Communicating science

Last night, just before switching the lights out at Chez 6000, I caught sight of this link telling me “why scientists are losing the fight to communicate science to the public”, and shared by Jacques, along with this excerpt:

Tellingly, Gawande refers to the ‘scientific community’; and he’s absolutely right, there. Most science communication isn’t about persuading people; it’s self-affirmation for those already on the inside. Look at us, it says, aren’t we clever?
That’s not communication. It’s not changing minds and it’s certainly not winning hearts and minds.
It’s tribalism.

Well, I thought, that should be good for a read. And then I fell asleep.
Understandably too: it had been a long day in the lab.

So, when I woke up today, and once my morning duties were out of the way, I did read it.

“Hmm,” I thought, “Not quite, mate.”

And then I wrote this.

It’s not that I disagree with everything that Richard P Grant says. Not at all. It’s just that, for me, he misses out on several important points regarding “scientists” “communicating” “science” to the “public”.

Scientists, by definition, do science. If they are in a position whereby they have done science to such a point that it’s something considered worth communicating to the public, then it would seem reasonable to assume that they are pretty good at doing science. At no point, however, does it follow that they are good at communicating this, especially to the public.
So who do we appoint to communicate our science to the public? Well, that’s where things begin to fall apart.

A lot of science is pretty technical, and there’s definitely a skill in being able to translate that technical language into something that the general public can understand. That’s not belittling the public (not intentionally, anyway). Every profession has its own specialised terms and language: legal, building, engineering, accounting, retail, whatever. The scientist above is fluent in Sciencese – they speak it every working day and have done for years. But they might as well be speaking Azerbaijani if they’re going to use it to communicate their exciting findings to the public. (Obviously, this point assumes that the presentation in question is not taking place in Baku.)
Thus, 99% of the time, using the scientist to communicate science to the public is out. After all, when we try it, it can go horribly wrong. (Sidenote: I still get angry about that story.)

“Fortunately”, we now have celebrity scientists like the Peter Pan-esque Brian Cox; celebrity scientists who are gainfully employed in the art of wandering past radio telescopes in far-flung lands, speaking slowly and waving their hands, demystifying science and providing it in an understandable, bitesize format to the general public. But there are problems here as well: often, the science is so dumbed-down that it’s near unrecognisable as actual science. Again, not necessarily Prof Cox’s fault. However, Grant’s use of the phrase describing Cox as “performing a smackdown” highlights another issue – these scientists are primarily celebs now – it’s about performing and drawing viewers, and the science is often lost, buried in the making of a popular show.

We could go to the newspapers. Or… er… not. Because then, we have to add another dash of sensationalism (along with the inevitable misunderstanding and inaccuracy) to the mix. In my experience, many of the journalists writing about science in the popular press don’t really actually understand the science they are writing about. Certainly in newspaper reports about the science that I know about, the stories regularly miss the point, and filled with wild misinterpretations and are, in a lot of cases, simply not correct. When you’re writing about a field that is founded on logic and rationale – “cutting through bullshit and getting to the truth of the matter is pretty much the job description” – inaccurate reporting is actually worse than not reporting at all.

But the fact is that most science is really rather dull. It’s mundane, routine stuff. Landing a washing machine sized satellite on a comet half a billion kilometers from earth really is the sharp end of things. Most of the stuff we do on a daily basis leaves us cold and unfulfilled, let alone the public.

But then, the public to whom we’re allegedly losing the fight to communicate science. In addition to the challenges I’ve described above, what about them?

Yeah, they’re problematic.

Can I be honest here? Because it’s not just (as Grant points out) that “people don’t like being told what to do”. Sure, that is a factor, but there are a couple of bigger elephants in the room: generally, the public don’t actually care about science, and generally they are too stupid to understand it anyway oops – I mean: “you’ve got a population that is – on the whole – not scientifically literate”. Yeah. That’s it.

But then, do the public actually need to have science communicated to them? When I walk into a lift in a tall building, I don’t need to know how the motor works, nor why the cable chosen was the cable chosen. I just assume (hopefully correctly) that there is an expert who has made these decisions for me (hopefully correctly). I don’t need to know why, and actually, I’m fairly uninterested as well. Maybe scientists need to understand that people actually don’t care about what we do and what we achieve. They just want to go to the doctor and be given the correct antibiotic or other drug, they don’t care how it was discovered.
This “fight to communicate science to the public” – does it really need fighting?

For me, perhaps, the saving grace in all of this are popular science magazines. The higher end ones: New Scientist, Scientific American, DiscoverNat Geo (to a point, anyway). These are scientists best bet in communicating science to the public. They’re technical enough to be challenging and to help people learn, but without being inaccessible. And, perhaps more importantly, because they are voluntarily purchased and read by those individuals who want to be told about these things.

As for the excerpt shared by Jacques and which opened this rather long op-ed (sorry), well yes, a lot of science communication is amongst the “scientific community”, and maybe some of it is for self-affirmation and validation. A lot of it is essential to establish collaborative and symbiotic research and progress though. And anyway, that aspect of scientific communication isn’t what Grant’s otherwise generally valid article is about: it comes across as a bit of an unnecessary (if not entirely inaccurate) dig. There’s a whole other piece to be written about the way science is funded, communicated and carried out in academic and/or research institutions. It’s a lot longer and more boring than this one, I promise. And I’m not going to write it.

