Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Science-illiterate Public, or the Public-illiterate Scientists?

Dr. Peter Venkman: Alice, I'm going to ask you a couple of standard questions, okay? Have you or any of your family been diagnosed schizophrenic? Mentally incompetant?
Librarian Alice: My uncle thought he was Saint Jerome.
Dr. Peter Venkman: I'd call that a big yes. Uh, are you habitually using drugs? Stimulants? Alcohol?
Librarian Alice: No.
Dr. Peter Venkman: No, no. Just asking. Are you, Alice, menstruating right now?
Library Administrator: What's has that got to do with it?
Dr. Peter Venkman: Back off, man. I'm a scientist.
- Scene from Ghostbusters (1984)

So one of the best movies of all time, Ghostbusters, was on TV yesterday. The conversation between the library administrator and Peter really mirrors the sterotypical relationship between the public and scientists. The public are lay people who don't understand the complexities of science and the scientists are all knowing people who do not have to answer to the intellectual unequals.

Not that there isn't a grain of truth to this. I'm sure there are many scientists and public people feel this way. Some scientists feel like they only belong in the lab and want nothing to do with the public. At the same time, many people do not understand why various types of research are being conducted. I'm reminded of Sarah Palin's comment about American tax dollars going to waste on fruit fly research during the election. To me, the comment is ridiculous, but only because I know that fruit flies are an important organism for studying genetics and genetic disorders in humans. I'm sure that the comment made perfect sense to many people in America and Canada.

This communication gap between scientists and the public was termed the 'deficit' model in the 1980's by social scientists studying science communication. Essentially the model states that public opposition to modern science and technology is because the lack adequate knowledge about it. Scientists can fix this gap by providing lots of information and knowledge to the public. Thus the public, armed with this scientific knowledge, will embrace modern science and technology with open arms and the world will enter a golden age of prosperity.

Yeah... not quite. First of all, a more informed citizen will not necessarily embrace science if he/she has more knowledge. A more informed citizen with a better understanding of nanotechnology or genetically modified organisms may be more strongly against it.

Secondly this idea was noted in the 1980's. It was emphasized again in 1998 with Gregory and Miller's book "Science in Public: Communicatin, Culture and Credibility" and about a decade later in 2009 with Mooney and Kirshenbaum's book "Unscientific America: How scientific illiteracy threatens our future."On a side note, I highly recommend these books for gaining a better understanding of the science communication issues today.

We have made great strides in framing the relationship between scientists and the public and in the field of science communication, however there is still a huge gap. This same topic was highlighted by the recent Canadian Science Policy Conference in Toronto.

This conference was well attended by scientists, engineers, policymakers, governmental officials, students, science writers and commuicators and more. The mission was to build a good science policy network. The conference was organized because there was a concern among the Canadian science circle about the lack of science information reaching policy makers. Chantal Barriault, one of our professors, attended the conference and made waves about citizen conferences and effectively engaging the public in science.

What was shocking to me was an informal internet poll on The Mark News which partnered with the conference to produce a "Science Policy in Canada" topics page. The question was: “Can the public be effectively consulted on the direction of science?”. Up till last week 60-70% said "no". At the time of this post, 55% said "no".

How can we effectively engage the public in science, when scientists don't believe it is possible? This is a huge challenge for a science communicator. To close this gap we need buy in from both sides... it will never happen if both sides don't think it will work.

After all, I don't want to be writing a book on the gap between the public and science another decade from now....

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