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A mornings musings on science communication

August 17, 2012

With environmental and health concerns rising in the last few decades, science (and the work of those who work within it) has been thrust in to the media spotlight more and more often.

Whilst those of us who work within the scientific arena are aware of the methods used and can understand and interpret the uncertainties associated with results, within the media realm, things are not always so clear. I think it’s important for science and society to interact more, many of us go in to science because of our search for knowledge but I think it’s legitimate to ask why we’re funding science if not to offer some information on public concerns. I’d like to see more scientists engaging with the public. Their work deserves recognition, I know how much hard work and diligence often goes in to it and it seems more and more that the public wants to engage in debates around the issues to which science contributes information.

I get a lot out of the science communication I’m involved in. Sharing the things you are passionate about with interested people is just about the most rewarding thing I think you can do. I guess I wouldn’t be writing this blog if that wasn’t the case! But it’s not without difficulty. When the quantifiable uncertainty of science mixes in to moral and ethical decision making, the clear(ish) waters of scientific debate can get muddied by personal views and it takes a lot of care for messages and meaningful discussion not to be lost.

Anyway, the inspiration for this mini-post was a couple of things.

First a beautiful example of how to share research in an inspirational way. Check out this video from Lauren De Vos about False Bay.

Second, this very interesting piece by Wendee Holtcamp entitled “Flavors of Uncertainty: The Difference between Denial and Debate”, which summarises and discusses some of my feelings about science communication very nicely. I particularly identified with this quote from Naomi Oreskes – professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego:

““I’m here with the very depressing conclusion that knowledge isn’t power”

When you’re in the business of furthering knowledge and passionate about it, the way that hard earned insight can be dismissed by people who don’t like it’s implications can be pretty depressing. It’s not easy for everyone for draw boundaries between where science ends and ethical decision making begins. The article goes on to discuss ways this can be addressed to inspire mutually beneficial engagement for both parties with great advice from Atmospheric scientist, Katharine Hayhoe:

“offer a positive message about what we can do right as opposed to a negative message about all the things we’ve done wrong…refrain from alarmism…give concrete examples of ways to take action…It’s better to connect than to dismiss, and to encourage than to shame.”

I hope that science communication will continue to be a big part of my future, regardless of the focus of my work. I can’t imagine we’re going to run out of science to discuss or problems to solve any time soon.

I’m sorry for sporadic posting, I’ve recently been finishing off a book chapter and I’m about to head off to Zanzibar to teach on an EAMNet/WIOMSA sponsored Operational Oceanography course for a week. It’s been a fair amount of work (for those of you who think I’m just swanning off to have fun in the tropics) but I’m sure I will get a lot out of sharing my science with new colleagues from around Africa. Expect a post about my experiences soon!


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