Photo Credit: http://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/images/si/cartoon-contest-2012/defreitas-web.jpg
Scientific communication. The two words alone are enough to put you to sleep. Because when you think about these words, if you’re like me, you may picture them to represent long lectures, seminars, scientific papers and writing…old men in white lab coats…boring…zzzz zzz zz…Ahem, excuse me. Basically, it stirs up images of un-comprehendible and un-relatable facts that are given by preachy robot scientists with a mouth to talk, but no ears to listen. But is this what scientific communication really is?
Not necessarily. And there are a growing number of scientists working to change this image of a “typical” one sided scientist. Because whether we realize it or not, scientific communication shapes the way we behave on a daily basis. It’s incredibly important to our well-being and has the possibility to shape our future. Not only that, but our understanding of science greatly affects which laws and regulations get passed. Therefore, scientists are trying to change the way they communicate, that is, they are going to greater lengths to get their research out for the public to read in a more reader friendly way.
This change is not coming easily. Historically scientists have been seen as objective beings that simply do research and find out facts. To share their findings and act as an advocate towards policy change as a result of their study, to some, undermines the scientist’s credibility. Even more, many of scientists’ findings, especially environmental scientists, suggest a great need for stronger regulations on industry. This then causes industry to fight scientists, question their credibility, and bring doubt to the public of the legitimacy of scientists’ findings.
We now have this paradox: society feels that it is scientists’ duty to warn them of potential dangers, yet they are constantly told to question scientists’ findings. This has created a society that is over skeptical and untrusting of scientists.
Which brings up the debate of scientists’ role in communication. Should they act as early warners to possible threats that face society? Should they advocate for policy change? And what should they do to regain the public’s trust?
Mike SanClements. Photo credit: http://cwest.colorado.edu/people
All of these questions and more were answered when I talked with scientist, environmental communicator, and author Mike SanClements. SanClements is the author of Plastic Purge, a risk communication aimed towards helping consumers make smarter decisions when consuming plastic. Relatable, understandable, and interesting to read, his book is an example of how beneficial it can be for society when scientists act as advocates.
Q: In your book, you give tons of examples of studies finding that chemicals in plastics have negative effects on humans, yet most people have never heard of these effects. What role do you feel scientists play in communicating their results to the public?
SanClements: There’s a huge debate in science about this, about the role of scientists as advocates and whether they should take on that role. I actually would go against the majority of scientific professionals because I believe that if you do have knowledge and that knowledge reflects a decision for a better outcome for humanity, you shouldn’t just put it out there and then walk away. Rather you should try to be vocal about it and make [the information] as digestible as possible. One of the reasons why I think scientific communication doesn’t go over well is because it can be stuffy and difficult to understand, and sometimes condescending. That’s one thing I tried to avoid when writing my book. I tried to show that I too use plastic, I’m not advocating that we stop using plastic. But an awareness about it can help us make smarter decisions.
Q: Does popular media play a role in risk communication?
SanClements: I think they do. But when I think about journalism’s role, I think that their overall goal is to be true to the evidence and true to what they are conveying. And I feel like that might not always be the case of what’s happening. Climate change is a good example here. A lot of times you see news stories that try to give equal weight to both sides of this issue, even though, like, 99% of scientific research shows that climate change is happening. So I think that showing both sides to an issue is important, but it’s also important to show the magnitude of both sides of the risk they are reporting on.
Q: In relation to your book, Good Morning America recently did a story saying that according to the European Food and Safety Authority BPA is ok for consumption. What is your reaction to that?
SanClements: I think my reaction to it is, you know, when I read through a lot of peer reviewed literature in researching this book, [the answer] wasn’t clear cut and there’s a lot of unknown about the levels it takes to mimic these hormones in our body. There’s evidence for both ways, right? Some found that BPA was harmful, some found that it wasn’t. If you look at the funding of literature, the one’s funded by industry find that it’s less harmful, versus the government who found it more harmful. But I guess why wait for a conclusion because there may never be one, you know? It’s not always going to be a complete black and white answer. Or it may be obstructed by industry, like cigarettes were for a long time.
Q: But with conflicting studies it’s hard for consumers to know who to trust. How can scientists overcome doubt in people’s minds?
SanClements: I think that a lot of that goes towards teaching people the idea of critical thinking and scientific understanding and how the scientific method works essentially. I’m not sure how you could do it, but I think we need to teach the public how peer review works and how to find good, legitimate sources.
Q: What advice would you give to people going into an environmental communication field?
SanClements: From a scientist’s perspective I think it’s important [for journalists to] report the crux of what the scientist was studying. Rather than expanding on it, [journalists] should try to understand it. Sometimes they take ideas and scale them up too much. From a scientists perspective it can be hard because [scientists] feel like they say one quote and if it’s kind of catchy, it gets sort of misinterpreted, cited, and then misrepresents the study, which makes the study lose importance. From the other perspective, as a scientist who watches other scientists try and communicate, I feel like sometimes scientists themselves need to really sort of just loosen up. (Laughs) They need to not be afraid and understand that it’s ok to advocate and have beliefs about things, and share their work in the context of society. They should also speak loosely and not always feel like they’re being peer reviewed. Sometimes I feel like that leads to people just not wanting to hear it
By acting as advocates, scientists have the potential to help society more than ever before and regain their credibility. In a world that is more or less controlled by industry, their voices are desperately needed to shed light on serious environmental problems and to support policy change that leads to tighter regulations on industry. As SanClements, and many other scientists show, a new face needs to be given to science communication. One that isn’t afraid to stand up to the stereotypical images of objective scientist; one that stands up for scientific findings and works to inform the public of serious consequences. The face of an advocate.
For more information on Mike SanClements and his book, visit his website: www.mikesanclements.com
For a film that looks at industry’s impact on scientific communication, watch “Merchants of Doubt”. The trailer can be seen here.
Additional Source Used:
Cox, Robert. Environmental Communications and the Public Sphere. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2013. Print