Dumbing down


I work as a museum where we are constantly trying to improve our science communication to get scientific principles across in an accessible and concise yet accurate way. It is not easy.

Science is complicated – as is the world that science attempts to describe and interpret. This makes it difficult to package science in a sound-bite-sized chunk that the lay person can quickly grasp. We end up having to trim away much of the reasoning, context and alternative interpretations of what we try to report, leaving a core of information that comes across as authoritarian and dogmatic. This is the antithesis of the scientific method.

Public communication of science should not be about “what the experts say”, it should be about what observations and experimental results are probably saying. In short, good science reporting should clearly indicate what is observable fact and what is interpretation – and this is something that seldom happens.

Good science does not generally make good TV – it does not follow a convenient narrative due to the piecemeal nature of scientific enquiry, so attempts at narrative flow often feel contrived and uncomfortable. Moreover, the desire to cater for large audiences requires an appeal to the lowest common demoninator – which usually entails something spectacular (or at least visually arresting). Of course, in science the spectacular comes from the ingenuity of ideas and concepts – hardly engaging to a general audience. As a result we are presented with lasers, CGI reconstructions of dinosaurs or pyramids, science “crumpet” (apologies to one of my Ask a Biologist colleagues who is current the crumpet of popular choice) or if the topic is really conceptual there will be a CGI animation in a Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy style that attempts to explain dimensions, time, black holes or how the LHC works.

Healthcare is one of the few topics in science that it is easy to get people interested in, since it is one aspect of science that will definately influence their life. Even here there is a tendency for sensationalisation and over-inflation of findings – or worse, a TV “experiment” which has a tiny sample size, no control group and a moving target hypothesis. These sorts of programmes may have science in mind, but they are seriously misrepresenting what science is really about.

Perhaps that’s why politicians seem to hold scientific advice in some contempt? Perhaps that’s why we have a society that willingly embraces pseudoscientific nonsense as a cure for ills (homeopathy anyone…)? Science dumbed down presents real science in a way that is superficially similar to pseudoscience – so how is the public to pick the two apart?

N.B. This blog arose from a comment that turned into a rant that I submitted here.

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