Thursday, February 24, 2011

Improving Scientific Literacy

Science & Society

If you can't explain something simply, you don't understand it well. Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone. Everything should be as simple as it can be, yet no simpler
—Albert Einstein

Clear writing is an essential ingredient of any communication and especially scientific communication. For example, in Science, we don't encourage clear writing, we insist on it.
Dr. Alan Leshner, CEO, American Association for the Advancement of Science

 Misunderstanding of probability may be the greatest of all impediments to scientific literacy.
Stephen Jay Gould

DNA Double Helix: The stylized DNA structure shown above determines the genetic structure of all known life. Co-originators of the double-helix model, Francis Crick & James Watson's contribution to science, is one of the greatest of the 20th century. It's part of scientist's quest for knowledge. Note that Science is derived from the Latin scientia, or knowledge.
Credit: Michael Ströck, 2006

I am in the midst of reading Paul Offit's Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All for a review, which I plan to post on Friday March 4th. In reading it, I began thinking about how poor a job in general the media does in reporting science, scientific research and hard science news. This is evident, even among the best news sites, who do an otherwise good job of reportage in politics, economics and other facets of the public sphere.

Now, in all fairness, there are good science reporters, but not enough. When it comes to science reportage, it all comes apart at the seams—a form of scientific illiteracy. I am fortunate, however, to have come from a strong science and engineering background, having worked for many years in industry, before turning to writing and journalism. I am very comfortable with scientific language, numbers, and their significance. And I enjoy decoding it and communicating such to people in everyday language.

Even so, science is poorly understood in a number of areas and for a number of reasons. Here are some of them:
  • Statistics and Numbers: Many, if not most journalists, do not have a good understanding of numbers. Accordingly, they do not often respect nor give credence to the statistical data, often looking at it with suspicion or outright disdain. Or outright fear.
    That being said, it comes down to this: If you believe in the veracity of the statistics, and you should if you have a complete set of data, there is no reason to doubt its outcomes. Think of how accurate election polls are. They use the same statistical analysis as scientists.
  • Cause and Effect: This is essential to understand, and many people, including intelligent persons, get it wrong. Just because one event follows another does not mean the preceding event necessarily caused it.
    To use a simple example, just because you walk under a ladder, and it falls on you, it doesn't mean that your walking under the ladder caused it to fall. In science, cause and effect always has the same outcome. For example, if I throw a ball up, it will always fall down. It's part of the Scientific Method, where cause and effect must be proven, at least statistically with a high rate of probability. In general, scientists often look for multiple causes of an event, not only one.
  • Emotion in the Story: Now, I am a firm believer is emotions coming into play in artistic and creative endeavors. Such emotions and finer feelings are necessary and critical in all artistic efforts, from music, painting, photography and writing. Data has little place in art, however. But emotion, yes, for without it, there is no art.
    In science, however, it's data that informs the scientist and the researcher. Data is as essential to science as emotion is to art. Emotion only complicates the issue, and offers no validity of results. Journalists, actors, the media and entertainment industry are large on emotion, and rely on it to tell their stories, as it ought to be. Yet, as a group non-scientists have a hard time with numbers, statistics and data.Their stock-in-trade are emotions writ large.
    There's the rub. Such explains why many top-notch scientists and researchers are reluctant to enter the fray, the arena that journalists and the media shape and control, and no more so than the entertainment media. The fact that Dr. Offit, for example, makes himself available to the media, shows that he cares about setting the record straight, of course. He cares about scientific literacy, as well. But more important, it shows that he cares about the future well-fare of our children and our society.

    Academy of Science in France: An engraving by Sebastien Le Clerc from Mémoires pour servir a l'Histoire Naturelle des Animause (Paris, 1671), depicting King Louis XIV visting the Académie des Sciences.
    Scientific Illiteracy and Conspiracies

    Even so, it's important to dissect why the anti-vaccine lobby receives the media exposure it does, often at the expense of sound science and scientific policy Part of the reason centres on the meshing of news and entertainment into infotainment, which diminishes hard news and upgrades entertainment into one and the same thing. And when the media speaks to an audience in a "dumbed down" over-simplified emotionally laden message, essentially looking at its audience as uninformed patrons of entertainment, you get the results that we are now witnessing.

