If you’ve ever tried to read a dense Nature article about a topic you’re interested in, “science” can seem a bit intimidating and alienating. Scientists tend to get caught up in the details that no one else really cares about, and don’t focus enough on explaining what to do with the knowledge, how to apply it to life, or where the research could take us in the future. As a result, most of us don’t know how science benefits us despite using it in our daily lives (think cell phones, medicine and air conditioning.)
This is because scientists think that the science should speak for itself, but tend to forget that most of us don’t speak “science”. Unfortunately, ineffective (or misleading) science communication is causing an opinion gap between scientists and the non-scientific general public. A 2015 survey from Pew Research Group and the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that their scientists and the public tend to disagree with each others’ views across a lot of scientific issues. Why?
It’s a big question, but one reason has to do with how science gets oversimplified when reported on in the media. Or as Douglas Adams best said it in The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!"
The truth is, lots of research isn’t as black-and-white as we’d like it to be. For non-scientists who don’t understand that science has grey areas, and look to it for definitive answers, that leaves a lot of things up for (mis)interpretation. This often happens when complex science gets boiled down to headlines designed to appeal to our emotional biases about a given topic, biases that are so powerful they can shape our opinion more than the science itself.
Let’s take genetically modified (GM) foods for example. The Pew survey found that most scientists believe GM foods are safe to consume, but most consumers don’t. Furthermore, two-thirds of the public polled are skeptical, believing that scientists don’t have a clear understanding about the health effects of GM foods. But based on what is known today, science does have a good understanding — major health groups such as the World Health Organization have reviewed independent research and say GM foods are safe to eat. This is just one example of people making inaccurate interpretations about scientific research because of poor public communication from the scientific field.
Scientists are aware of this communication conundrum that causes misinformation to spread -- over 80% said that limited public knowledge about science is a major problem. It’s a problem because it leads to people into not caring about how science affects them. And without the support of the public, critical research could lose its funding, or government policies could be put in place that aren’t based on sound evidence. That stuff sounds boring to a lot of people, but impacts us all. Scientific advances (or disbelief in them) affect the quality of the water we drink, the safety of the cars we drive, the medicines that save our lives, and the laws around how we access and regulate these things. It’s important that there’s an open communication channel between the public and scientists because having a basic understanding of how such things work helps us make more informed decisions about them in the future.