Science stories

Science communication. Has it saved us or has it failed us?

Communicating scientific findings has always been a top priority for scholarship, at the individual and the institutional level. Like everything else in life, researchers too have rankings; the more you publish and are cited, the higher up you rank and your chances of getting that job you wanted are increasing by the minute. The Web of Science annually publishes its most Highly Cited Researchers, a coveted list which includes thousands of studious scholars (probably not you) with an H-index over 100. At the moment, and after 3 years of non-stop publishing (or at least that’s what I think), my H-index is 2, so be prepared. By 2054 I’ll be up there.

This practice of ranking based on citations has been heavily criticized, with some saying that it is merely a measure of popularity, while the more philosophical boys and girls claim that it’s a socially constructed reality. Well, what isn’t? Truth is, certain purposes are served through this aging practice of referencing and gathering citations, and flaws can be overlooked For the Greater Good (yes HP nerds, that’s a Grindelwald reference!). Science communication therefore starts within the scholarly circles, but certainly its ripples must reach further than that to have any meaningful impact.

The mark of good science is not just the work itself, it’s also about how well the work is disseminated, acknowledged, absorbed and enjoyed by broader audiences. Take climate change for instance and imagine a world where the IPCC shares its terrifying reports among scientists only. What’s the impact of so many world-class scholars, if they don’t effectively share their findings with the other 99.9% of the population? Let’s not forget, policy makers are swung not by the greater good, but by votes. So, scientists need the people, to get to the politics of saving the planet. It’s no big whoop if science communication fails to inform us about the best approach to assembling an IKEA sofa, but climate change? Yes, big whoop.

By now, you may have been convinced that science communication has a very important role to play in the evolution of research communities and humankind; we need it. Based on the past two years, I’ve come to a different conclusion: we need it in moderation.

Image by Anna Shvets on

The flood of misinformation around the vaccines for Covid-19, the self-proclaimed experts, the politicians standing at podiums and yelling out that vaccines are not licensed and your aunt who genuinely thinks it’s the devil’s work, in my opinion, is a direct result of overexposure to scientific content. As civilized societies, we have placed our collective trust in institutions that take on the responsibility of public welfare, so why has the global population been split so severely on this topic, resisting the helping hand of science? My best guess is, because of the panic and chaos when the pandemic first broke out. Too much time was spent sitting home alone in fear of the cereal box we just had delivered, doing nothing too useful and watching the news; the source of both accurate and inaccurate information.

Let’s say that based on what you’ve read, heard and witnessed, you are not willing to be vaccinated because of the not-so-complete record of research on these types of vaccines. You may have some valid fears and arguments, but let me ask you, do you go into deep research mode for every possibly life-changing decision you make? For example, have you checked the amount of radiation emitted by your wifi modem? If you do this now and get worried, you may want to take a look at these EMF Shield boxes sold on Amazon; you’ll be rid of the radiation, and also of your wifi signal.

It’s not up to us to judge on how afraid someone is of the possibility of getting sick due to a chemical mix that hasn’t been thoroughly tested. If anything, to have no reservations at all, would be slightly worrying. However, if you board a car to move from place A to place B, if you take paracetamol when you’ve got a headache and if you trust a dentist for emergency surgery, even if you haven’t checked their credentials or asked about their sadistic predispositions, then you have faithfully followed the path of everyone else living in developed countries on this planet. Like you have done before, trust the science and help someone’s grandma or brother survive the next few years.

As scientists, our role is to explore the natural world, extract useful information, and make things a little bit better. We do this by carefully and thoughtfully conveying our messages to non-experts. As lay people, we have to be open to new knowledge while keeping in mind that we are only parts of a whole and limited in our own abilities. As human beings, we try to do our best by each other and remain respectful, no matter the circumstances. In the end, if science has taught us anything, it’s that absolutes don’t exist in physical nature; so why should they exist in our social constructs?

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