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Friday, March 20, 2009

Nature "Does" Science Communication

The past few weeks has seen Nature (and Nature Neuroscience) run a series of features about science communication - science journalism, science blogging, and so on. They're all worth reading, and very readable, but, perhaps inevitably they raise more questions than they answer.

The basic assumption behind all of the articles is that communicating science to the public is A Good Thing, and scientists should be trying to help with it - whether by blogging about science, or helping to write press releases, or talking more to journalists.
I'm not sure about this. Sure - good, accurate information about science should be available to anyone who looks for it. But the same goes for history, or politics, or cricket. If people want to know about something, they should be able to read good stuff that's been written about it. I think there is an awful lot of great science writing out there, both in books, in print, and online. You can never have enough of it, though, so scientists should certainly be encouraged to write about science or help others to write about science in this way.

What I find questionable, though, is the idea that people who aren't really interested in science should be the targets of science communication. The Nature editorial of 19th March warns that
An average citizen is unlikely to search the web for the Higgs boson or the proteasome if he or she doesn't hear about it first on, say, a cable news channel. And as mass media sheds its scientific expertise, science's mass market presence will become harder to maintain.
Which is true, but I can't help but ask, why should the average citizen know or care about the Higgs boson? I find the Higgs boson quite interesting, although I admit, not as interesting as the brain. But I don't think that everyone should share my tastes. Personally, I find cricket deadly boring; I've never read the cricket pages of the newspaper, and I don't think I ever will. But some people are really into it, and good for them. If you prefer cricket to particle physics, who am I, or the editors of Nature, to say that's a problem?

The obvious response to what I've just said is that in a democracy, people have to know about science, because a lot of the major challenges facing our society involve science. If the public are ignorant about science, we won't be able to deal effectively with, say, climate change. There's probably some truth in that, but I suspect it's more important to educate people about climate change specifically, than to try to get them interested in Higgs bosons and hope that their passion for physics somehow "spills over" into a concern for the environment.

So, personally, I'm not really concerned if the public aren't interested in science. What concerns me is when they're actively fed inaccurate information about science. This just my personal take, but I would far rather that the newspapers never run another story about neuroimaging, say, than they keep on running rubbish ones.

ResearchBlogging.orgNature (2009). It's good to blog Nature, 457 (7233), 1058-1058 DOI: 10.1038/4571058a

Brumfiel, G. (2009). Science journalism: Supplanting the old media? Nature, 458 (7236), 274-277 DOI: 10.1038/458274a

Nature (2009). Filling the void Nature, 458 (7236), 260-260 DOI: 10.1038/458260a

Nature Neuroscience (2009). Getting the word out Nature Neuroscience, 12 (3), 235-235 DOI: 10.1038/nn0309-235

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