In the meantime, that line on scientific communication: “Look at us, it says, aren’t we clever?”
Well yes, actually we are – it’s just that we’re not very good at telling you about it and you don’t really care anyway.

Be kind to one another…

Wise words from wise wordsmith Jacques Rousseau on his synapses blog this morning, as he admonished some (or more) atheists for exploiting the death of SA author Andre Brink

to score political points for atheism

I can actually think of very few occasions when it’s acceptable to use the death of anyone to score political points for anything. Much like those “No Fly-Tipping” signs you see at the side of the road, this is one of those things that I don’t even think should need saying.

Evidently, I’m incorrect. (Yes, it happens.) (As does the fly-tipping).

It was the choice of words used when expressing condolence that apparently upset some atheists. “RIP” obviously doesn’t fit with their (or my) view of what actually happens when someone dies. But as Jacques points out, it’s also:

a shorthand for extending commiserations, for demonstrating shared membership of a community of caring, and for marking the passing of someone who was considered valuable to that community.

It’s not that the semantics aren’t important here. They are.
It’s more that being judgmental about people using words and phrases which are – in your view – technically incorrect, and more especially, being judgmental about them at a time when emotions are already running high, is not going to change anyone’s mind – certainly not the way you would like it changed anyway.

Yes, I’d prefer for us to use alternatives. But for any alternatives to gain traction takes time. And motivating for them, and gaining consensus for their usage, won’t be easy if you approach that task by being an ass.

Yep. There’s a time and a place for this. Neither of which were ‘the immediate period after Brink’s death’ and ‘on the internet’. Get a grip.

Personally, I’m less inclined to chase people down because of the words and phrases that they use in this context. Live and let live, and yes, educate (but do try to choose your moment more sensibly).
In fact, I even used a quote from Ephesians 4:32 for the title of this post. Just because something comes from what you consider to be a work of fiction doesn’t mean that it has to necessarily be a bad idea.
You only have to look at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate River for evidence of that.

The best bits of a bad job

I’m not going to get into the Charlie Hebdo thing. I don’t have the time or careful articulation to express my feelings accurately. I even had to call it a “thing” to avoid using a term that might be considered inappropriate by one side or the other. And therein lies the problem: people are taking sides.

An incident which should perhaps have the power to be either divisive or uniting seems (disappointingly, but maybe unsurprisingly), being used exclusively as the former, rather than the latter. An opportunity (albeit a difficult one) missed?

There are about a million (I counted and read them all) different “thinkpieces” about the whole thing already, but here are a couple of them which I found most interesting, with a nice passage from each:

From Jacques Rousseau, on free speech:

…it’s a glib, and oftentimes lazy, inference to draw that it’s “religion” that causes these things. I would think it rare that religion per se makes you homicidal, but that instead, folk who are capable of such things will find religious inspiration for doing them.

If your religion allows you to be led to such barbarism, there’s barbarism in you to be exploited. That doesn’t mean that religion X (or ideology X) cannot be a causal factor in barbarism more often than religion or ideology Y.


Other issues are perhaps not as easy or unambiguous as we might prefer. For starters, the right to express a view doesn’t always mean it’s a good idea to do so.

Yes. Just like Julius and his “Shoot the Boer” song:

What does it achieve when role models sing Dubul’ iBunu?
And yet these individuals make a conscious decision to do these things. Why? Where is the value in that?

It’s more than just the lack of any positive worth in these actions that depresses me. It’s the fact that these things are divisive and harmful and yet they are completely avoidable. Julius Malema, Councillor Greyling et al. simply need to make better decisions.
So, rather allow Malema to sing Dubul’ iBunu and then rejoice when he chooses not to.

And then this, on the possible deeper motives for the attack, from Informed Comment:

Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.

Most of France will also remain committed to French values of the Rights of Man, which they invented. But an insular and hateful minority will take advantage of this deliberately polarizing atrocity to push their own agenda. Europe’s future depends on whether the Marine LePens are allowed to become mainstream. Extremism thrives on other people’s extremism, and is inexorably defeated by tolerance.

It’s an interesting theory. And already, there are reports of “grenades being thrown into a mosque” near Paris.

So what can we take from this?

1. The preservation of the right to free speech is imperative, and
2. One cannot and should not conflate the views and actions of (religious) fundamentalists and extremists with those of everyday followers of religion.

But then there’s this sort of thing:

…rendering those two ideals completely and immediately incompatible. (And angering me quite a lot, as an aside. I’m not about to depict Muhammad, but that’s only because I don’t see any value in doing so (see my wish for Julius above), and most certainly not because Farah says I’m not allowed to.)

So, here’s a third thing we kinda all knew anyway:

3. This isn’t going to be sorted out any time soon.

A quick explanation

…or “Why Jacques is right – and wrong”.
…or “Why I wrote what I wrote”.
…or “Meh, whatevs”.

