Scientific Literacy: They’re Doing It Wrong

It’s that time of year when student bloggers start recycling term papers and calling them new blog posts. To jump squarely on that bandwagon, please find enclosed in the next few posts an abridged and modified version of some of my museum studies work. The short version is that science communication in the media, including museum exhibits, has been hijacked in the name of substance-free entertainment in the interest of attracting as many eyeballs as possible. However, the rising popularity of science blogs over the past few years presents an encouraging model for presenting science in an approachable and engaging manner without sacrificing veracity. After some background on why and how the media has been systematically ineffectual at communicating science, I’ll point out some things science bloggers are doing right and what museums and other media forms can learn from them.

One more thing: A huge thank you to Matt Wedel and Brian Switek, who answered my questions about their blogs and their thoughts on science communication. Since they’re more articulate than I am, I’ve included some quotes below.

Why Should We Care About Scientific Literacy?

NSF defines scientific literacy as knowing basic facts and concepts about science and, most importantly, understanding how science works. NSF has been running nationwide surveys on science literacy since 1972, and the results are not encouraging. The majority of the general public knows only a few scattered facts about science, but few can articulate important concepts, such as now evolution works. More critically, only 3% of those surveyed could answer “what does it mean to study something scientifically?”. Most Americans are unfamiliar with the scientific process, or how scientists actually find out the things they know.

An appreciation of the scientific process is extremely important. Scientifically literate individuals can recognize when ideas have been tested in an unbiased manner, and can critically evaluate information for themselves. This is a valuable skill not only in keeping up with important science news, but also in assessing the validity of any type of information. For instance, valuing fairly evaluated information is crucial for meaningful participation in elections and the legal system.

The need for a scientifically literate citizenry is arguably at an all-time high. Americans are bombarded with ever-increasing amounts of information, and require the intellectual tools to separate what is reliable from what is not. In particular, people need to be able to recognize unsupported claims by politicians, such as Michelle Bachmann’s assertions that global warming is not supported by science and that vaccines cause autism. Authoritative statements are meaningless without knowledge of where the information came from and why it is believable. Furthermore, scientific research is often relevant to people’s lives, especially work concerning climate change and alternative energy.

Science in the Media

The mass media is the primary venue for communicating science to the public. As discussed here, “media” refers to the broad and amorphous spectrum of books, television, newspapers, museum exhibits and virtually all other platforms intended to convey information to a wide audience. Science undoubtedly has a strong presence in the media: most media outlets dedicate at least some resources to science coverage, and magazines, cable networks and museums dedicated entirely to science communication are plentiful and easily accessible. Unfortunately, the manner in which science is portrayed and discussed in the media is highly counterproductive. Inaccuracy, misleading emphasis and sensationalism are rampant, and the very structure of how science is communicated is flawed.

Earlier this year, several large and small media outlets, including Fox, CBS, the Huffington Post and Science Daily focused their coverage of the annual conference of the Geological Society of America on a talk that purported that a highly intelligent and self-aware “kraken” was responsible for an interesting arrangement of prehistoric fossils. Despite the fact that this story was unsubstantiated by evidence and clearly absurd, the press passed it along to their audience without any further research or commentary. Had any of the reporters taken a moment to verify the story with experts, they would have been told in no uncertain terms that the “kraken” had no scientific merit. Unfortunately, this incident highlights the reality that the editorial process often favors sensationalist stories that will attract a larger audience over an accurate presentation of information.

The “kraken” story may have been trivial, but the practice of favoring sensationalism over veracity has much more serious implications when journalists pass on bogus claims for miracle cures, or push the myth that vaccines cause autism. While there has been no thorough investigation of whether science communication in the media is more or less accurate than any other topics, it is clear that the media is not as concerned as it should be with communicating reliable science information to the public.

Even when the media manages to communicate science information accurately, its emphasis is not conducive to generating long-term public interest or to fairly representing the scientific community. Few news outlets venture beyond reporting the latest publications in Science and Nature, limiting audiences to only a small sample of the wide variety of research being published on a daily basis. Additionally, the media tends to overdramatize and exaggerate science stories, making “every incremental advance sound like a huge revolution” (Wedel 2011). As a result, the public is quick to conclude that no science stories are as monumental as they are made out to be, or worse, that scientists themselves are prone to jumping to conclusions. This situation thoroughly misrepresents the scientific process, as publication is just the beginning of scientific deliberation and debate (Switek 2011). Furthermore, every discovery is not a revolution, nor should it be: scientific progress is based on generations of incremental additions to our body of knowledge.

