Monday, April 6, 2009

Viewing the World through My Lens

Image credit: Doug Savage,

Chronicles of a Science Policy Fellow
A few days ago I sat down with two of my co-bloggers to hash out ideas for upcoming posts. For Mother's Day I suggested we write about the hormones released during childbirth and the physiological and emotional changes they cause in mother and baby. Or we could write about the recent controversy surrounding the use of BPA in plastics. Or ....

Almost every idea I had was vetoed. Why?

It has to do with science communication - incidentally- one of the raison d'etres of this blog.

Well- I, like most scientists, thought that the problem with science communication is that people just don't get science. So, if we did a better job explaining things- everyone would understand why science is important and the money will flow and all will be well.

I was totally wrong.

As one colleague explained, there is a widely held belief within the science community
that the public has a deficit in scientific knowledge. So if scientists just work hard to remedy that deficit by giving people more information, more details about their research - all will be well.

That made sense to me. After all when I am interested in something - anything from campaign manifestos to the merits of the slow food movement- I try and get my hands on as much information as I can about the subject, weigh the evidence and then try to reach my own conclusions. But, the reality is that I'm an outlier and most folks aren't interested enough to spend time acquiring information, sifting through the evidence and then reaching a conclusion.

Instead, people generally care about something that affects them directly and want to know what they should do about it. They don't really care what the exact chemical contaminants are in city water. All they want to know is whether it is safe for their kids to drink water from the faucet.

This was a revelation to me. I had always assumed that more information is better - it always is in the science world. I never thought it could be otherwise.

I wanted to move from the bench to policy partly because I felt there was a need for scientists to better communicate with the public. I thought that most of it was easily solved by using simple, jargon-free terms to EXPLAIN the science and demystify the details of the research.

That's a good first step.

But we won't really get going until we follow it up with other steps in the same direction.

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