Engaging with the real world
Science is the most successful method we have of understanding the world around us. By building abstract models that simplify and represent phenomena and collecting empirical data from structured experiments, we can draw conclusions and predict actions and reactions in a way unsurpassed by other fields of human inquiry. As a result, science has created amazingly successful theories such as evolution, atoms and quanta that, thanks to engineering and technology, impact every part of our lives from clothing to medicine, from communications to food, from housing to electricity.
Scientific and social values
In order to do this, science creates not only idealised, controlled physical experimental environments, but also idealised, controlled social environments. The Mertonian CUDOS norms of Communalism, Universality, Disinterestedness, Originality and Scepticism describe an ideal world in which the knowledge generated by science is self-correcting and unaffected by the desires and interests of those creating the knowledge. So integral to the scientific endeavour are they that they are typically only observed when individuals deviate from them: scientific fraud, a breach of disinterestedness, causes shockwaves both within the scientific community and headlines in the press.
However, most members of the public don’t live in this abstract, idealised world. One of the criticisms of the UK government’s actions during the BSE crisis was that the scientific advice given to ministers did not include contextual knowledge. The regulations on the preparation of beef were impractical and largely ignored by the butchers, resulting in contaminated foodstuffs continuing to enter the market for five years. The butchers, valuing their livelihood above strict adherence to impractical regulations, made ‘unscientific’ decisions.
This gap between abstract science and the real world arises because of the different values of the people using the facts. Whilst scientists may deplore that not everyone knows that an electron is smaller than an atom, or how evolution works, these have little practical application to people in everyday life.
This is not say that the public are not interested in science – research consistently shows the contrary – but different priorities drive people to seek different types of knowledge at different times. We know that when faced with imminent or realised risk people become highly motivated to seek relevant information and develop highly sophisticated understandings of the issues: just ask someone living with a rare disease about their condition.
Values shape understanding
How, then, can we presume to talk about science without acknowledging the importance and role of values in shaping our understandings of the world?
Pollution is only bad if a damaged ecosystem is less good than a healthy ecosystem. Research into particle physics is worthless unless the knowledge is valued. The value we place on the environment and on neutrinos is core not only to why we do it, but how we explain it afterwards.
Negotiation, not imposition
Effective science communicators, therefore, bridge two worlds: the world of the abstract and idealised, and the world of the concrete and real. Effective communicators engage with their audience and develop a common language that incorporates abstract models and real world experience, and common values and understandings. Good science communication is about negotiation, not imposition, and the best communicators are as transformed as the public they engage with.
Some people have suggested that we should focus on facts and evidence, that values aren’t relevant. I say that ignoring values undermines effective communication and raises new barriers between research and reality. Without discussing values, science communicators are abdicating their responsibilities as professionals, not only to explain the implications of their research to the public, but also to understand the public’s view of their work. Without values, communicators are not only talking to the hand, they are completely ignoring the face.
David Waldock is a graduate student with the Open University studying for an MSc in Science and society. His research interest is in the public construction of scientific knowledge and how different publics view science and scientists. firstname.lastname@example.org