Science and the Public Conference – 3rd July

This interesting conference organised mainly by Alice Bell from the Imperial College Science Communication department made me realise that until quite recently, most of the “Science Communication” has been done by social scientists rather than by physical scientists. You could discuss for quite a while the pros and cons of this situation (As I see it, Pros: They can be more objective as they are not so close to the science, they generally have better communication skills and are more encouraged to use them, Cons: They may not understand the science properly, can’t cut through jargon and hype so easily, don’t relate so well to people in general and, not being scientists themselves are not used to scientific methodology – more on this later) but, apart from a few star scientist communicators, that is the way things have been. It was interesting that most of the attendees seemed to be scientists, whereas most of the speakers (certainly more than 50 %) seemed to be social scientists. The point that I am trying to make here is that you would expect at a science communication conference that scientists and social scientist science communicators would be able to find a middle ground where they could actually discuss things on terms that everyone can understand. For the most part this did succeed, though I felt that there were one or two notable exceptions.

But first the highlights:

I saw a highly entertaining talk by a chap from Carbon Visuals who is trying to get people to understand amounts and relative sizes without giving numbers. At fist I thought this was going to be akin to New Scientist’s ongoing “this is equivalent to x blue whales” commentary but I was pleasantly surprised. Basically he was trying to put amounts into a context that people can relate to, so for Imperial College students he used a campus map and related CO2 emissions to the size of the buildings, for an office near Kings Cross he used the new St Pancras station building, for a presentation to Londoners he used Trafalgar Square, and so on. Not only did he have some really cool graphics but the idea of getting people to relate something unknown to something they know intimately was a great idea.

There were some interesting presentations about science education too, including the effect of inaccuracies in cartoons (like when Tom from Tom and Jerry bangs his head and forgets who he is, then after another bang on the head all his memories come back – sadly, knocking an amnesiac on the head is unlikely to bring about positive effects in real life) on how and what children learn (depends on their age,apparently, but kids do learn from cartoons and they don’t always realise that they are learning), and a couple of good presentations about how people learn and how to get at what the public’s general attitudes to science are (pretty hard because most people don’t even know what is meant when you ask about “science” and they also confuse the concept of science with the concept of learning about science). I’m not going to go into great detail on any of these but I did find most of the day really interesting and informative, and it gave me a lot to think about.

Now without hurting any feelings, to the part I personally found less useful. There was a keynote lecture by a clearly eminent social scientist who had been studying how social scientists study communication of science (I think I mean the theory of science communication and the methods used) for some years. His first less-than-groundbreaking conclusion was that when you ask questions and get answers that don’t fit with your expected categories of answer, you should not just junk the answers as these may tell you something important about the survey you are doing. To a scientist this is like saying don’t junk the outliers as they may tell you something  about the system you are studying, i.e., blindingly obvious. To me the concept that social scientists may have been ignoring their outliers all this time is quite a scary one.

He then went on to discuss a specific type of what he called science communication which is basically those gadgety toy/model/arty things that are based on science like mousetrap tables and personalised rings made from a culture of your own bone (I was fascinated by the latter idea though I can’t think who would want to do this – it’s a bit like Brangelina allegedly exchanging vials of each other’s blood). He then compared these specific models to the general precepts used by social scientists to engage the public in science, and concluded that the “design” model was a rather passive one which does not really seek to engage or to inform in any real way. I do take issue with the whole of scientists efforts at science communication/engagement being lumped in with these rather esoteric toy systems, and while I agree that the systems he discussed are passive and don’t actively go out to engage or educate people, they are not designed to do that. They are designed to intrigue. Perhaps he should look at some systems that are designed to go out and educate people, and see how these bear up against his fundamental ideas. Oh yes, and he persistently mis-pronounced microbial as micro-bile. Clearly he hasn’t checked his ideas with scientists as they wouldeasily have been able to correct him on this point.

So in conclusion: Yes there is a lot to be gained from scientists and social scientists interacting and trying to work out together what is the best way to communicate science and scientific workings to “the public” (whoever they are). As to whether that is really happening yet… well in some circumstances it is, and in others it is not. Both scientists and social scientists have important skills to bring to the table in this; the scientists bring their understanding, their rigour, their enthusiasm, and the social scientists bring their understanding of how people react, their education and communication skills. This can be a meeting of equals, but without both sides coming together and being prepared to listen to and work with a system that at first will seem quite alien to them, it will simply be a look through a frosted window at someone else’s house, and the details will still be misunderstood.

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