Shadow of ignorance veiling society despite more science communication

19 04 2016

imagesI’ve been thinking about this post for a while, but it wasn’t until having some long, deep chats today with staff and students at Simon Fraser University‘s Department of Biological Sciences (with a particular hat-tip to the lovely Nick Dulvy, Isabelle Côté & John Reynolds) that the full idea began to take shape in my brain. It seems my presentation was a two-way street: I think I taught a few people some things, and they taught me something back. Nice.

There’s no question at all that science communication has never before been so widespread and of such high quality. More and more scientists and science students are now blogging, tweeting and generally engaging the world about their science findings. There is also an increasing number of professional science communication associations out there, and a growing population of professional science communicators. It is possibly the best time in history to be involved in the generation and/or communication of scientific results.

Why then is the public appreciation, acceptance and understanding of science declining? It really doesn’t make much sense if you merely consider that there has never been more good science ‘out there’ in the media — both social and traditional. For the source literature itself, there has never before been as many scientific journals, articles and even scientists writing.

So clearly it’s not declining access to information that’s the problem, nor is it a retracting body of human scientific knowledge (obviously). Many have pondered why nonsensical political extremism, religiosity, declining educational standards, scientific denialism, conspiracy theories and evidence-free dogmas are rising despite our unparalleled access to knowledge. Few answers are forthcoming, although it is my own hypothesis that we have finally entered a phase of compensatory resource competition (human density feedback) where the fight to dominate dwindling resources engenders more evidence-free ideologies. In fact, I wager that the first phase of such density feedback in humans is manifested as an ideological response, rather than a behavioural or demographic one (of course, the latter will inevitably follow).

So it is entirely plausible (although still hypothetical at this stage) that despite our increasing frequency and quality of science communication, society is still slipping into an Endarkenment1. This potentially negates everything I’ve ever said or written about the value of science communication, and certainly would make all those already in the business (or contemplating moving into it) question their life ambitions.

The reality is thankfully a little more encouraging than the simple story told by this gloomy picture. The reason there is a silver lining is that at least from the perspective of actively communicating scientists, the people who matter most in making society-changing policies are more likely to know about their expertise and their good, evidence-based suggestions for improvement than if the scientists only published in academic journals2. I’ll use one example to illustrate this.

Australia has an appalling environmental record and laughable (agonising) climate-change policies. Our governing politicians are either outright climate-change and/or science denialists, or they couldn’t give a rat’s filthy bum about the disastrous state of our planetary life-support system. Yet despite the existence of these arsehats, every single municipal and regional council, state government and even relevant federal ministry has active climate change-mitigation and environmental policies. Sure, they are for the most part entirely inadequate, but at least they exist, and the bureaucrats responsible for their implementation are getting on with their jobs despite the inane politics happening above their heads. When these policy makers need advice and data, they inevitably turn to scientists to provide it. Those scientists who do the best job of communicating their findings are therefore more likely to be noticed by the bureaucrats and invited to contribute their solutions.

These are the people to whom science communicators are now speaking, and thankfully, these are the people that matter most when it comes to making decisions about environmental protection and remediation. Do not become too stressed by the ecological ignorance of Jane or Joe Bloggs on the street, or the near-total lack of environmental concern in the political discourse; instead, make sure that your message is heard clearly by the decision makers who have the most incentive, power and desire to change society for the better.

I am not, however, convinced that we as a society will get our act together in time to avoid really horrible problems down the track, but at least we can slow the process of degradation by talking (indirectly and directly) to the people who matter most.

1The opposite of Enlightenment.

2Practically no one outside of academia reads them.

CJA Bradshaw


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6 responses

2 05 2016
onebendintheriver

I think the late Terry Pratchett had it right “A lie can run around the world while the truth is getting its boots on.”
It’s easy to fly kites and make suppositions, so much harder to do the work of finding out what’s really happening. Perhaps web articles should be colour coded to show how much research supports what they say – grading from red for straight opinion, to blue for the result of years of hard work.

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28 04 2016
The Gross Anatomy of Climate Denial – The IES Blog

[…] In a recent blogpost on Conservationbytes, CJA Bradshaw laments the fact that despite widespread and higher quality science communication, there is still so much “nonsensical political extremism, religiosity, declining educational standards, scientific denialism, conspiracy theories and evidence-free dogmas.” Bradshaw’s own theory is that that “we have finally entered a phase of compensatory resource competition (human density feedback) where the fight to dominate dwindling resources engenders more evidence-free ideologies.” https://conservationbytes.com/2016/04/19/shadow-of-ignorance-veiling-society-despite-more-science-co… […]

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22 04 2016
Alan

One of the things that contributes to this increasing dichotomy, IMO, is the web. Or, more specifically, our ability to read information that only supports our current PoV, thus reinforcing our position and making us feel good… and making us increasingly smart or increasingly arsehatish (sp?).

I agree that we need to aim at policymakers and also aim to partner with others who can distribute/communicate our findings to the general public in ways that they can understand.

Keep up your good work!

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21 04 2016
artlikker

“Our governing politicians are either outright climate-change and/or science denialists, or they couldn’t give a rat’s filthy bum about the disastrous state of our planetary life-support system”— perfectly expressed CJAB. I would add our neo-liberal politicians simply follow the money and what they think are most votes. There’s no short term money or votes in climate change alleviation policy (or ecology research). And lets face it, change is a very risky business esp. in the short term.

In response to Paula; I agree artists, filmakers, writers, computer game makers etc. are best able to tell the ecology story in a way which convinces (and this is not necessarily logical), but most artists do not understand the importance of maintaining natural systems or biodiversity. Artists are primarily concerned with culture, so most arts practice is human centered. Ecology and many other science disciplines by their nature is not seen as part of the broader community and is therefore not on the radar of most artists. Maybe scienctists could embrace the idea of engaging with or educating artists, or at least encourage artists who are working in this field.

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19 04 2016
Paula Peeters

One of the problems of science is that it doesn’t usually stir the heart – unless you are a scientist that is.This may be why many people are just not that interested in scientific information, no matter how clear and coherent it is. Furthermore, scientists who try to communicate with emotion or artistic licence risk being seen as suspect by their peers – not objective and rational enough. This is the bind that many scientists and science communicators find themselves in.
People also tend to tune out and turn away from things that are scary or unpleasant or make them feel despair. Instead, they seek hope and inspiration. Perhaps painting a picture of a better future world would be more effective than beating people over the head with everything that’s wrong at the moment? At least it might make them listen a bit longer…

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19 04 2016
Salvador Herrando

Not everybody is cut out for being a good communicator as much as not every scientist is cut out for being a good statistician. Training and hard work compensates for that so it seems important that those two aspects are strengthened in the curricula of modern scientists.

On the hand, I think each of us (scientists) at a given point in our careers must be humble enough to embark on communication (and stats) activities proportional to our skills. For instance, I find writing much easier* that talking – to audiences, so I have to focus on the former as I make progress in the latter.

* Easiness = amount of effort needed to prepare information that I will make public _and_ to articulate pros and cons about such information once it has reached the public.

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