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Bringing Science back from the brink

In the field of communication, the transaction of important information is an integral part of society. Nicole Clark demonstrates, that the future of the scientific profession in Australia also relies heavily on communication practice, for delivering important and critical information regarding the emphasis of Climate Change.

Image courtesy of smh.com.auIn today’s modern society, in Australia science is failing to communicate to the broader social perspective. It is with a fervent attitude that we can only deduce that somewhere along the lines, the realism of scientific consensus has been misrepresented in social discourse. External influences, such as conglomerate media structures and political organisations, have distorted the relevant complexity of science, leading to an overt perversion of scientific reverence.  So how can we bring science back from the brink? And, as it is said on the Australian five dollar bill – (“The greatest question which we have to consider is”) . . . What among all influences is the most crucial foreground for science to regain its lost confidence in social discourse?

Climate change is absolute, the globe is warming and long-term weather patterns are being altered (IPCC, 2011). Now in the era of irreversible change – never has it been more appropriate, or more important to communicate scientific consensus. The purpose of this aricle is not to investigate why scientific consensus is currently being ignored, but to identify which existing barriers in science communication methods could be adapted, to become effective at bringing science back from the brink and back into the slipstream of society. In this article, I evaluate the nominal pathways in which scientific knowledge is distributed – both internally among peers and externally among the public; to further highlight the complexities and barriers scientific professionals are faced with regarding effective communication of climate change science. I then offer possible solutions as to how such barriers may be overcome, by demonstrating which approaches are most likely to succeed and which approaches are most likely to fail.

Information about the workings of the world falls under the profession of science. Scientists report implicit logical arguments through the use of mathematics, statistics and physical evidence (Manly, 1992) and therefore, have a unique way of communicating which is abstract from mainstream society and traditional literature (Dawson et al, 2010). Literature often contains jargon and complex mathematical equations and often does not adhere to a broader range of audience (Knight, 2006).

Scientific literature is put into context in a scientific report. The format forms the basis for all scientific fields and includes: a title, an abstract (summary), aims, introduction, methods, results (findings) discussion and conclusion (Dawson et al, 2010). Scientific reports do not serve a purpose in the public eye. Information is compiled, analysed and reviewed dictating complex concise information. Reports in science assist with studies being repeated by fellow scientists, without bias (Manly, 1992). As it is generally accepted, communication is a learned practice in society (West and Turner, 2010) and scientists learn to communicate effectively among each other for the purpose of expanding knowledge for an internal profession.

Existing Pathways: Public barriers

External

Occasionally, scientific concern requires broad range perception. Science, as any other written or spoken communication, is likely to become lost in translation, if not properly transcribed. For instance, a road repairman probably would not know that the critical issue between long wave radiation and depletion of the allotrope: ozone; is just another way of discussing chemical reactions that cause a hole in the ozone layer and global warming, adversely changing the climate. In this instance, the ineffective communication path results in scientists failing to convey a message of critical importance. Only a clear message is effective through communication channels to reach all audience (written communications that inform and influence, 2006). Therefore, complex scientific jargon and scientific language creates a barrier and the message is misunderstood. The result: the road repairman likely did not get the critical message about climate change.

Internal

Unique communication within science is both important and necessary, because it allows complexities to be explained in critical detail, helping scientists to work together (Dawson et al, 2010). Critical information and knowledge is internally communicated. For example, a biologist does not have a universal name for all bacteria. The name ‘bacteria’, is not enough information for the ecologist, a colleague to understand. There are many different species of bacteria, and if not specified the ecologist would not know what specific species to study. Further information is required in order to conduct a study on chemical reactions in prokaryote bacteria communities.  An internal pathway such as this, allows specific knowledge to be passed on, from one scientist to another. Without such explicit communication, future external understanding can never eventuate. The result of this specific pathway: the biologist can conduct the study in a concise and highly detailed manor using explicit scientific jargon, which is then communicated to the associate ecologist, who then repeats the study and adds to the findings on this complex topic. With the internal pathway the result, through effective communication- the ecologist is able to bring to light a solid scientific theory. However necessary the internal pathway may be, it too can be identified as another public barrier.