I really don’t want to add to this molehill in my teacup, but I feel that I – and maybe others – might want some explanation (and need some clarification) on my rationale behind the women24 post I wrote on Friday, just for when we fondly look back on these halcyon days. My twitter, email and blog have since been alight with misquotes, unfounded allegations, hyperbolic extrapolation and general hatred.

It’s been such fun. Really.

Jacques Rousseau wrote about that post here and set out – as always – a compelling and sagacious case on why he feels that I was incorrect to have used the term “mixed messages” when calling women24 out on their coverage of the distasteful and bizarre spectacle that is ‘The Red Carpet’ at the annual State of the Nation Address (SONA). That said, and despite the absence of the ‘challenging vocabulary’ for which he are famed, I still don’t agree with him.

The argument against my stance presented by Jacques and others seems to rest upon the fact that the hate-filled, vitriol-spewing (LOLz) gallery I used as an example was from last year’s SONA and that’s editorial policies have changed since then.
Jacques and others suggest that this invalidates my message. And, if one works from that foundation, and uses simple logic, Jacques and others are absolutely correct.

But here’s my issue. Jacques hints (and others have triumphantly asserted) that I was unaware that the gallery in question was from 2013. Not so. No, I state that very clearly in my blog post.
For me, the date of the pictures and the comments is irrelevant, because if anyone searches on for SONA fashion, they’ll find that vindictive 2013 gallery right next to this year’s wonderfully positive one. You don’t have to be a regular reader of to do a search; you don’t have to have the context that Ms Radloff et al are only nice about the fashion choices of politicians these days.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m delighted that at some point between February 2013 and last Thursday evening, came to the conclusion that shaming politicians over what they choose to wear to an annual ceremonial event wasn’t a nice thing to do (actors are evidently still fair game though) (unless there’s been another sea change in editorial policy since January 13th).

Anyway: well done, welcome to the 21st century.

But there’s nothing on that 2013 gallery that says “Actually, we’ve realised since we published this that it was a bit of shit thing to do and so we’ve stopped doing it now”. There’s nothing in that faux holier than thou “OMG, How Could You?” post from Friday that says “Although, in fairness, we were also still doing this until very recently too”.
Moreover, and perhaps more realistically, as far as I’m aware (and I’m quite sure that someone from that band of merry women would have pointed it out to me if it existed), there’s nothing on telling us about what – let’s face it – is quite a big shift in editorial policy for a women’s “lifestyle site” and one which they should surely be proud of.
This is something that Jacques eludes to as well.

So, yes. If any one of those things was clear, then yes, the foundation of Jacques’ argument would be solid and maybe I’d look a bit foolish (Hell, it’s happened before…). But their asking “since when do we expect members of parliament to look and dress like A-List celebrities? And why do we care?” and “can’t we at least let them wear what they want?”, just because they changed their minds on how they choose to report that, and while still having that 2013 gallery readily accessible on their site, well yes, that for me clearly amounts to sending out “mixed messages”.

This really isn’t meant to reignite any flames of argument. As I stated a few hundred words ago, it’s merely an explanation and clarification of why I said what I said and why I’m happy to stand by that position.
The difference between that position and Jacques’ comes down simply to a difference in opinion, and as far as I know, there are no set rules about that sort of thing, other than “it’s fine to have them”.

And on that note, let’s just remind ourselves of Jacques’ final paragraph:

When we get around to engaging each other – on these and other issues – let’s try not to assume the worst, though. It’s getting more and more difficult to talk about issues without presumptions of guilt or virtue, and we all play a part in creating – but if we care to be more careful, undermining – a culture in which blaming, judging, and shouting are valued more than understanding is.

Preach, brother…

Thinking Things Through

Thinking Things Through is always a good idea. Without sound research, consideration and analysis, we’d forever be making poor decisions, and it’s rare that any good comes of having made a poor decision.

We waste time, money, energy and attention by not Thinking Things Through… Our beliefs inform our actions – and if beliefs are used to support irrational choices, then our society is likely to be less free as a result.

To that end, the Free Society Institute (FSI) is holding a conference on 1st December 2013 called Thinking Things Through with an excellent line-up of speakers, addressing many of the obstacles to a free society, such as “oppressive or irrational legislation, moral confusions, bigotry and prejudice, and misconceptions about science and secularism”.

This is a great opportunity for (at least) two reasons: Firstly, that it’s a chance to hear and engage with some of the country’s great minds and social commentators in fields such as science, journalism and philosophy and secondly, to enlighten yourself as to how these issues and obstacles could affect (and are affecting) our society.

The line-up includes MC Chester Missing (what could possibly go wrong?), Eusebius McKaiser, Gareth Cliff (think beyond the Breakfast Show, really) and The Guru, Jacques Rousseau. It looks like it will be a really fascinating day and I would be there in the manner of an ursine if circumstances allowed. But just because I’m missing out doesn’t mean that you should. Tickets are R200 for students, R400 for the rest of us and there’s also an option to tag a half price annual membership of the FSI on to your ticket, should you so desire.

Click here for direct link to ticketing

Thinking Things Through, hosted by the Free Society Institute.
10:00am, Sunday 1st December 2013.
SciBono Discovery Centre, Johannesburg.