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765146)

It seems ridiculously broad, since it contains all of those topics. Better to focus on one issue that is not being understood by the public, and find out the cause.

the problem is the niggers (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32764794)

lynch the niggers and all the problems disappear

The Answer is YES (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32764802)

Scientists are well aware that the U.S.A public
knows that humans cohabited Earth with dinosaurs.

I rest my case, your honor, against the stupid U.S.A
public.

Yours In Chelnyabinsk,
Kilgore Trout.

Wait... They want them to dumb things down... (2, Insightful)

King InuYasha (1159129) | more than 4 years ago | (#32764824)

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

Re:Wait... They want them to dumb things down... (4, Insightful)

pilgrim23 (716938) | more than 4 years ago | (#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:Wait... They want them to dumb things down... (2, Interesting)

ehrichweiss (706417) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765690)

"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 postcard with a S.A.S.E., and that someone sent a few million of those postcards to a bunch of random people with the return address set as eBay and that eBay was having a hard time sorting through their mail to determine who was real. You could tell they immediately understood the concept and were thrilled that I could bring them into my world, even if only slightly. That's rare though because usually my wife has to explain to everyone what I just said...

Re:Wait... They want them to dumb things down... (2, Insightful)

sortius_nod (1080919) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765758)

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:Wait... They want them to dumb things down... (1)

WarJolt (990309) | more than 4 years ago | (#32764940)

Sometimes scientists over complicate things. The simple answer is usually the right one. It would do them good to dumb things down.

Re:Wait... They want them to dumb things down... (1)

2.7182 (819680) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765242)

Yeah, but not all truths are simple. That's what makes some people so mad about certain scientists and science and MATH esp. To simplify them is to change them.

I've always found the whole "a" concept in F=ma confusing. Let's make it "F=mv" for the congressional report on K-12 science, since v makes sense - I see it in my car dashboard every day!!

Re:Wait... They want them to dumb things down... (1)

betterunixthanunix (980855) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765614)

Strictly speaking, you see speed, not velocity, on your dashboard (unless your car has a compass of some sort).

Re:Wait... They want them to dumb things down... (1)

n3umh (876572) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765346)

That's not true.

Active areas of research are complicated and full of conflicting ideas that are being tested currently to see which hypotheses are supported strongly by evidence and which can be proven false. The most current knowledge in an active field is a complicated mishmash of things that seem to be true (i.e. have been tested several times and not shown to be false), but that haven't all been tied together into one neat, elegant package.

It's absolutely useful for scientists to figure out how to put things as simply as possible, but asking for simplicity above all else is sometimes asking for an incredibly incomplete or misleading answers. A scientist with comprehensive knowledge of the work being done in his or her field will be aware of a dozen important ideas or important results that don't fit together in any obvious way. They might even appear to conflict with each other in the context of what is currently known. In a decade, more complete understanding will resolve that false conflict or further work will expose flaws in prior work.

How do you express that simply to people who want you to point at one idea and say it's the right one? If you know two things in an active field, either one or both or neither is correct. Science is a collection of ideas and results that say something interesting and haven't been proven false yet. That does not always allow simple, correct answers. Very old fields are easier, because things have been tested thoroughly. "Do like charges repel?" "Yes."

Re:Wait... They want them to dumb things down... (5, Insightful)

GrumblyStuff (870046) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765528)

Oh, you mean Occam's Razor? It won't complicate things too much if I agree with your philosophy that the simplest explanation is usually the right one, will it?

See, the problem is that 'people' want a quick answer. What causes global warming? Well, carbon dioxide traps infrared radiation (aka heat) that is produced when visible light hits the earth and transfers that energy into the matter it hits.

Got that out in a single sentence but I lost everyone at carbon dioxide. All it would take to throw me off is some git saying CO2 is the breath of life or that it snowed last winter.

So, yeah, we understand 'people' and we fucking hate them. They're perfectly fine eating our GM crops, using the internet to communicate near instantly across the planet, taking our drugs and undergoing procedures to save their lives, and living in buildings that are safer and more comfortable than anything built before it. But to try to comprehend the efforts behind it? To show the slightest fucking bit of intellectual curiosity in how things work?

