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How Scientists See Us

September 20, 2011

Now I don’t class myself as a scientist (though I do have an BSc and my PhD has a lot of science in it) but I am very interested in science and its findings. So it is with great interested that I read this informative article about how scientists view us (non-scientists) and the media. For the general public:

Almost universally, studies find that scientists believe the public is inadequately informed about science topics, including food risks, genetic modification, chemicals, and even aquaculture. Further, scientists believe that, except for a small minority, the public is uninterested in becoming more knowledgeable.

Which is not good. Given the role science plays in our civilisations (to call it crucial would be a massive understatement) we need to be informed on science. How about the media? Also not good:

Scientists do not exclusively blame the public for its failings; they also blame the news media. The public is misguided, according to this argument, because it is inordinately swayed by biased or sensational news coverage. Studies find that such coverage is often critiqued by scientists for emphasizing the views of interest groups, industry and other vocal minorities rather than those of scientists and other experts perceived as impartial and authoritative. Journalists’ lack of specialist training is also seen as the cause of poor scientific coverage. Studies do, however, find that some scientists appear to recognize that different types of journalists can produce different types of content, that scientists sometimes lack the ability to communicate effectively to reporters, and that science can be difficult to adequately report.

Another eek! This quote is a great example of the differing attitudes that the public and media can take on the subject of science:

Recently my colleagues and I announced the discovery of a remarkable planet orbiting a special kind of star known as a pulsar. Based on the planet’s density, and the likely history of its system, we concluded that it was certain to be crystalline. In other words, we had discovered a planet made of diamond. … Our host institutions were thrilled with the publicity and most of us enjoyed our 15 minutes of fame. The attention we received was 100% positive, but how different that could have been. How so? Well, we could have been climate scientists.

Imagine for a minute that, instead of discovering a diamond planet, we’d made a breakthrough in global temperature projections. Let’s say we studied computer models of the influence of excessive greenhouse gases, verified them through observations, then had them peer-reviewed and published in Science. Instead of sitting back and basking in the glory, I suspect we’d find a lot of commentators, many with no scientific qualifications, pouring scorn on our findings.

Still I do hope that things like games – fostering as they can a ‘Scientific Habit of Mind‘!

(Hat-tip to Cathryn for the link!)

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