Robert Dalka: The void in science communication

Tuesday, February 6, 2018 - 4:58pm

When Carl Sagan died in 1996, we lost one of the world’s greatest science communicators, leaving a vacancy that has yet to be filled by any modern scientist. He wrote essays to advocate for science education, published books and created one of the most popular science television programs, “Cosmos.” When I was a kid, my grandmother would record television programs so I would have something to do when my family visited. Between the episodes of Adam West’s “Batman," I would watch the recorded reruns of “Cosmos” while sitting on her floor eating my Cheerios. I may not have understood all the topics and concepts at the time, but I found it intriguing and exciting.

Sagan was able to make science enjoyable for everyone. He presented information so that someone who didn’t know anything about the topic could understand it. He really stood out in the way he never talked down to his audience. He made science approachable. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Sagan said, “a lot of my motivation is that understanding science is fun. It’s communicable fun.” He wanted to share his enjoyment of science with the public, and if you watch any episode of “Cosmos,” you can see him having fun sharing scientific knowledge with his audience. We need more people like Carl Sagan, those who can bridge the gap between the technical academic research and the public, who should be informed on the newest discoveries in the world of science.

In the United States today, many aspects of science have become politicized. Those who reject that climate change is happening, or deny that humans cause it, do so not necessarily because they don’t believe in science, but because they are told by politicians and the media that it is not happening. They are fed the story by these non-scientific sources so much that they believe that this is the new truth. This is when people start questioning the authority of scientific experts on the subject. They have been told one story regularly, so when someone comes out to claim otherwise, they immediately believe whatever is being said—even if they are the ones conducting the studies. These people have become brainwashed by the 24/7 news culture that now plagues our society. However, this is not the majority of people. While some people can fall into the false narrative, many people can smell the B.S but there remain few places people can go where they feel they are being told the truth.

In a survey conducted during the summer of 2017 by the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of people responded that the media does a good job at covering science. This was interesting to me because if the majority of people think the media does a good job at covering science, why are so many people misinformed? It is not that the media ignores scientific research, but the issue is in the way that the media presents these discoveries. In the same survey, 73 percent of responders said the biggest problem with news about scientific findings is the way in which news reporters cover it, while only 24 percent believed it was the way the scientists published it. I believe that if people were able to receive the information on discoveries and new developments in research from scientists themselves, more people would be able to trust what they were being told. We have become so accustomed to the media filtering this information for us. Scientists need to be more aware of how to present their findings to the public and build a larger public profile.

I don’t want to say there are no longer any scientists attempting to connect with the public. There are examples of researchers actively engaging with people outside of research. On Feb. 25, 2016, just weeks after the official announcement of the detection of gravitational waves, Brian Greene, a professor of mathematics and physics at Columbia University, appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to promote this discovery to the audience. He was excited and explained the discovery in terms that everyone could understand. This is the kind of interaction that scientists need to be making with the public about every important discovery.

Another public scientist is Neil deGrasse Tyson. In 2014, he brought back Sagan’s “Cosmos,” with great success. Rebooting “Cosmos” was well timed with the new discoveries being made in the field of astrophysics and cosmology. It reached a large audience and was popular enough to be renewed for another season. Tyson did a great job with the show, however, he often acts in ways outside the show that could discourage people from being interested in science. Tyson’s tweets are where he is the most condescending. In a tweet concerning last year’s solar eclipse, Tyson wrote “Total Solar Eclipses occur somewhere on Earth every two years, or so. So just calm yourself when people tell you they're rare”. Tyson took a cosmological event many people were excited about and told them they should “calm” themselves. This is the kind of interaction with the public that leaves a bad impression on people. It perpetuates the image of a pompous scientist and restricts the number of people willing to listen to what scientists have to say.

In the interview with Rolling Stone mentioned earlier, Sagan said, “Science, as communicated in some places, sounds as if it were the last thing in the world that any reasonable person would want to know about. It's portrayed as impossibly difficult to get into and a thing that sort of rots your brain for any good social interaction.”

This stigma is continued when scientists tweet like Tyson and talk down to those who are not as scientifically knowledgeable as them. Those of us in the scientific community need to work towards reversing this stereotype.

I understand that not every scientist can be Carl Sagan. If every person doing scientific research was treated like a movie star, they would never be able to perform the research in the first place. What every researcher can do is be open to the people they interact with every day, share their excitement about their work and explain why it is important. Those with the ability to reach a large audience need to be responsible and thoughtful with how they share their knowledge. The conjunction of these approaches will lead to a scientifically literate public confident in the information they receive. This will create a culture in which we will be able to think critically about complex issues and be able to push our knowledge of the world even further.

Robert Dalka can be reached at rpdalka@umich.edu