Unfortunately, the working practices of scientists and media workers vary considerably. Media methodologies have developed out of a contest for attention, and therefore media professionals typically rely on practices that will gain the largest audience. Sensationalism and fabricated controversy are the objectionable results of this system. Media also favors active and highly visual content, which does not mesh well with much of the work done by scientists. Science occurs mostly in people’s heads, and discoveries are often drawn out over months or years. As such, media presentations of science are often padded with misleading theatrics, such as animated fighting dinosaurs or researchers walking down hallways for no reason. Simply put, the modern media system favors spectacle over education, and is ill-suited to communicating science in an accurate or reliable way.

What about Academia?

Scientists are the best informed about their research and its ramifications, and therefore are arguably the best people to share that information. But although much of the criticism of the media’s portrayal of science has come from the academic community, scientists themselves are not always skilled communicators (but many are!). Although it is now expected that scientists engage the public regarding the content and impact of their research, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Unfortunately, there is still little institutionalized support for scientists who endeavor to communicate to the public. Public lectures and popular articles are not counted by tenure committees or academic auditors as publications, and scientists that frequently reach out to wider audiences, such as Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall or Robert Bakker, are unduly criticized by their peers.

At a philosophic level, the dissemination of scientific information to the masses has followed the “deficit model”, in which scientists are assumed to have privileged access to truth and the public is considered to have nothing to contribute. This perspective is not only condescending, it is counterproductive to generating public interest in science. If the public is told that it is irrelevant to the process of knowledge-making, there is no reason to expect people to be enthusiastic about the scientific process. Furthermore, laypeople can and have made enormous contributions to science, and can bring new perspectives and ideas that scientists may not have considered. For their part, scientists are not infallible, and it is unrealistic to assume that they always have the best answers. Complaints about public misconceptions are common among academics, but if scientists are unwilling to engage in dialogue with their audiences, these misconceptions will continue.

What Should the Public Know?

There is strong agreement among science communication specialists (e.g. Brok, Diamond and Evans, Gregory and Miller, Nuijens) that the key to understanding science is understanding how scientific knowledge is actually produced. Knowledge of specific facts and discoveries can be interesting and worthwhile, but this information is meaningless without context. Information gains significance only when its relevance, implications and place among current research trends is understood. Additionally, the media’s focus on new discoveries can potentially harm the public’s view of science. New ideas in science are typically contested, and may hold up or be discarded after intensive scrutiny. This is part of the scientific method and is the normal state of affairs. Unfortunately, when the public only sees new ideas, as well as different scientists reaching different conclusions from the same supposed facts, it is inevitable that doubts will arise regarding the integrity of scientists in general.

Ideally, if the public understands anything about science, it should be the nature of the scientific research process. The public ought to know how the scientific method works, and why it is a powerful tool. If the media communicates anything about science, it should be the integrity of the scientific method, from testable and verifiable hypotheses to repeated, objective observation. With this information, the public will appreciate the high standard to which scientific conclusions are held, and the value and trustworthiness of continuously-verified theories, such as evolution. Likewise, the public will understand that any disagreement among scientists is an important part of the process of creating knowledge.

To accomplish this, the media should focus on the ongoing process of scientific research, rather than milestone discoveries. Not only will exposure to the practices of training, peer-review and continuous peer scrutiny support the reliability of the scientific process, but the portrayal of what scientists do on a day-to-day basis will put a much-needed human face on the field. Besides creating a more accurate portrayal of science as a discipline, a focus on the scientific process will provide the public with the tools to evaluate the reliability of any new information, from the realm of science or elsewhere.

Next time, I’ll get to the point: science blogs, and their applications for museums.

Selected References

Batts, Shelly A., Nicholas J. Anthis and Tara C. Smith. “Advancing Science through Conversations: Bridging the Gap between Blogs and the Academy.” PLoS Biology. 6.9 (2008): 1837-1841.

Broks, Peter. Understanding Popular Science. Berkshire: Open University Press, 2006.

Diamond, Judy, and Margaret Evans. “Museums Teach Evolution.” Evolution. 61.6 (2007): 1500-1506.

Enseki, Carol. “Public Trust and Accountability.” New Standard. 2006: 1-2, 8.

Gregory, Jane, and Steve Miller. Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility. New York: Plenum Press, 1998.

Nuijens, Frank. “Why the World Needs Better Science Journalism.” MediaShift. 29 Nov 2011. Web.

Rothschild, David. “Bad Journalism Promotes Bad Science.” Plagiarism Detection and Prevention Blog. 11 Oct 2011. Web.

Switek, Brian. Email Interview. 19 Oct 2011.

Wedel, Mathew. Email Interview. 24 Oct 2011.

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