By Vu Bao Thu Nguyen
Recently, there has been a reel on Instagram made by John Green to discuss one of the most common misconceptions about science communication: “The scientists are keeping this from us”. To this, he replied that in reality, scientists are more than eager to share their findings with you after they receive the approval for publications. This 15-second reel has touched upon a topic that is relevant to not only the public but also the science community – effective science communication.
What is the reason that the aforementioned misconception is so widely used, especially before the beginning of a fake news article? Where do people learn about scientific development from and how well can they understand it? What prompts people to read about scientific phenomena, a catchy headline or just mere pre-existing interest? Trying to debunk all the secrets of science communication would require extensive and iterative research and attempts from various disciplines that are dynamic and constantly evolving. However, it clarifies certain aspects for both the academia and general public, for the former to understand how to better approach their audiences and the latter to a better grasp of scientific knowledge dissemination.
Firstly, a breakdown of terms is needed since there are various concepts relating to science communication that are used interchangeably or with implicit meanings. A breakdown of clear definitions is necessary to build a strong foundation for this area and to further apply it in practice. First and foremost, what is the definition of “public” mean? The common characteristics usually accompany this group would be people who do not possess a deep understanding of science or science-related topics. However, that mere trait is not enough to fully describe millions of people. Scientists and people in charge of science communication should be aware that there are multiple types of audiences existing that are usually grouped into one. There will be people who are interested in science in general and always on the search for knowledge; there will be people who are passerby looking for information sources when needed; there will be people who are, by different means, possess a negative attitude toward science; there will be people who are knowledgeable on the topic but are not involved in academia; etc. According to Burns, O’Connor and Stocklmayer (2003), the public is just literally everyone within our society. It is of great importance to narrow down the scope of communication operation into different groups and sectors of the audience instead of a general concept of the public in order to avoid providing unnecessary or unsuitable content and scientific information.
It is also worth noticing that there is a difference between the normally interchangeably used terms “Public Awareness of Science” and “Public Understanding of Science”. While the former refers to the attitudes of audiences, whether they own a positive outlook and intentions toward science or not, the latter describes the understanding of the public of the scientific information. Not only it includes whether they can explain a phenomenon or a concept, but also whether they have a grasp on the process and its appliance in broader social and cultural settings of such information. (Burns, O’Connor & Stocklmayer, 2003) The importance of such separation between the two concepts lies in deciding how to frame information in science communication such as to increase the trust of the public in science or to educate people on a specific topic, each requires a different approach.
Secondly, who and what is involved in the science communication process are actually unknown to many. The information does not flow straight from scientists to the general public, but, in fact, the road is rather much more complicated. While scientists conduct research and write papers that can possibly, later on, be published in scientific journals, these are not necessarily what people would turn to for information. Scientists can write their own blogs, make their papers accessible to laypeople, a collab with other journalists or newspapers to further spread information. However, it should be taken into consideration what the platforms they own are mostly restricted and less popular, making it difficult to reach people and for people to reach out for them. Sources that people usually gain up-to-date information from can include online newspapers, social media and word-of-mouth. These, pair up with the widespread development of the Internet, have created a fast-consuming information industry that people yearn for the immediate availability of information but at the same time, it poses a threat to the credibility and reliability of such. The role of effective science communication is to keep up with these platforms and demand from the public to break the barrier between the scientists and their audiences. This requires collaboration between scientists and journalists or publicists, those who understand the media and can offer help to bring science closer to the public. However, this essential factor is still an issue for the science community where help from mediators is not readily available.
Coming back to the misconception of “Scientists are keeping this from us.”, they probably are not doing that. The secret does not lie behind closed lab doors and mysterious white coats, but behind the links, they see on social media or the headlines that they click. It is an issue that needs tackling not only by scientists but bigger institutions and governments who provide funding and help; mediators and marketeers; and also, the public themselves to understand how scientific information should be consumed.
Burns, T. W., O'Connor, D. J., & Stocklmayer, S. M. (2003). Science communication: a contemporary definition. Public understanding of science, 12(2), 183-202.