SCIENCE IS COMPLICATED. THE WORLD IS COMPLICATED. We can't help you understand if you don't have the patience. I don't think any scientist would have a problem working backwards from any topic, breaking down all the concepts involved, to help someone with an honest interest in the subject. But who has time for that when Real Housewives is on?!

Re:Wait... They want them to dumb things down... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32765696)

I disagree, it's not hard at all to find scientists that can dumb things down. The problem is that everyone always wants to talk with the "best in the field". Those people who actually are best in their field are used to dumbing things down. They do so when they explain things to people who has only studied the subject for 5 years or so.
If you want a simplified explanation of a subject that you only can be bothered about for 10 minutes; ask one of the 1000 persons who are qualified to explain it to you instead of the single one that explained the subject to them.

Re:Wait... They want them to dumb things down... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32765286)

As a scientist for 20+ years, I can tell you that even when you dumb it down to what you think a middle school student should be able to understand the typical response is "eyes glazed over."

Re:Wait... They want them to dumb things down... (1)

sirlark (1676276) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765680)

I think the fundamental issue scientists fail to 'grok' is that non-scientists simply don't share their curiosity. Scientists (and I don't mean only qualified/educated people, I mean it more as a state of mind) appreciate details, complexity, technicalities. Scientists *want* to understand, at all levels. Non-scientists don't share this desire, they don't care about the complexities and the technicalities, they want simple answers: Are humans causing global warming, yes or no. Scientists could very easily cater to the desires of the public for simple answers, except for two things: lawyers and other scientists.

I did a post graduate course on communicating with the media, run by two journos, one a print journo and the other a TV producer for a local tech magazine programme. After three days of back and forth debate it came down to:

  • Science is boring, you (scientists) must make it sexy for the media
  • Sexy means simple and wow, no caveates
  • If you won't give us sexy, we (the media) will just go to your competitors/detractors/rivals and get their side of the story

Depressing, but unless scientists own their own broadcast media distribution networks (and blogs only the technically literate don't count) they're communications will always suffer the broken telephone effect.

Re:Wait... They want them to dumb things down... (3, Insightful)

betterunixthanunix (980855) | more than 4 years ago | (#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.

Re:Wait... They want them to dumb things down... (1)

Mike Buddha (10734) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765634)

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 anything else. This holier-than-thou, you-children-will-never-get-it, I-don't-need-to-be-understood-by-the-unwashed-masses is at the core of the issue here, IMO. of course there are things the general public could do to be more conducive, but that sort of respect will only come with the trust of the public. Yes, it's not fair. Wah.

HTML Version (3, Informative)

jrivar59 (146428) | more than 4 years ago | (#32764834)

HTML Version [google.com] via Google Viewer

Hmmph. (4, Insightful)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | more than 4 years ago | (#32764842)

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. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32764892)

I'm not agreeing with the article but there's a problem with your argument. It *is* a failing on the part of the people, but the scientist could do damage control by communicating better.

Re:Hmmph. (4, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#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. (4, Insightful)

mangu (126918) | more than 4 years ago | (#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. (5, Insightful)

Americano (920576) | more than 4 years ago | (#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. (3, Insightful)

mbkennel (97636) | more than 4 years ago | (#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.

Re:Hmmph. (1)

phantomfive (622387) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765720)

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. (3, Insightful)

martin-boundary (547041) | more than 4 years ago | (#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.

Re:Hmmph. (1)

AnonymousClown (1788472) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765234)

Isaac Asimov was a scientist who changed careers early on to become a very successful writer.

From 1958, this was in a non-teaching capacity, [wikipedia.org] as he turned to writing full-time (his writing income had already exceeded his academic salary). Being tenured meant that he retained the title of associate professor, and in 1979 the university honored his writing by promoting him to full professor of biochemistry.

Re:Hmmph. (5, Interesting)

SoupGuru (723634) | more than 4 years ago | (#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:Hmmph. (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32765654)

tl;dr - summary?

Re:Hmmph. (2, Insightful)

nine-times (778537) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765668)

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 later that it's BS and we won't be seeing Star Trek technology anytime soon.

