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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


March-April 2009

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Editorial - Communicating Science in the Information Age

The public’s understanding of science and technology becomes more and more important as each year goes by. Whether it be issues of global climate change, which this magazine has covered extensively, or questions about stem cell research, nuclear waste, or nanotechnology—the list goes on and on—the understanding of the basic science and technology behind each question asked is crucial to informed public policy.

Not that science has the answers to the political, legal, and ethical questions raised. While scientists should be vigorously involved in politics, we have to make the clear distinction between scientific positions and political ones. As scientists, we have the responsibility to make clear the scientific issues and the technical and scientific implications of public policies, but science by itself cannot make those decisions. The extensive debate that is needed to address all these questions is only possible with a scientifically well-informed public.

Recognizing this, the scientific community has put a great deal of effort—backed by a great deal of money from governments, foundations, and corporations—into the process of educating the public. It is somewhat distressing, therefore, to read in the National Science Board publication Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 that the public’s basic understanding of science has only improved slightly over the last 40 years, remaining at a fairly low level. This is true even though between 83 and 87 percent of Americans report having some or a lot of interest in new scientific discoveries, and more than half of Americans say scientific research has contributed more good than harm.1

The disparity between the views of the relevant scientific community on global climate change and those of the public has illustrated this problem for some time. The article by Matthew Nisbet holds some intriguing answers to the puzzling question of why such a gap exists. Nisbet talks in terms of “framing” an issue; it is not a matter of getting people to agree with a point of view, but rather of using meaningful metaphors and storylines to engage people in thinking about the personal relevance of climate change. Nisbet argues that part of the reason for the gap between scientific and public understanding is that typical climate frames—those that highlight scientific uncertainty; looming, mysterious crises; and economic sacrifices needed to curb carbon dioxide emissions—reinforce perceptual divides and alienate the public. He suggests that those wishing to engage citizens on climate change turn to new frames that emphasize, for instance, economic opportunity or the tangible public health risks of inaction.

Journalists, particularly those writing for or presenting to local audiences, often are adept at crafting local angles to national and international issues, for example, relating global climate change to conditions at a local ski resort or to changing conditions at local beaches affecting tourism in the area. Such connections are often important in convincing the editor or news director to run the story in the first place and in grabbing the attention of the audience. The scientific community would be wise to follow this example.

Educators have long since abandoned the idea that students represent an empty vessel into which we can simply pour  knowledge. Particularly in these days of the Internet and other electronic sources of information, students come to the classroom full of their own ideas, information, and attitudes, a point that a recent article in The Chronicle Review makes in eloquent fashion. To truly teach we need to engage students, not just lecture at them.

The same is true when educating people out of the classroom. We cannot just put information out there and expect a lay audience to read it, understand it, and absorb it. If we are to succeed in informing them, we must speak to and sometimes break through people’s preexisting ideas and attitudes.

—Alan H. McGowan

1. National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 (Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, 2008), Chapter 7, (accessed 29 January 2009).
2. T. Clydesdale, “Wake Up and Smell the New Epistemology,” The Chronicle Review 55, no. 29 (23 January 2009): B7–9, (accessed 29 January 2009).

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