Do scientists hinder science communication?

Mark Lynas writes on the Guardian blog about how not being a scientist is a help, not a hindrance, in enabling him to communicate science effectively. It is a well-written article, but does not convince me. Some people can write or otherwise communicate well, and some can't. Some are scientists, some aren't. You can't put an apple and an orange together and call it a gin and tonic.

There is plenty of good writing about science by people who are scientifically qualified, if Mark Lynas would care to look in his nearest bookshop, or at a site such as Brian Clegg's excellent Popular Science website – "science can be dull but it doesn't have to be like that", or Jennifer Rohn's LabLit — "the culture of science in fiction and fact". On the other hand, I agree with him that many scientists don't communicate science well, but those particular scientists are often communicating (badly!) to each other, not to the world at large.

On the other hand, there is a huge amount of what I can only call rubbish written about science by people who have no scientific training, who don't think critically, and/or who confuse emotion with fact. You only have to look at the masses of hysteria and error in (mainly) US blogs and websites about autism and MMR vaccines to see what I mean. But sometimes, scientific debate on blogs that aren't even primarily about science can be better than in the newspapers (whose science correspondents presumably have at least a first degree in some sort of science): see Books, Inq. the Epilogue for a case in point.

What to conclude from all this? Although I think Mark Lynas has made some sweeping oversimplifications in his post, I have to warm to the guy for concluding thus: "Having said all that, I am acutely aware that I am not a qualified expert in my own right, and that I need to tread very carefully when making judgements about work carried out by people who are, after all, the real experts. That is why I have so little time for climate sceptics, who claim to know better than those who have spent their entire professional lives investigating the physics of the atmosphere. That vast majority of those who dismiss the reality of global warming are simply ignorant – and arrogant, to boot. Now that's a statement that no scientist would probably make. But it's true nonetheless, and it's my job to tell you that." Spot on, Mark. (Who, by the way, just won the 2008 Royal Society prize for science books.)

1 thought on “Do scientists hinder science communication?

  1. I agree with your comments – a few folks can write well and clearly, and some happen to be scientists.
    One issue which has clouded things (on the US side of the pond, at least) is the assumption that if you do something professionally, your vested interest in maintaining your career outweighs the need to tell the real story. So an insider, who knows what she is talking about, is also suspect entirely because of that. She isn’t considered suspect because she’s fallen outside of scientific objectivity – perhaps by advocating a specific postion or policy. She’s suspect because she’s a part of the “establishment.” There are often some very good reasons for that suspicion, but its also been carried much too far, much too often.
    In the fictional, storytelling world of TV, movies and novels – where I get the impression the majority of folks get their information and impressions on science – actually being reasonably accurate or realistic is at the bottom of the list of attributes that qualify a project as worthy of exposure to the marketplace. The LabLit site takes a hard look at that.

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