    So, one party responsible is the media and the way it operates in search of ratings and profits, becoming in many ways indistinguishable from the entertainment industry. But that does not fully explain the deep suspicions and distrust that too many people have of an industry that many decades ago was looked at with praise. Fifty years ago, when the Salk vaccine for polio was announced, there was singing and dancing in the streets, and thank you signs posted on storefront windows.

    Nation's Gratitude: Shopkeeper expresses a nation's gratitude for Dr. Salk's discovery: April 13, 1955.
    Photo Credit: March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation.
    Source: March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation; in book: Smith, Jane S. (1990). Patenting the Sun: Polio and The Salk Vaccine. New York: William Morrow. ISBN 0688094945

    Not so today. The difference between now and 50 years ago is an unhappiness of the motives and intents of the healthcare industry, and in particular Big Pharma. For many, it has come to represent everything wrong with health-care in America. It has come to symbolize excessive greed and unmitigated excesses of power and privilege. This sometimes lead to the formation of of conspiracy theories. To be sure, there is a great need to improve scientific literacy. But that will take effort on many fronts.

    The Trust Factor

    For one there's Big Pharma. While Wall Street might love them and their financial results, but not so Main Street, which has become suspicious. Therein lies the root of the problem: Public Trust. If I would have the ear of Big Pharma, and I don't, I would offer the following advice:

    At the next annual meeting, don't speak about financial results, about how much money you made, the earnings per share, the language of investors. The small percentage of people who really care about such things already know the financial results. Speak to the everyday people on Main Street.

    Speak about what you are doing to improve the lives of humanity in very real terms. Speak about real people with real results. Speak about how important your products are, in particular vaccines and life-saving drugs. Be as ebullient and upbeat about helping people as you have been historically as helping financial investors.

    Such an approach will win over the hearts and minds of everyday people. They want to believe that companies are doing good. But if all they hear is financial results, the impression made is that companies care only about money. The national conversation needs to be shifted, generally, away from financial results, which is not the raison d'être of the company, to human results. This has to be done at every opportunity—showing a human face to people. To explain science in human terms.

    Telling a Good Story

    It will take some doing and some training, but it's not impossible. Executives can look into themselves and remember what's truly essential. They can also look to people who are excellent communicators, the same-named actors, talk-show hosts and media stars, who speak to the people in a way they understand. It's about tapping into the human emotion, and telling a good story.

    Avoid PR agencies and others who only offer professional-looking slick campaigns, and have lost touch with the everyday people. Their campaigns are generally just that: slick campaigns stripped of any sincere human meaning.

    Look to people who are good communicators. That is what people like Jenny McCarthy, Oprah Winfrey, Larry King and Bill Maher and a host of Hollywood actors and media personalities excel at, tapping into the human emotion. In short, they tell stories. If the health-care sector wants to help people, they have to tell a good story, in a way that will encourage people and make them listen. It's not about money. It's about people and regaining their trust.

    Science in general has an excellent human story to tell, notably in how its continuing scientific advances in vaccines go a long way to not only bettering the lives of our children, but also eventually ridding society of those debilitating and deadly diseases that plagued our ancestors. We all have some work to do. Dr. Offit, among a few noteworthy others, have done their part.

    Now it's up to Big Pharma to do theirs.


    1. Knowledge grows, and our ability to know it all decreases. In this age of expanding information, people are ever more skeptical of science. We certainly need to do what we can to make it comprehensible. After all, democracy is the political realization of the scientific method.

    2. Dear Prof Jochnowitz,

      Very well said. Thank you.

    3. Infotainment is a good word. Its concept certainly illustrates the dilemma of today: the desire to be informed, while not having the necessary focus or kelim (vessels) to absorb it in any meaningful way, like the Professor said. We don't want to become the nudnicks of seemingly-prophetic works such as Fahrenheit 451, and I do not think that we have to be, as long as awareness keeps spreading.

    4. Thank you, Raizel, for your insightful comments.


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