Adapting pathways

In external public understanding, the method in which information is passed on is critical, failure to pass a message on, leads to a receiver that is unclear as to what information they are given (West et al, 2010). The external pathway mentioned above in this case, became lost in translation and created a barrier, despite the attempted communication of the concept (ozone depletion), was critically important for general public understanding. Hence, the use of jargon precariously added complexities in this nominal pathway.  Knight (2006), suggests, scientists can both send a message and still tell a story; all without the use of complexities. Therefore, adapting this pathway though removal of jargon – while still explaining the causality of ozone depletion and global warming, may allow the public to gain understanding- without the complexity of science; where it is hoped they will still interpret the broader perspective of the concept.

Internal pathways, allow for effective communication among peers and among different scientific disciplines. In this pathway of communication- when studying bacteria communities, we can see that information regarding this scientific knowledge, will experience innate problems with translation to the public. While the internal communication is extremely critical to the progression of modern science, it leaves little avenue for appropriate public distribution. Wray et al (2008) explain, to overcome a barrier it is important to understand that end products, when properly transcribed can still be translated. Therefore, by re-developing an internal pathway, there is no loss of those fundamental and core components of the concept. In this way, scientists do not remove a concept, they adapt the pathway for the public only; while internally, the progression of modern science continues.

Connecting the public to science

Keys (1997) explains, people are more likely to respond to a scientific concept if it appears to effect them more directly. Therefore, relatable interactions are a good way to bridge the gap in communication barriers. Scientists can relate to their audience by developing a pathway from the internal communication and adapting the external communication pathway. With these adaptations and with the exclusion of jargon and or complexities, they can still relay complex information in a readable yet comprehensive format. As a result, a likely pathway between scientists and the public can be established. It is also important to understand that the outcome of scientific studies, though developed internally, can and should be later transformed to meet public comprehension. However, the scientist should still keep close eye to communicate the fundamental and core components within the scientific discipline. However, it should also be rigorously monitored, as they are scientific concepts and should always be addressed as such.

Nisbet and Scheufele (2009) explain, scientists should be looking at adapting a foreground of communication that is firmly grounded in the construct of society, one that aims to inform the notion of complex concepts in a simple yet thought provoking format. It is important to understand, that this extends further than just telling the public as if a news story. It goes beyond this format, to the substratum of audience interaction. If scientists adapt pathways of communication, they can interact with a broader audience and then transgress these elements to business and or possible political relationships, including social and education conventions and public information sessions; which lead into the formation of interpersonal relationships with possible stakeholders. To further adapt these concepts, it is important to establish a communication in which the public can relate to these relationships- forming relationships that aim to establish a meaningful connection with all involved. Individuals and groups are more likely to respond to relationships when they notice a propensity (behavioural tendency) for a meaningful purpose or idea connected to them (Wray et al, 2008).

Science, Climate Change and the future

Scientists are renowned for adapting methodology and study design. The study of climate change science is by no means any different from any scientific discipline. As I outlined above, adapting the means of communication pathways  in science are by far the best method for communicating complex scientific concepts such as climate change. But in lure of what has been discussed above, we are left with inherit complexities in the notion of communicating this imperative concept. So now, we are left to decide which adaptations will work best in the critical need to communicate the foundations of climate change science? How can we create communication pathways that will bring to light the innate problems society faces with immanent changes to climate? There is no doubt that as I write this – I am faced with my own complexities, but from an outspoken perspective as it has always been said, the most important communication method is establishing an effective pathway. Below, I give my personal explanation as to how communication pathways to the public can be established.

Image courtesy of econews.com.au

Image courtesy of econews.com.au

First and foremost, I feel it is extremely necessary that science communication pathways to the public, seek to remove the inherit complexities associated with jargon and complex mathematical concepts- as well as removing the notion of trying to translate too much information. Information, which is not connected to the key concepts in a vital way. For example, going back to the concept of the hole in the ozone layer, to effectively translate this idea on climate change, scientists should err on the side of caution when using jargon. Firstly, let’s imagine the road repairman is a community stake holder, in this case it would be important to form a strong interpersonal relationship with the individual (the road repairman). I feel this scientific concept would better be described, by explaining to the individual, how climate change will affect him and his respective community; and just how important the idea of climate change is to future generations in his community. Furthermore, it would be important to translate this information in a simple format. A format that eliminates, the need to express any concepts that should only represent communication avenues of an internal nature.