Give people a couple decades of that, and of course they're going to be mistrustful.

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.

That seems somewhat reasonable. Or what, scientists are just supposed to be revered as priests of hidden knowledge?

Re:Hmmph. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32765116)

Maybe the problem is that science requires people to use the correct words, and the public doesn't understand, or no longer care what words mean.
Science is a precise field, the public wants a general idea.

It would be nice, if as a class, the public gave a damn about the health of their society.

Re:Hmmph. (1)

JustinOpinion (1246824) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765256)

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 about a product, or whatever else. The only metric that matters is number of purchases. This allows them to take advantage of a slew of human foibles (cognitive biases, emotional manipulation, logical errors, laziness, etc.), as well as misrepresent the truth, in some cases.

The second class of public communication is where one is trying to genuinely disseminate knowledge or truth. In this case engaging with the public is an uphill battle: one must try to overcome human foibles (biases, logical errors, laziness, etc.) and get people to genuinely understand the topic. Science fits into this category, but isn't the only example. Security experts trying to explain risk face the same problem, as does an accused person trying to fight off spurious claims. The fact is that deep understanding of any topic requires precise language, careful reflection, and probably some auxiliary research. In other words, it's inherently difficult to make it easily communicated.

Far too often I see recommendations about 'engaging with the public' which amount to moving the conversation from the second class to the first: dumb it down and make it sound flashy. However this produces the highly misleading (often just plain wrong) science-journalism that makes every scientist cringe. So, again, I'm all for improving how scientists present their findings to the public. However this must not be done at the expense of the truth; what is reported must be accurate and correct. And this definitely requires a public who is willing to put in the effort on their end of the communication.

Re:Hmmph. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32765318)

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.

You can rationalize it all you want, gripe and moan about how unfair it is that the 'unintelligent masses' won't listen to the enlightened scientists, but the fact remains successful communication will have to originate from the side of science. It just isn't going to happen otherwise, so it would be in the best interests of ALL OF US if large numbers of people in the science world would start taking the time to learn how to communicate effectively with the general public.

It isn't relevant that "only some ... are worth consulting" because generally, the people that ought to be consulting those worthy types just plain aren't savvy enough to realize that they need to.

That's the burden of leadership. If you happen to be one of the people with a solid education and a strong background in science, it is on your shoulders to learn to communicate with people who lack that advantage. Fair or not.

Re:Hmmph. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32765358)

It would be nice if the public weren't so damn stupid.

Re:Hmmph. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32765592)

Allow me to elucidate the situation with an analogy.

You see an ant crawling onto a golf ball, resting calmly atop a golf tee.
You attempt to explain to the ant that he really oughtn't be crawling there, and if he doesn't move soon, he'll never again know the delights of summer picnic raids.
Sadly, the ant lacks the cognitive ability to understand what you're trying to tell him.
Even more sadly, as a result of the aforementioned fact, the ant is about to die.

You see, the scientists are the ants; and they are about to die, because people are ready to kill them for not speaking in a more understandable fashion.

Shouldn't the public try to understand? (1)

ubungy (1471733) | more than 4 years ago | (#32764844)

Seriously, it might do the general public some good to further their knowledge on these and many other topics.

Essential difference (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#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.

The story of our lives... (1, Interesting)

gentlemen_loser (817960) | more than 4 years ago | (#32764872)

People with technical or scientific training are always told they have to learn how to communicate with people without that training. This is bullshit.

How about the mouth-breathers actually use the muscle between their ears during high school math and science classes so that they are better equiped to understand what scientists are trying to tell them later in life? Truly, you do not need to be a scientist to understand articles written for general consumption. A basic understanding of high school science (biology, physics, chemistry) and math (algebra and statistics) will get you there. While we are at it, I distinctly recall the steps of the scientific method explained in detail (several times in middle and high school), as were the definitions of "theory", "law", and "hypothesis". Jesus Christ people, use your brains.

Re:The story of our lives... (4, Insightful)

Hatta (162192) | more than 4 years ago | (#32764942)

Thank you very much. Science is hard. If you're not willing to work at it, you won't understand it. If you're not willing to work at it, you won't. That's not the scientist's fault.

