Monday, 18 February 2013

The Importance of Scientific Communication

How do people learn about science today? An important duty for scientists is conveying their discoveries to others in the community. It is known that the approach to science and to scientific questions is changing over the years. Almost everyone (9/10 of the internet users [1]) utilizes search engines like google in order to find information. This means that websites, blogs and web resources are the new science bible, especially for the public. The Internet gives access to knowledge to many people and this is good, but they could easily be mis-informed and their opinion might be shaped by the use of incorrect resources. For example "Just the tone of online comments can shape how readers feel about technology" (here is the article).

This article, which appeared in Scientific American, is really interesting, it is about comments of online material, and it illustrates how people behave and critique internet articles.
Scientific communication is an important topic, and as the authors of the Science report "Science, New Media, and the Public" write, "We risk creating a future where the dynamics of online communication systems have a stronger impact on public views about science than the specific research that we as scientists are trying to communicate".

[1] K. Purcell, J. Brenner, L. Rainie, Search Engine Use 2012 (Pew Internet & American Life Project, Washington, DC, 2012).


  1. I for one spend lots of time reading science pages on Wikipedia so I appreciate this post, not sure what that says about me as a person thiough... anyways I think it is okay so long as these internet resources do not become substitutes for the learning process and scientific method. Although information may be "readily accessible" through myriad internet outlets, the ability to correctly and appropriately use that information is a skill that must be acquired and refined through study and experience.

  2. I agree with Travis. I think the key is that readers of scientific findings must be capable of critical thinking and objective interpretation. Also, one must be able to recognise findings from reputable sources etc. In a 2012 article called 'Opening Scientific Communication' the authors call for a new path that winds away from 'the existing model of scientific communication to improve the efficiency in meeting the purpose of public science – knowledge accumulation'. The authors propose six changes that can create this new path. (1) full embrace of digital communication, (2) open access to all published research, (3) disentangling publication from evaluation, (4) breaking the “one article, one journal” model with a grading system for evaluation and diversified dissemination outlets, (5) publishing peer review, and, (6) allowing open, continuous peer review.

    Here is the link to this article:

  3. The whole notion of 'popular science' that this connects to is a strange one. It seems to be a mechanism for promulgating scientific findings to a readership who lack the neccesary competence to understand how they were arrived at.

    I suppose a certain proportion of readers will have sufficient curiosity sparked to investigate further and maybe ultimately become scientists and thus contributors to the collective enterprise of furthering human knowledge. I suppose that is its function.

    However, what about the by-product, namely all the others who don't take this path? The non-expert 'man on the street' may now be able to say things like 'Higg's Boson', 'dopamine receptor' or 'double helix', and certainly when he looks down at the screen of his smartphone he is paying witness to the awesome power of what the media encourages us to view as the monolithic entity Science, but does he really now understand the inner nature of the world any better than a medieval peasant? Does popular science not just produce people who make groping, benighted reference to the world through a different set of equally vague metaphors?

  4. I think there is a balance to be struck between the "dumbing down" of serious scientific findings into the bite-sized morsels beloved of tabloid newspapers and preaching to the choir of fellow academics. Scientists and academics have a duty to their field, but since they so often rely on a wider reach for funding for their work, they also need to be able to communicate effectively. Journalism also has a role to play here, and may be the real culprit. There is a lot of "lazy" writing masquerading as real journalism both in print and online these days. Unfortunately it appears that there may be more money to be made from appealing to the mass market of sound-bite and snappy headline than from a smaller but more interested audience.
    The blog below caught my eye in tackling the issue of science communication, and the link to the Up-Goer Five Text Editor is worth a look. Try popping in a paragraph from one of your essays to see how your text fares!

  5. In the March 20th edition of New Scientist's Feedback (essential reading, by the way) there's a reference to an article in summarising the results of a Eurobarometer survey commissioned by the EU that 83% of people believe food contains chemicals - New Scientist ruefully asks: what do the other 17% think food is made of?

    The cynics marketing and advertising the billion dollar industries of cosmetics, diets, alternative medicine etc. thrive in a society where well-meaning educators promote popularisation of specialised fields like physics, chemistry, medicine etc. with the likes of Brian Cox "explaining" quantum physics. This is a double tragedy: firstly there's the tragedy of not actually learning about the fascinating insights that all branches of science afford, and secondly there's the bullshit fodder that uneducated consumers become.