Therefore, ‘what not to do’ in this instance would be, explaining the concept using too much jargon and complexities, or discussing scientific names of chemical species. For example: ‘Ozone, Carbon Dioxide and Chlorofluocarbons are reacting with OLR in the stratosphere, they cause the global temperature to rise, influencing the global weather patterns which regulate high and low pressure systems. Consequently, this sort of level of relation is inappropriate to establish a meaningful connection with this particular individual, and the respective social structures in which the individual represents. At the most, the road repairman probably recognises key words such as: carbon, stratosphere and systems, but using complex jargon together with complex explanations is inadequate, because this is internal communication used among science professionals and is unfit for public consumption. The explanations are too detailed and saturated in explicit scientific consensus. This automatically creates a barrier, which is ineffective to create a pathway whereby public understanding is achieved. Therefore, it is highly important to avoid that internal pathway used by scientists, in favour of something more appropriate such as the external. At this point, if such a barrier is not overcome an individual is unable to relate themselves to the concept in a meaningful way.

The alternative, explain that ‘scientists are certain that the interactions occurring inside the atmosphere have been impacted since the industrial revolution. These impacts are warming the globe, which causes the climates to shift and change, which affects the wet and dry periods we experience in the weather’. Lastly, explain ‘reducing these impacts will allow for a reduction in these climate shifts’. If at least some relationship is established, a communication pathway may be opened, and through the use of these adapted external communication methods, this may create meaning for the individual. They may then notice the propensity to connect with the concept of climate change science; and develop an idea of individual purpose for understanding the inner workings of climate change – as they can then relate to how it will impact them on an individual and or community/stakeholder level.

Conclusion

The innate problem that surrounds the perversion of public discourse in the field of science, is surrounded with complexities in its self, and undoubtedly requires rigorous scientific study. That being said, from a discussion stand point only, I have outlined a few key concepts which I feel are most effective for the nature of translating this complex scientific idea – climate change. Clear communication is essential. Therefore communication that is free from jargon, complex scientific information, as well a removal of unnecessary explanations of scientific relationships (not connected to foundational concepts) – will help bridge the gap between barriers which we currently see plaguing the view of scientific emphasis in public discourse.

Removing such barriers, will allow for the establishment of relationships that will seek to improve the communication pathways, forming relatable aspects of science that connect the individual to the concept to provide purpose and meaning to the broader social perception. These interactions must be centred around meaningful relationships that always seek to obtain a strong connection with scientific professionals. They must provoke audience interaction and always be centred around simple translations that all social participants can understand.

Such pathways, will allow for science and critical science concepts, to be incorporated back into Australian society. These methods alone, will undoubtedly assist scientific professionals to illustrate the critical need for climate change initiatives, and bring science into the slip-stream, thus- back from the brink.

References

Dawson,M,M., Dawson,B,A.., and Overfield, J,A., (2010), Communication Skills for the Biosciences.Wiley-Blackwell publishing, United Kingdom

Keys, C. W. (1999). Revitalizing instruction in scientific genres: Connecting knowledge production with writing to learn in science. Science Education83(2), 115-130.

Knight, D. (2006). Public understanding of science: A history of communicating scientific ideas (1st ed.). USA and Canada: Taylor & Francis e-library.

Manly, B. F. (1992). The Design and Analysis of Research Studies. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Mitigation, C. C. (2011). IPCC special report on renewable energy sources and climate change mitigation.

Nisbet, M. C., & Scheufele, D. A. (2009). What’s next for science communication? Promising directions and lingering distractions. American Journal of Botany96(10), 1767-1778.

West, R., & Turner, Lynne, H. (2010). Introducing communication theory: analysis and application (Ch.5) Symbolic interaction theory(pp.76-91). New York, N.Y.: McGraw Hill.

Wray, R. J., Becker, S. M., Henderson, N., Glik, D., Jupka, K., Middleton, S., … & Mitchell, E. W. (2008). Communicating with the public about emerging health threats: lessons from the Pre-Event Message Development Project.American Journal of Public Health98(12).

(2006). Written communications that inform and influence. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.

This article was first published on “Science in Australian Society” and reproduced with permission.

11 comments

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  1. The Slender Twig

    One of the greatest problems with getting scientific messages across in Australia is that there is a certain stubborn anti-intellectualism that is inherently part of our national identity. I run up against this all the time when talking about my work, or the findings of papers of interest to me. To a large portion of the Australian public, scientists are pointy-headed, holier-than-thou producers of obscure theoretical thought bubbles. If we want people to listen, we really need to work on breaking this image down, and making evidence-based thinking and policy a standard part of the Australian discourse.

