Once upon a time, I was a talker. I didn’t do much shutting up. But while this annoyed some (many), it often worked out for me. I was good at having conversations with people—at talking to any and everyone as if they were my equals. And then, a few years ago, I became a scientist. I couldn’t tell you how it happened, or even quite when. I just know that while meandering between college and grad school, I acquired the skills that earned me this identity. At the time, it wasn’t of much consequence. There was no engraved trophy or induction ceremony, no membership fee to pay. For the most part, it meant an ego boost: the knowledge that I was (just barely) capable enough to design scientific experiments, analyze data, and have conversations—that is, with other scientists.
In graduate school, I first heard the term “general public” from the other side of the fence. Suddenly, I was wheeling and dealing in the private, elite trade of science, far from prying eyes. I felt as though I had been inducted into a secret society: I had transitioned out of the common masses and joined the ranks of the fabled Jedi. That assumption certainly wasn’t my first mistake in life—but it was one of my greatest.
The minute I started othering the general public, I compromised my ability to be an effective science communicator. Scientists are often juxtaposed with the general public, as if the two are separate, mutually exclusive entities—i.e., “not one of us.” This attitude, held on either side of the divide, makes scientists and non-scientists feel culturally inaccessible to each other. Even more problematic is when the comparison denotes a hierarchy: when scientists (or any other professionals) are put on a pedestal that seems out of reach for the general public.
Scientists are, just like everyone else, a subset of the general public—that is, “people.” For each and every one of us, there is at least one field that is unknown, a field in which someone else considers us the general public. Science itself began as a hobby of members of the community looking to solve puzzles about the world around them—people we now refer to as citizen scientists. Where we see differences in jargon and degrees attained, we should instead be focused on shared scientific curiosity and common goals for public health. And yet, a gap persists.
Today, improving science communication is a more urgent issue than ever. Politics has increasingly invaded the discourse of science, and public trust of scientists and their work has decreased over the past five years. What’s more, there is significant disagreement between scientists and non-scientists about several politically charged issues. For instance, while 91 percent of scientists believe that genetically modified foods are safe for human consumption, only 37 percent of the overall population of U.S. adults agrees. Furthermore, while 90 percent of scientists say climate change is occurring due to human activity, only half of U.S. adults believe this.
Perhaps most alarmingly, our new president’s most recent budget proposal advocates for 20 percent budget cuts to the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy. Without the support of the community, innovation is in a particularly precarious position. We must address the conversations, or lack thereof, between researchers and the general public.
Both scientists and non-scientists must commit to not only communication, but also a drastic reassessment of how we communicate with each other. I believe mending the rift starts with disabusing ourselves of three key assumption ns.
First, we often assume that the gap between scientists and the general public is about knowledge.
Maybe that’s true, to some extent; after all, scientists are equipped with a unique vocabulary and specialized training. But the discrepancies aren’t just about the facts—they’re about how we present them. If we trust the numbers above, it’s safe to say the general public is pretty disillusioned with science right now. And I can’t blame them. History has given us several reasons to distrust the correspondence between science and progress. While research has yielded life-changing discoveries ranging from electricity to antibiotics, it has also been an incredible agent of destruction, including the atomic bomb and eugenics.
Additionally, instances of compromised scientific integrity have peppered history and current events. Scientific organizations were painted in a dark light in the mid-20th century due to widely publicized research fraud perpetuated by the tobacco and lead industries. More recently, the infamous fallout from the scientific fraud perpetuated by Andrew Wakefield about the role of vaccines in autism further engendered skepticism of the scientific method. And Donald Trump eagerly capitalized on coal miners’ distrust of the push for green energy to further his campaign.
What’s more, scientists are only trained to talk to scientists. Becoming a scientist means building a skill set and vocabulary to communicate with other scientists. As we ascend the ranks, the category of “other scientists” shrinks and dwindles until it’s only those in our field. Science as it stands is not normal conversation.
But it doesn’t have to be this way: learning to communicate with the “general public” is the way we were first taught. Dan Kahan of Yale University advocates for a model of cultural cognition, in which communication occurs most effectively when doled out from someone we’re already inclined to trust, whether that’s within a political party or even a certain ethnicity. One way around this is to tackle communication with a set of ethnically, sexually, and politically diverse faces. Not only does this allow us to appeal to a broad audience, but it also demonstrates that different groups can come together behind a worthy cause.
Importantly, this also means being receptive to the perspectives and concerns of the general public, rather than simply dismissing the misconceptions we hear as false. Building the relationships between scientists and non-scientists is the same as building any relationship founded on trust: open communication and accepting culpability. We can churn out all the facts we want, but none of it will do any good if no one is willing to listen. It’s time to step off our soapboxes and have conversations on level ground.
Second, we assume that there is finality in science.
This is a mistake that happens to equal extents in both scientists and non-scientists, but in very different ways. The worst thing scientists can do is assume they’re experts. Once we are lulled into the complacency of expertise, we are discouraged from learning and, worse, we distance ourselves from others. I chose science because it was the only profession that would pay me to be a student for the rest of my life—to have my beliefs challenged, my perspectives widened. We need to be a little more humble and admit that scientists don’t have all the answers either.
Next, a great difficulty in communicating science is that it’s almost never clear-cut or final—a difficult fact to swallow for most people looking to quickly glean information from the media. All data requires interpretation, which is subject to bias, and all results are preliminary. But hypotheses and tentative conclusions don’t make for good headlines.
When I earn my Ph.D., I might be able to say, “We think we may have come across something that explains a miniscule portion of a complex pathway that might be correlated with a slightly elevated risk of contracting this disease—but our findings are pretty specific to this one population studied at this point in time under these conditions.”
Meanwhile, media headlines say, “Lemons cure cancer!”
Science can’t compete with sensationalized misinformation. To combat this, scientists can publicize their process, rather than just their results. Rebuilding rapport between scientists and non-scientists means opening new lines of communication and increasing transparency—not only about scientific discoveries, but how we arrive at them. Science is incremental and in constant flux. In highlighting the scientific method in our communication efforts, scientists can also encourage non-scientists to look at data in totality and form their own conclusions and criticisms.
Third, we assume effective communication is inevitable.
The playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” As scientists, we often assume that once we put information out there, our job is done (or worse, that communication is still occurring in our absence). But this isn’t the case. Science is conducted for the greater good of the community—so why aren’t we engaging with the largest beneficiaries of our work? As scientists, we should engage in conversations with the general public whenever possible, whether it’s over Thanksgiving dinner or by volunteering at a local high school science fair.
At a minimum, scientist or non-scientist, each of us should commit to simply showing up. Without participation on both sides, communication doesn’t happen, and we can’t challenge each other to relay information effectively. Communication is a conversation, not a series of lectures. Don’t just expect that conversations will happen—take part in making them happen.
Katherine Wu is a third year graduate student at Harvard University and Co-Director of the science communication organization Science in the News. She studies stress response systems in the causative agent of tuberculosis.