The public is scientifically illiterate. (1)

AnonymousClown (1788472) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765366)

Thank you very much. Science is hard. If you're not willing to work at it, you won't understand it. If you're not willing to work at it, you won't. That's not the scientist's fault.

That's true if you're going to study it but to read about the concepts and have an appreciation of what's being done isn't hard. I don't need to understand molecular biology to appreciate the discoveries of the human genome, for example. I think that's what the GP was referring to.

The public is scientifically illiterate. If the public had a better basic scientific understanding, then they would appreciate and would be able to follow what scientists are explaining. Many scientist write for Discover and Scientific American and do a wonderful job. I've never studied quantum mechanics, but those folks make it understandable.

I could say the exact same things about economics and our political system.

Re:The story of our lives... (2, Insightful)

Wiarumas (919682) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765446)

Communication is also a science. Like all other fields, it can be done ad hoc, or it can be taken seriously, studied, and used methodologically. I do say its the scientists fault if he/she refuses to take the time to work at and understand communication. Just as much as the public's inability to relate to the scientist.

Here is one big tip to all techies out there - listen. Do not jump to solutions. Do not tell people what they should do or want without the other person fully explaining themselves even though you may know the answer. Instead, listen, use deflective listening (rephrasing what the person said and lead them to continue), and lead them in a way that opens up your answer in clearer light. Consider it the foreplay to a response. Easy, and applicable to your occupation, friends, and significant other.

Re:The story of our lives... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32764968)

people with no education can still vote.
Why should they expend effort to talk to you, if you insult them by calling them mouth breathers?

In our society of specialists, you should expect the opposite. You should expect that people will specialize, and it should be assumed that they do not and will not understand someone that specialized in something else.

Re:The story of our lives... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32765096)

If all scientists spent a lot of time trying to explain to the least common denominator, what a waste of brain power we'd see!

Science writers in magazines and newspapers are supposed to provide the translation, aren't they? As are the science "experts" on TV. I'd argue that it's THEIR job to do that.

And, even if all scientists decided to waste that brain power by spending much of it translating for the average person, some politicians and some news outlets would still "re-interpret" the results to prove the exact opposite, either for their own political or financial gain. Ex: How many scientists say global warming isn't happening? How many TV news experts insist that it's all a plot by Al Gore to win a presidential election, even long after he stopped running?

Flip flop the question: (1)

cosm (1072588) | more than 4 years ago | (#32764876)

Does the public understand science? That doesn't take a scientist to answer.

Re:Flip flop the question: (2, Insightful)

jfengel (409917) | more than 4 years ago | (#32764972)

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 down as evidence that it can't be explained.

Scientists do need to learn to explain well, and that's an ongoing challenge to be met. But the vocal and anti-science part of the public is not a problem that can be met. That's damage that has to be worked around.

Re:Flip flop the question: (1)

sqlrob (173498) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765122)

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.

Re:Flip flop the question: (4, Insightful)

99BottlesOfBeerInMyF (813746) | more than 4 years ago | (#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.

Re:Flip flop the question: (1)

cosm (1072588) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765398)

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 that the public monetize, enjoy, and leisure in the mental pursuits of others. Seeing as the general voting public gets to enjoy the benefits of science every single day, inherantly enjoying the fruits of scientific method, I only think it is fair that for the public to be hands on with science (in terms of funding, policy), they should first have an understanding of science.

In an idealistic yet improbable world, everybody could understand science. Imagine if everybody had a Baccalaureate level understanding of physics, math, philosophy, and psychology. I conjecture in that scenario the world we live in would be a much, shall we say, quieter place, and by that I mean a much better signal to noise ratio.

To summarize my response, I believe it is the public's job to understand science. The majority has a unfortunately gratuitous effect on our future, and without brining them up to speed intellectually, I believe we will see much more of the likes of the word 'idiocracy', as I have been seeing much around here as of late. The human race will not be able to sustain itself if the populace is left at their own accord to learn science purely through pop-culture and the media, if at all. And yes, it is alright to point your less dominant finger at the scientist for their inability to convey their research to the public. But can we really blame them?