  2. DanDark

    Excellent piece AIMN
    I have a 21yr old son is in his 3rd year of Bio Medical Science
    So I think I understand a little bit, he is smart, I am not
    so when he explains something to me that he is doing, studying, being tested on etc
    more than often it flies over my head, its hard to get atoms, microns, measurements, neurons and all that scientific language into one line that people can understand,
    how they fix this? I am not sure,

    But I know the time the effort, work and expense my son is putting into this wonderful career
    is so he is the expert, so maybe all the arm chair critics, skeptics, deniers
    should just leave them to get on with the job they have been highly educated for and to help humanity
    in many and varied ways

  3. DanDark

    I have a 21 yr old son doing Bio Medical Engineering
    Its hard to put neurons, microns, measurements, atoms
    all that scientific language into 2 sentences people will understand

    My son is smart, I am not, most of what he tells me about what he is learning
    flies right over my head, cos its supposed toooo,
    I havn’t studied it for 6 years, I am a layman with an opinion maybe,but that’s all

    But how do they translate their knowledge simply? I am not sure
    But after 6 years of Uni I will trust my son and his knowledge,
    because I am NOT the expert
    I am not the educated one in this field,

    People will trust in an unseen God,
    but dismiss highly educated people that work to help humanity
    The world has gone mad…

  4. DanDark

    ooops sorry I didn’t think first comment worked
    then I had to remember what I typed LOL
    not very smart, lucky my kids are 😉

  5. Michael Taylor

    Dan, it wasn’t you. The comment was caught up in our spam folder. My apologies for that.

  6. Stephen Tardrew

    This requires a lengthy and well thought our reply. Suffice it to say our whole universe is scientific because it operates through discoverable laws and it its the laws that define science and outlines its limitations. A model of a steam engine, if explained in ordinary language, can get across the fundamentals of science. Once we can understand cause and effect the basic foundations are there. Now this is a problem of mechanics however the dilemma is that reasoning is philosophical in which there is a tension between objective facts and subjective wishes hopes and desires. Threaten those hopes and desires for subjective purpose, whether religious or metaphysical, and many flee fearing that their sense of belonging has not only been challenge but annihilated. I solved this by realizing that we are all subjectively free thinkers and I can understand science, the evolutionary requirement for religion, the foundations of atheism and agnosticism based open detached non-dogmatic acceptance of the creative nature of existence, not from a religious or scientific point of view, but simply because that is the way it touches me at a deep personal level.

    Fascinatingly having a sense of purpose can add years to your life. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140512124308.htm

    If we take a logical empirical determinist scientific point of view there is no purpose to the universes however humans survive on a sense of purpose and if psychology demonstrates the evolutionary adaptive value of purpose then we better take notice. Recently it has been demonstrated that morality is present in babies and is innate while for years many scientist have argued it is culturally derived and relative. Scientists are far from understanding everything.

    Science defines what is discoverable using methods of experimentation, repetition, verification and acceptance of proof. Where science communication breaks down is in the area of probabilities and instead of setting a reasonable level at proof, at say seventy five percent, scientist spend as much time proudly promoting their skepticism by emphasizing the degree of uncertainty rather than certainty which thoroughly confuses many people. If you are 75% certain, then stop vacillating and let the public know that you have discovered a new fact. Don’t tell them that further replication and fine tuning of experimental methodology will narrow the uncertainty because the public see uncertainty, as well, uncertain. The whole notion of truth and proof comes into the foreground in arguments that we can only have proof and not one hundred percent truth. Again this just befuddles many people. The thing is to know what not to say. It is much more beneficial to set out fundamental rules of science as a body of ideas that become more complex and diverse as you delve into the detail so it is important to design educational boundaries that provide enough information for those who want a basic understanding but do not wish to delve into the complexities.

    For example relativity theory has been demonstrated many many times yet scientist are still attempting to prove it to even greater degrees of accuracy to see if there are fundamental variables that operate at the periphery of the model. A new discovery would not deny the usefulness of relativity it would simply add new information that would require extension of the theoretical models. To most people this seems crazy. Why not call relativity, well, relativity and if you discover new stuff then give it a new label but stop saying it is only a partial proof not a truth. By defining systems of closure the general public can understand the functional practicality of laws without endless qualifications and skepticism that just confuses. Newtonian mechanics is still broadly utilized fore most engineering purposes and only fails at a microphysical subatomic level where mysterious counterintuitives and paradoxes emerge. Newtonian mechanics is a good basis for understanding science and can be qualified by simply noting that there is another layer of laws which operate beyond a purely physical level that becomes even more complex. You don’t have to know how quantum mechanics works simply understanding there is another order of scientific knowledge that functions at a deeper level would suffice. The point is to know when enough is enough.

