Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Opening science to the Media in a Web 2.0 world

How do we manage science in an age of information overload? How can the voices of scientists be heard when there are so many other voices? My first thought was that we need our own celebrity spokesperson who can do interviews and talk shows and communicate the message for scientists, but that does not seem like the right solution.

In order for science to compete in today's media rich environment I think we have to open up our scientific laboratories and scientific debates as we have never done before. I think we have to show the process of scientific thinking, experimentation, theory-building, and so forth in order to teach people how to think about ideas from a scientific perspective.

Too often scientific information is presented as facts or knowledge as if there were no debates, no mistakes, and no wrong assumptions. This gives the impression that science has settled the questions and that there is nothing left to learn or that this is the final statement of fact. Yet all scientists know that there are many questions and there is always new evidence or new perspectives that change our views on matters. When there is new information or there are changes in our understanding, this often gets communicated in the popular press as a demonstration that scientists don't really understand much about this at all. This is not usually the case.

Rather than try to compete in the war of words, scientists should change the conversation so that people become engaged in scientific thinking. This means returning to the basics of learning to state testable propositions and inviting people to think through rationales for various processes and activities, then accumulating and evaluating evidence in order to support or refute hypotheses. Rather than be sages or experts scientists need to be teachers and collaborative guides through the analysis. It may be more important to invite people to think more carefully about an issue or topic than to provide your own conclusions.

Let's take an example of what I have in mind. There is a current debate about the role of MMR (mumps, measles & rubella) vaccinations in causing autism. The National Institutes of Health has released a well-written document that provides a summary of the best scientific analysis of this issue. It presents summaries of some of the major studies on the topic, it notes the scientific panels that have looked at this issue. Additionally, the article reminds the reader that there are many types of risks besides the risk of autism and concludes with advice to parents and a list of the scientific studies. This is a good example of what we usually provide to the public regarding many scientific questions and it is good, but this summary does not give the public any idea about the scientific analysis that led to these conclusions and recommendations. We know that the evidence is never perfectly clear, there are always disputes about what weight to give various studies and various types of outcomes. It is rare for all scientists to completely agree on every conclusion and every recommendation. It is this process of sifting through the evidence and moving toward conclusions that needs to be more apparent. This is the scientific box that we need to open up.

At this point I am sure that the scientists reading this are going to object and remind us that it takes a lot of training to learn how to work through scientific research. This is not something that everyone can do or is done easily. This is true, but I am suggesting that scientific thinking can be more transparent in the way that it is presented. It can include statements about the limits of our knowledge, the questions that remain and the points of dispute between various scientists.

Now someone will probably say that this will be even more confusing to the public because it will make it appear as if scientists really don't know everything about everything.... which is of course true and has always been true. I think that by displaying scientific thinking we invite the public to examine their own assumptions and evidence in new ways and hopefully, it encourages them to think more critically about other's statements and judgments. More critical and scientific thinking about issues and more careful reading of reports seems like a positive outcome.

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