Look at how our culture (I am speaking as an American) is setup. Public education does not enforce curiosity and creative thinking. Public education is not a by product of science. It is a bureaucratic monster mostly run by non-scientist. Look at the mainstream media. The shows your children watch everyday. The commercials. The music. Look at all the channels of information from which people are barraged with. I would venture to say that a larger than 3/4ths majority of those channels are own, ran, and propagated by those whose motivations are not scientific. What good is science when nobody will listen? Is is not the scientist who should be responsible for making you open your eyes and read a book, science doesn't have that kind of societal power. You may disagree with me on this, but I believe science is propelled into the mainstream solely buy non-scientific individuals. Yes, science does change the world, drastically, but only when those with the capital, power, and motivation want the fruits of their labor. You could counter with LHC, FermiLab, and countless other examples, but I believe the Disney establishment is what sells with the youth, and where the emphasis is place. Again, science can be faulted with not 'mainstreaming' their findings enough for a public too ignorant to understand much of it, but here we are working on a symptom, not the cause.

Instead of dumbing down science, lets just teach science, pure science.

You will say, well, this will lead to a dry, boring, flat uncultured race of people with no 'substance', but I say, what are the alternatives too longstanding sustainability of an intelligent race if they are not intelligent enough to propagate their centuries of advancements to the general populace. And again, I believe true prorogation of true science is hindered not by the scientist, but by the uneducated mainstream, in a perpetuating cycle.

To summarize my response, I believe it is in fact the general publics responsibility to understand science, because they unfortunately have a gratuitous pull in the future of a civilization, and if they are not intellectually brought up to speed soon, on their own accord, we will see the likes of the word 'idiocracy' around here much more than we have lately.

Re:Flip flop the question: (2, Insightful)

Tsiangkun (746511) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765156)

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 (3, Funny)

chargersfan420 (1487195) | more than 4 years ago | (#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:Slashdot (2, Insightful)

ljgshkg (1223086) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765374)

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.

Yes (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32764908)

Scientists understand the public, although they don't always do as much as they could with communication....too bad so many people (even if they are just vocal minorities) think that the scientists are in a big ol' conspiracy to be evil or something, and therefore knowledge and expertise are seen as negatives, and not to be trusted.

metric system (4, Funny)

yogidog98 (1800862) | more than 4 years ago | (#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:metric system (2, Funny)

Locke2005 (849178) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765702)

I don't know about you, but the speedometer on my car is calibrated in furlongs per fortnight!

Aside from the lack of a common language... (2, Insightful)

JesseL (107722) | more than 4 years ago | (#32764922)

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

As if millions of voices suddenly cried out... (1)

Americano (920576) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765002)

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 (1)

roman_mir (125474) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765012)

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 control economic outcomes.
2. Government must construct laws only based on scientific evidence.

The first principle is important so that the new form of government would not find itself corrupted by the financial interests.

The second principle is important to attempt and avoid meaningless policies that are created for any wrong reasons, be it political expedience, some fight over power, attempt at imposing any sort of personal moral ideas upon the population, etc.

--

This is relevant to the article, for the general public to accept science, science must be closer to home, if policies are based upon science then general acceptance of science would be increased (just like the status quo of the current political system is basically accepted.)

Without a change in politics there would be no resolve to the problem raised in TFA.

that's where good science journalism comes in (1)

bunbuntheminilop (935594) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765020)

If science journalism is no good, then we will have trouble communicating with the public.it's a pity that many major publications have fired their dedicated science journalists.

Re:that's where good science journalism comes in (1)

Tsiangkun (746511) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765190)

Science journalism is fine. All the people I work with take great care in choosing their words and laying out their articles to be precise and as unambiguous as possible. The sensationalist articles written for the public lack this attention to detail.

Yes (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32765024)

They understand that they're generally chuckle-fucks who couldn't follow a logical train of thought to save their lives.

If the public can't understand... (1)

PmanAce (1679902) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765032)

If the public can't understand then we should point the finger to our schooling system and revisit our educational priorities and engagements.

