Communication between scientists and the public- clear as mud

Did you understand the last scientific article that you read the first time you looked at it- most likely the response would be no, because “I’m not a scientist:”- this is the first pitfall in the effective communication of scientific literature.

I’m sure you all have been in a situation where you have picked up a scientific article and read it through only to realize that you actually do not understand a word that has been said? All the scientific jargon being used to confuse you in the hope that you will read it once believe what the researcher says and then move – we all have but the difference with us university students is that we will read it thoroughly many times if need be until we have absorbed it and fully understood it. Unfortunately for many people this is not the case. From reading articles many people lose trust in the researchers and do not believe what is being said amongst all the scientific language being used.

This mistrust has lead to numerous studies being undertaken to look into the effective manner in which scientific literature can be communicated efficiently and effectively to the every day folk. If the scientific papers written cannot be communicated properly to society, not only is it mostly a waste of time writing them however majority of society tend to lose trust in scientists as they believe that they are being deceived.

In the UK a study has been conducted and it was noted that over two thirds of the participants were definitely interested and of these, over three quarters declared that they were ‘fascinated’ by scientific findings. However this same survey also found that people are unsure as to who to trust and who not to trust when it comes to scientific findings. It was noted that out of all the groups’ university scientists were the most trusted however government scientists were the least trusted.

In order to build up this trust to effectively and efficiently communicate scientific knowledge, the knowledge of both parties has to be respected and responded to because scientists and the general public have very different views. Since most people gain their scientific knowledge from the Internet and television it is vital that communication is effective and efficient so as that the risk of miscommunication is reduced as much as possible.

There are many initiatives that are being put into place to increase the scientific knowledge of the general public. These include community events and national events that bring together scientists and the general public.

However I believe that much more time is needed before the degree of trust is increased between the public and scientists. As with anything as time goes on this information will continue to be communicated efficiently and effectively more and more and only time will tell how this will continue to evolve in the future.

Reference: Clarke, B. 2001. Strategies for improving communication between scientists and the public. Journal of Commercial Biotechnology 8(1): 51- 59.


3 comments so far

  1. Alan Gill on

    Hi there! (not sure who wrote this one)

    An interesting perspective you have on scientific literature! It is indeed true that academic papers are being written with more technical language and for fellow professional scientists – simply look back at publications such as Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and see how readable that is. John Gribbin makes a few comments about it in his book “Science: A History”, stating that it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that scientific writing became more for the elite rather than the general public. I am not too sure about your assertion that “All the scientific jargon being used to confuse you in the hope that you will read it once believe what the researcher says”, though.

    On the other hand, would the method of publishing scientific research (peer-reviewed journals) survive if every article were written so that the general public could understand it? Think about astrophysics research, or investigations into how different amino-acids fulfil their role in the human body. How many extra pages would need to be devoted to not only explaining the terminology, but explaining the concepts upon which the research was built? These publications would soon become the size of encyclopaedia and warrant the destruction of several forests in order to print them.

    I do agree with your comments that science needs to be accessible to society. There is so much to be gained by having a general populous that are engaged and interested in the sciences, and it is up to people like us (science communicators) and the rest of the scientific community to ensure that the work within our field is heard and understood. Personally, I feel that it should be done through a different channel to how scientists communicate with each other, but it needs to be done.

    • Steven Correia on

      Hey there,

      I would have to say that I quite agree with you Alan on the point made about scientific journals. Having a journal that is useful to the scientific world may need the use of jargon and concepts without the necessity of explaining them. It is difficult enough to get something published without the added diffuculy of the number of articles in a journal being halved due to long winded explanations.

      Although I support your point (whoever wrote the blog entry) on the general public not understanding the paper you do have to ask yourself how many people in the general public are spending their day reading through scientific journals. Additionally the ones that were must be the people who are interested in science anyway so probably wont mind the extra time taken to research the terminology or procedures. Yes science needs to be available to the public but does it have to be done at the cost of effective communication between scientists? I think not.

      At the end of the day the most useful strategy may be a separation of communication withing the scientific community and communication to the public. In keeping with what Alan has said a different channel must be used so that the public may understand the science we put forward to them but the integrity of scientific writings to others within the science community is not comprimised.

  2. Bahram Mirfakhraei on

    I think trust and knowledge play important roles in communication between scientists and the public. Thus, these two factors should be considered when trying to improve the communication level between the public and scientists. It seems that as time goes on experts and scientists are more trusted by the public. However, as you mentioned still more time is needed to reach a desirable degree of trust between public and scientists.
    In addition, if knowledge of the public is increased, it would be easier for scientists to communicate with the public. Moreover, the public would be able to trade-off the scientific findings and accept them by using their knowledge, and not only because a scientist have said it. This will result in an increase in degree of trust between the public and scientists. As you said more time is needed and only time will tell how communication between scientists and the public will improve.

    Bahram Mirfakhraei

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