Under the microscope

This week I attended ‘Circling the Square’ – a conference on science, science communication and science policy at the University of Nottingham (lovely Campus – well worth a visit). I certainly felt in the minority being a physical scientist rather than a social scientist. It was a very interesting conference but one of the things that struck me was how many negative statements were directed at ‘scientists’. Specifically, given the nature of the conference, with respect to how ‘scientists’ interact with the media and with influencing policy. On the panel I happened to find myself on (‘Citizen Science’ and New Social media) I brought this up in my intro bit.

Here are some of the comments I heard (from various speakers and panel members)

“[Many] scientists shouldn’t communicate with the media”

“Scientists (trying to change policy) are communicating with the wrong people”

“Scientists are asking the wrong questions”

“Scientists are self-indulgent [in the way they interact with the media]

To be fair, I have taken these statements out of context. Such as ‘scientists are asking the wrong questions’ which was a statement made by Ian Boyd, Chief Scientific Advisor of Defra referring to research which affects Defra questions. This statement I thought was very off the mark, because scientific research isn’t necessarily just directed at solving the next environmental crisis. So scientists may not be asking the questions that Ian Boyd thinks that they should but this doesn’t mean they are asking the ‘wrong questions’ in a different context. But I digress…

A recurring theme in the discussions at Circling the Square (though not universally) seemed to be that ‘scientists really shouldn’t attempt to communicate because they muck things up!’. Clearly I am exaggerating somewhat – there were a few shout outs for Guardian science blogs and good science communicators – but the perception that scientists are just bad at things that aren’t science itself I find odd. Are ‘scientists’ really that bad at communicating to the general public? Should scientists really just be ‘Honest Brokers’ when it comes to policy making and only offer ‘the facts’ with no opinion as Roger Pielke Jr. suggests? I would argue against that simply on the basis if you are just offering facts than which facts do you offer? It’s very useful to have the opinions that go along with those facts – or the caveats that inform you about the facts. Science doesn’t just provide ‘facts’ but rather it is the linking of observables (not facts per se) to develop theories about what is going on in the natural world. Not to mention some scientists happen to be fantastic communicators – I’ll stand in my big boots on anyone’s coffee table and say Jim Al-Khalili is a fantastic communicator!

What I guess I find weird about sweeping statements about ‘scientists’ is this idea that it implies that there really is a body of people called ‘scientists’ who all uniformly think the same way and who all fail in the media, or who are all really,really bad at dealing with policy. It all seems to be vaguely based on the stereotype that all scientists are slightly autistic, focused only on details of research and are slightly naive about the rest of the big bad world. Scientists, all of us, depicted as fervent purveyors of the scientific ‘truth’ (whatever the hell that is) who all believe if they ‘explain the facts to the world’ enlightenment will ensue.

I am generalizing of course, and that there are prominent academics in the media that adhere to this stereotype isn’t exactly helpful, but I think any discussion of ‘scientists’ and how they interact with policy makers and communicate in general needs to be expanded. It needs to encompass the fact that scientists are human and as humans we span the complexity in opinions, beliefs and communication skills which are part of this big, bad world.

For some more blogs on Circling the Square see Athene Donald, Alaisdair Taylor (who gave a nice sum up of the first day of the conference), Philip Moriarty and I am sure there will be many more (just check out #circlesq on Twitter)

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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