Seriously, if one can't understand the gist of a scientific dilemma or endeavor, then that person will tend to err against said issue. This is plenty evident in the US with global warming for example. Ask yourself why the public tends to side against GW? They can't comprehend the facts and evidence provided to them so they throw it out the window. A problem that has plagued humanity for like ever, the fear of the unknown and incomprehensible.

Re:If the public can't understand... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32765492)

Ask yourself why the public tends to side against GW? They can't comprehend the facts and evidence provided to them so they throw it out the window.

"The facts and evidence provided to them". That's rich.

Re: If the public can't understand... (1)

Black Parrot (19622) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765726)

If the public can't understand then we should point the finger to our schooling system and revisit our educational priorities and engagements.

Most of the public has never understood science. Einstein's little equation made his name a household word, but not many of us actually understand the physics anyway.

The problem these days isn't education, but the fact that there are many powerful, well-organized, and well-funded interests who actively don't want the public to accept the findings of science. Public policy based on those findings threatens to cut into their profits, or exposure to reality threatens to make their cultists jump ship.

Unscientific America (1)

meheler (193628) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765042)

... was an entire book about this topic. It suggested that science education should also include subjects on communication.

Maybe, maybe not.

Personally I'd rather see scientists do science and instead have other people who understand the topics well enough to communicate them. Perhaps we could call these people "science journalists," and they could work for media outlets who understand that the value of the work they do.

Re:Unscientific America (1)

DaveAtFraud (460127) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765636)

One of the complaints in the book was that most of the traditional media outlets were dropping their science coverage. That was one of the points the authors made.

Don't blame the media. Joe Public would rather hear the lurid details of the latest scandal than hear about some scientific discovery that could change his life. The media just follows the audience to boost their ratings/readership. The argument in the book was we have to change Joe Public and get him interested in science.

Cheers,
Dave

People are hard (2, Interesting)

rwa2 (4391) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765044)

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.

Marketing (1)

Renraku (518261) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765048)

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 many people need to use functions above add/subtract/multiply/divide in their daily lives? I've never once had to use anything but those unless it was school related. Actually I take that back, when I was a teenager I remember showing some people the magic of sin/tan/cos when my dad took me to his construction job once. They were awestruck that they didn't have to look in a big manual for a list of values and could just keep a calculator with them.

To be honest, I'm glad it's that way. Could you imagine having to work complex equations to do something in everyday life? It would be exhausting, even if it weren't calculus.

Well... (3, Funny)

DoofusOfDeath (636671) | more than 4 years ago | (#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.

Re:Well... (1)

Nadaka (224565) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765238)

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

Re: Well... (1)

Black Parrot (19622) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765582)

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!

who and whom? (1)

trb (8509) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765100)

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 it doesn't matter how good your are at communicating.

Or... (5, Insightful)

Black Parrot (19622) | more than 4 years ago | (#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:Or... (2, Interesting)

phantomfive (622387) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765660)

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.

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.

What we have here... (1)

demonbug (309515) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765128)

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

Scientists Shouldn't Try to Understand the Public (2, Insightful)

virb67 (1771270) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765144)

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.

Einstein once said... (5, Insightful)

magsol (1406749) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765166)

"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.

Re:Einstein once said... (1)

WrongMonkey (1027334) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765568)

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.

Re:Einstein once said... (1)

Seth024 (1241160) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765594)

SVD-decomposition : my try (shouldn't it be SV-decomposition anyway?)

A matrix is a rectangle filled with numbers. An SVD, changes the matrix in 3 other matrices. The middle one has a hole bunch of zeros. The first and last one have the same numbers in different order. We can use those 3 matrices to do stuff easier than with the original one.

Let me know if he understands it.

Re:Einstein once said... (1)

DriedClexler (814907) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765704)

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.

No, I will not fix your genome (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32765272)

http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming
http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetics

-extremely- simplified versions of most current issues ARE available to anyone who looks for them. The public, however, doesn't look. So the problem isn't a lack of communication, but rather a lack of pandering and sensationalism.

Seriously? (1)

Joe Tie. (567096) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765280)

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 graduation.

I don't know.. (1)

Dynamoo (527749) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765288)

I don't know.. let's kill some rats to find out.

Of course they don't (1)

ProppaT (557551) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765314)

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.