    The problem is that after one hundred and so years underlying explanations of quantum mechanics and gravity are is still very much incomplete so just leave well enough alone and let those people who want to have deeper understanding explore further complexities of science.

    Science does not, and cannot, know everything because of uncertainty and incompleteness. However the broad scale functioning of contemporary society is completely dependent upon science and this is the fact that people need to know. Without science we cannot survive and if it demonstrates we are destroying the biosphere then simply utilize science to find solutions.

    While science and religion are part of the cultural paradigm we will need to find some common consensus and agree to work together for the betterment of us all. This may not be easy however it is essential if our children are to have a viable planet to live on.

  7. Stephen Tardrew

    Sorry got spammed again Michael. Must be frustrating.

  8. DanDark

    Great reading Stephen
    As I see it, science delves into a problem, studies it measures it, and studies it again, measures it again, and this sometimes will go on for along time
    (as my son explained proving to themselves their knowledge is right by going over and over stuff,
    so there is no doubt), but this is not possible,
    but like anything we then perfect it over time
    proving the cause of the problem, then they go about working out how to fix problem,
    coming up with solutions, inventions etc
    to help us survive as a species, and make our life easier too

    My father had a wooden leg when I was a kid, lost it under a train when he was a shunter on railways
    it was big, heavy, uncomfortable, gave him grief,
    BUT it gave him a better quality of life than he had with only one leg,
    but now amputees can run, compete in sport, their quality of life is way better than my fathers was

    Soooo my point is, everything starts somewhere, then perfected by experts, scientists etc
    To help humanity, not hinder it, to improve our lives, our environment etc
    People do not even realize how science and scientist improve their every day lives
    So something like climate change, and its effects, its remedies, solutions
    will be easy for people like Abbott to undermine
    Scientists/science is our future and the betterment of it

  9. Stephen Tardrew

    AIMN Michael and Co:

    I am quite disturbed that an article that asks critical questions about science garners so little interest when much of what we discuss depends upon foundational knowledge in science. It does tend to demonstrate deep resistance to something that can be easily taught and assimilated without too much complexity. It says something about the approach of education to science and how little emphasis it is given. I am often saddened by peoples visceral fear of science as if you have to be a physicist or mathematician to understand it which is patently false. In fact conceptually science is incredibly exciting especially the rapid change in technology which we all rely upon to give us our gadgets. There are fantastic, almost science fiction, discoveries opening up exciting new realms of knowledge that can trigger our imaginations.

    When I was young you were expected to learn the basics of experimental methodology while doing a series of relevant but simple experiments. I went to a technical high school for kids who were not considered that bright and though not a competent mathematician loved new ideas so there you are. What to do? It’s really is about attitude and exciting but relevant presentations.

  10. DanDark

    I agree Stephen, people do think its all too hard, just the word Science sounds hard
    But it is exciting, and nothing can stop the new future of science and technology (not even Tony’&Turnbull)
    When I was a kid, I had a chemistry set, not a doll, and a microscope, not a bike, and I cant remember the name of it, but it generated power and stuff, taught you bout that stuff, but I am no genius, just was curious

    My son brought a 3D printer with his inheritance from grandma last year
    and by geeez they are great, fun,he makes his siblings ad I things, vases, key rings, figurine things
    the imagination is the limit
    and its teaching him, out of uni that will help in his field of bio medical engineering,
    I love listening, I don’t always understand
    But I am willing to learn, and that’s what we need to do as a country be willing to learn more
    about science and stuff

    So Pyne can go jump under a bus, we must educate our kids more in science
    every one that is, country kids have always been disadvantaged when it comes to education
    We need to fix the smaller problems, not make the gap even wider,
    like Tony and Poodle want to do

  11. Nicole Clark

    HI everyone, Stephen-what an exceptionally insightful comment you have made, you have raised some key points and truly highlighted the complexity of science and the degree of complexity associated with communicating it! You raise important issues, that I had never thought of before! I appreciate your response and you reading my piece! You certainly gave me a lot to think about. DanDark- that is precisely right! Scientists do measure and re-measure, most specifically in terms of statistical testing, and it’s very true, the idea is to falsify scientific experiments; to accept the truth of an hypothesis to see if it is actually true! It’s a rigorous activity that is surely dependent on financial assistance. And so too is the idea of bringing the finding to light! So much to think about, things I didn’t think of before, 🙂

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