Communicating Science to the Public
By Sonia Abdulbaki
Science is often regarded in mainstream culture as cold and calculating, a subject unappealing to the majority because it is challenging and incomprehensible to the average Joe. On the contrary, science is far from being cold (and quite literally too, demonstrated from subjects like global warming.) Science holds meaningful equations to the many wonders of the world that are overlooked because of their complexities. It is also an essential tool to our everyday lives and effects our progression, health and safety.
Communicating science to the public is a difficult but imperative task. Every discipline has its jargon, but science is immersed in a technically complicated one that the general public cannot understand without further simplification. The key to communicating and improving the rapport between science and the public lies with journalists, scientists, education and entertainment.
Forest Day Panel
Media Matters. One of the key players in helping the public understand science is the media. They are the most immediate and general source of information given on a largely public scale, be it local, national and global. Journalists’ job is to speak to the scientists for us and then break it down in simplified, every day English.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, journalists expressed four barriers in interviewing agency scientists:
Journalists need a required preapproval
Interviews are often denied
If interviews are allowed, they are closely monitored
Difficult questions are avoided, preventing journalists from obtaining a better understanding of the subject matter.
Another obstacle includes the oversimplification of certain topics, losing the details or bigger picture of the study in the process.
Let the Scientists Talk to Us. A difficulty of communication between scientists and the media can be tackled by the direct communication of scientists to the public. This can produce a doorway to important studies and give the masses and journalists a sense of inclusion that will help overcome the barrier. A facilitation of talks through forums, conferences, festivals and podcasts are always an effective way to reach out to the public, such as with The World Science Festival and The Green Festival. These types of events produce interactive and first hand experiences through simplified language.
Being a part of something means understanding it more and at these sessions, scientists are able to create a relationship with their audience, putting a face to important subject matters. This can also increase awareness, level of importance in the minds of the public and therefore increase the chances for funding projects.
World Science Festival
Educate Me. Everything starts with education and there is a need for a stronger approach to science education. According to the Pew Research Center, “an overwhelming majority of scientists see the public’s limited scientific knowledge as a problem for science”. And although the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the public share views about the positive effects of science in America, there are conflicting differences in the views on scientific concepts.
Education means scientists can learn the basics of humanities and communication, and vice versa. Science is an important factor in making informed decisions, such as with fossil fuel emission or alternative energy sources yet the level of public attention and acceptance of science depends on communication. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, some techniques to help improve the process is to teach communication in basic science, apply coursework through real-world practice and train in oral communication.
The Enchantment of Entertainment. Psychological thrillers and natural disaster movies are always a public fascination, proving their worth with box office numbers. Other movie genres that take the stage include science fiction – classics like Star Wars and Star Trek among them, and the more recent epic, Interstellar. Notably popular science-related entertainment includes The Big Bang Theory and childhood favorites like Bill Nye the Science Guy, The Magic School Bus and the Osmosis Jones movie. The Newsroom did well on one episode by presenting environmental facts and giving it an entertainment value with the Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson’s glum disposition.
Although science fiction doesn’t prove to be scientifically accurate, further discussion of a film or show’s scientific value can pave the way for a greater distribution of information through the media. Additionally, celebrities are impactful and can be used for advocacy. A wonderful example of this is with the Nature is Speaking initiative organized by Conservation International with a series of short films voiced by A-list celebrities like Julia Roberts and Harrison Ford.
There is no easier way to learn the alphabet than through a tune and the same holds true for science and the public. If communicating certain concepts, even through fiction, can be understood in an enjoyable and personal way, audiences will be hooked.
Sonia Abdulbaki is a Freelance Writer and Communications Specialist with experience in the environmental and hospitality industries. She is currently a contributing writer for Business Traveler magazine, National Wetlands Newsletter and contributing editor for MovieswithMae.com.