Finally understand the Young Republicans (3, Interesting)

al0ha (1262684) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765378)

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."

The fault lies with the journalist (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32765394)

Ah, the Chris Mooney article. Already torn apart on several science blogs.

The main point being: Chris Mooney is a science journalist. (And a weirdo xtian one sponsored by the even weirder Templeton Foundation.)

The job of a science journalist is to communicate science to the public.

If the public don't understand the science being presented to them, whose fault is it ?

The fault lies with the science journalist. Not the scientists, and to a point, not with the public (yes, some of the public are 'dumb' but there are many fields of science and no-one can be even a well read generalist in all of them).

This is getting repetitive (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32765400)

While not very harmful, this isn't exactly new ground, with the most recent flare-up being centered on "Don't Be Such a Scientist" from last year.

And, like its predecessors, it oversimplifies things and insults most the people who deserve it least. In these sorts of articles, it's usually just The Scientists and The Public. The first are portrayed as total idiots at communication, and the other are portrayed as herd animals with no responsibility or agency. But there's something horribly important lacking from this picture of why science is occasionally poorly-understood: the large numbers of people who WANT the science to be poorly understood. It's like the authors of these articles were writing about the Vietnam war and forgot to mention the Chinese! Creationists, greenpeace, big business, the media itself, there are tons of people whose living or self-worth depends on the science sometimes being distorted or buried. If you want to improve public understanding of controversial issues, any plan of action that ignores the elephant in the room will fail, and in fact will be a sort of the very anti-science it's trying to fight.

something a former med student told me (1)

ChipMonk (711367) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765432)

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.

Climate change (0, Flamebait)

Ash-Fox (726320) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765448)

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

Well, let's take a look at climate change:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8NFoaClXH0 [youtube.com]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=svsSon9_zL4 [youtube.com]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYvbibO-SlI [youtube.com]

Well, no wonder why they aren't reaching people really - It's mostly bullshit science.

Arrogant Article (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32765512)

The article (the study, actually) doesn't go far enough. It only considers scientists not knowing how to communicate with the public as the source of conflict between science and the general public.
OK, that may be part of the problem, but a much, much bigger problem with science these days is that it is infiltrated with political and corporate agendas.

It's not just failure to communicate effectively that negatively affects the relationship between science and the general public.

Solution is breast implants (3, Funny)

Junior J. Junior III (192702) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765526)

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

That's not their job... (2, Insightful)

N0Man74 (1620447) | more than 4 years ago | (#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.

Sure they understand the public (0, Troll)

codepunk (167897) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765662)

The public also understands that scientist will say or do anything to exploit the truth for "$$funding$$".

Actually I think the real problem... (1)

avatar139 (918375) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765714)

...I tend to have with Scientists relates to how I would view the difference between Scientists and Engineers:

Scientists are visionary thinkers is that tend to get too caught up with their grand sweeping ideas for changing the world which wouldn't by itself wouldn't be so bad, except that Engineers (and by Engineers I mean me ;) are usually the ones that get stuck trying to ground them in the here and now reality of the projects we're working on.

Between that difference and the fact that we Engineers also have to waste a bunch of time trying to be tactful to the Scientists by not overemphasizing the fact that we view the majority of their ideas to have way too many impracticalities associated with them to ever be effectively implemented in real life so we do find ourselves puzzled why Scientists have to go on and on about them in Thursday afternoon meetings that seem to last forever, when some of us actually have real work to do, but at least with the advent of smart phone use in meetings you can pretend you're doing something useful!

Admittedly, I should add that most Engineers that I know (including myself for that matter) tend to view tact as huge waste of time as in general...

the gap (1)

crsuperman34 (1599537) | more than 4 years ago | (#32765732)

What I find alarming is that tasks are becoming much more automated and the gap between technical people and common people growing. This is great for efficiency and workflow, but soon we'll end up with a population of 99.9% people who "know how to push a button" and .1% of which "know how" that "button" works. For example, it's very easy to create a webpage: find a template, type some info into a CMS and upload a picture or two. Nevermind learning xHtml or CSS. Have you seen the movie Idiocracy?
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