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The ills and thrills of talking about science



When Alan Alda was 11, he threw a simple inquiry to his teacher. What's a flame? The response he received was less than satisfying.

Neil deGrasseTyson'All I heard from the teacher was "it's oxidation". That didn't explain anything to me. I didn't know what oxidation was.'

It's a neat illustration of a modern problem. The mere declaration of scientific facts doesn't work.

Alda, veteran screen actor and star of M*A*S*H and The West Wing, visited Australia recently for the opening of the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University. Alda's approach is distinctive: he helps scientists take improvisational acting classes to prepare them for audience interactions.

'I was desperate to try to find some way I could be helpful in getting scientists to communicate their science with more vividness, and more clarity,' he told ABC News. 'Most of all, clarity. Not to dumb down the science but to do be clear about it, so the rest of us feel that they're talking our language.'

This mission statement removes simplification — it redirects efforts towards transmitting the thrill of investigating the natural world, and spurring engagement and excitement in the process of scientific inquiry. It's important not to undervalue this shift. Merely presenting over-simplified factoids is no longer sufficient in a world filled with phenomena like climate denial and the anti-vaccination lobby.

For science to be communicated effectively, it needs to spark passion and excitement.

No category illustrates this more clearly than climate science. Recently, there has been a significant increase in the public acceptance of facts underpinning climate science — yet another poll, conducted at the same time, suggests action on the issue is quite far down the list of priorities for the public.


"We consume the outputs of scientific inquiry like we consume everything else: through a filter of emotion, bias and personal connection."


Though encouraging greater public acceptance of the science underpinning climate change has been considered a priority for the past five years, it hasn't translated into the Australian public perceiving excess greenhouse gas emissions as a salient, high-priority risk.

The threat of human-induced climate change, discovered and delineated by scientists, will not inspire strong public support for action, without the enhancement of science communication and the empowerment of scientists to form deeper, more meaningful connections with audiences.

Happily, there are instances of new formats of science communication looking to inspire these deeper connections.

As part of the World Science Festival in early March, the ABC's Q&A dedicated an entire show to science. The episode was informative and engaging, with a range of follow-up articles the next day.

A panellist on the night, Australian molecular biologist and science communicator Upulie Divisekera, said 'It's the beauty of the universe and the beauty of the things that we study that keeps us going.'

This statement explains the experience of science to the audience. The people dedicating their lives to delineating the beauty of the universe are best placed to be in the spotlight. As Alda says, 'You just need to give them a chance to connect with you.'

Social media can be a powerful tool in this. The Twitter rotation-curation account @RealScientists presents a live snapshot of the experiences of a broad array of professionals. Real-time micro-blogging about the process of science facilitates immediate passion and positivity around scientific inquiry.

The creation of social bonds between scientists and the public is a demonstrably successful tool for inspiring trust, and allows room for the nuances of science to shine through.

It's a vital counter to the dated practice of scientific authority delivering nuggets of truth to the masses. Well-known popularisers of science, such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Professor Brian Cox, tend to shy away from the straight declaration of facts, instead weaving them with narrative and humour.

The receptiveness of audiences to scientific facts does not increase as a function of how strong the evidence is. We determine the importance of information quickly and subconsciously, rather than through a conscious process of deliberative and slow reasoning.

We consume the outputs of scientific inquiry like we consume everything else: through a filter of emotion, bias and personal connection.

Scientific inquiry unlocks access to valuable and verifiable bits of the universe. It reveals both beauty and danger. The formation of deep, lasting connections between scientists and the general public can help us react to these revelations as we ought to.

Empowering scientists to engage in this new format of science communication will benefit us all.


Ketan JoshiKetan Joshi works in the renewable energy industry in Sydney, and writes on science, technology and political issues. He tweets @Ketanj0

Original artwork by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Ketan Joshi, science, Neil deGrasse Tyson, climate change, anti-vaccination lobby



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Existing comments

Alan Alda has always hit the spot in his acting career. Remember "Same Time Next Year with Ellen Burstyn?". It is good to know he is continuing to contribute to public good by exploring ways of communicating scientific facts. Maybe , just maybe , educators and people trying to communicate and share a Christian message, could also do with an Alan Alda approach. To connect with audiences by creating social bonds of trust using narrative and humor (highlighted well in parables and gospel stories) could give educators a receptive audience more readily able to take on board the facts. The right Language and method of presentation along with trustful connection, and awareness of where people are at, seem to be a good idea in the exchange of ideas.

Celia | 06 April 2016  

Unrequited titillation!! I was hoping for an answer to what a flame is. On reflection, a flame is a perfect example of a sacrament, the outward sign of a powerful unseen force difficult to perceive, converting an invisible truth, (life giving oxygen} into a new energy in the form of heat and light (comforting enlightenment perhaps).

john frawley | 06 April 2016  

'It's the beauty of the things that we study that keeps us going.' The attraction of that beauty lies both in the Light of the Truth and the enhancement it brings to our mental powers. At one time, science was regarded as a threat to religion; so much so that many formed the opinion that in the future, science would displace religion. But there is much more to life than 'the observable and repeatable' which form the parameters of science. Religion needs to be built on science, but not be limited by it. The role of science is not to displace religion but to purge it of the erroneous and superstitious traditions it embraced before science had passed through the stage of thinking the earth was flat and the centre of the universe. Recent scientific discoveries help us to better appreciate the wonder and magnificence of God.

Robert Liddy | 06 April 2016  

I think its like everything. It has to have good storytelling and clarity. If the person can't convey what they are talking about (because they learnt it by rote), then it won't be understood by the listener or reader either.

SHANA MARIA VERGHIS | 06 April 2016  

' getting scientists to communicate their science with more vividness, and more clarity,' .. Probably the greatest obstacle to this lies in the limitations of human minds. Our minds evolved as an aid to survival, by learning to process data presented to us by our senses. It has learned to do much more than this, by the use of analogy, by comparing new data with the things we are familiar with, and often if we give something a name, we think we can understand it. What is Gravity? 'Call it a force, and leave it at that'. Is an electron a particle or a wave? It exhibits properties of both, and some want to say it is both. But it cannot be both, as particles and waves have mutually exclusive properties. So it is something else in its own right that we do not, as yet(?) fully understand. Quantum mechanics can seem 'weird'. 'It is just an algorism; use it, it works'. Some things are never going to be 'clear'.

Robert Liddy | 06 April 2016  

What is a flame?? According to the 'Big Bang' Theory, for which there is converging and convincing evidence, OUR Universe (there may be others?), began as pure energy. It expanded rapidly, and so cooled, and some of it condensed as matter, in the form of atoms. Matter is 'frozen' energy. If is stimulated sufficiently, it reverts back to its energy state. When some atoms unite to form compounds, energy is released in the form of light and heat. We see this as a flame.

Robert Liddy | 07 April 2016  

A nice article and interesting comments. The progressive fractionation of knowledge is also a problem. Truthfully communicating scientific understanding is much easier when the speaker has a well-rounded worldview. At Griffith Uni., I'm researching a "reintegration" of academic disciplines, starting with STEPS (integrated science/theology/ethics/philosophy/sociology). Without a more contextual cognitive diet, we may perish from our growing addiction to sweet snacklets of enticing info . . .

Dr Marty Rice | 07 April 2016