Are scientists really out of touch?

A recent survey suggests the rift between scientists and the public is growing, but did its methodology sway the results?

By | August 4, 2009

In a recent linkurl:AAAS/Pew survey;http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/summary/325/5937/132 [1], one in five U.S. scientists named the linkurl:chronic difficulties;http://www.infocusmagazine.org/6.3/president.html [2] in communicating with and educating lay audiences as one of the greatest U.S. scientific failures of the past 20 years. The real surprise, however, was that scientists do not seem too eager to find a solution -- at least not according to the linkurl:AAAS/Pew data;http://people-press.org/report/528/ [3]. Only about two in five AAAS scientists reported that they often talk to non-scientists about findings from their research, and only 3% often talk to reporters. But are things really that bad? As part of two independent research teams, we interviewed nationally representative samples of scientific experts in linkurl:nanotechnology;http://www.nature.com/nnano/journal/v4/n2/suppinfo/nnano.2008.361_S1.html [4, 5], linkurl:stem cell research and epidemiology;http://www.scienceonline.org/cgi/content/summary/321/5886/204 [6]. Data from these surveys suggest much more optimistic views among scientists about interactions with journalists, mass media, and lay audiences. At least two important differences in survey technique may explain these contrasting findings. Sampling Matters The first key difference between the AAAS study and systematic surveys of scientific experts in specific disciplines is the sampling strategy. Unlike interdisciplinary scientific associations, such as AAAS, "disciplinary scientific communities are international networks of peers dealing with the same research questions -- and publishing in the same international journals" [see online supplementary materials to 6]. A sample drawn from a list of self-selected members of such an association, therefore, is very different from studies of experts in a given field of study. AAAS surveyed its members, including students, emeriti and non-scientists who support the organization's mission. Our surveys of scientific experts, in contrast, relied on samples of researchers in specific fields, and used sampling frames that drew from tens of thousands of publication records [5] and multiple countries [6]. Scientists were then contacted using multiple waves of mailings and reminders in order to minimize non-response among particular groups of scientists. And different sampling strategies may be directly linked to overall responses. For example, the frequency of scientists' contacts with media may vary by discipline. Our surveys show that epidemiologists had more contact with mass media than stem cell researchers. The lower overall contact frequency between scientists and journalists reported in the AAAS survey may, therefore, be an artifact of a sample that included both active and non-active researchers across a variety of disciplines, including fields like mathematics that inherently receive less attention from journalists than medicine, for instance. Tapping attitudes rather than truisms The second key difference lies in how questions were presented. When asked how much of a problem they considered the fact that "news media oversimplify scientific findings," 93% of AAAS respondents reported that they considered such oversimplifications a minor or major problem. Similarly, 83% considered TV science coverage "only fair" or "poor"; for newspaper science coverage, the percentage was 63%. What looks like a widespread anti-media sentiment, however, may also have been triggered, at least in part, by question wording. The AAAS survey did not ask respondents if they agreed or disagreed that news media oversimplified findings but, rather, how much of a problem respondents thought it was that they did. Our surveys of biomedical and nanotechnology experts instead asked scientists to express their agreement or disagreement with various statements about the quality of media coverage of their scientific field. When asked in this more balanced way, 54% of the nano scientists disagreed "somewhat" or "strongly" that media coverage was "hostile toward science." In fact, when asked about the scientific accuracy of coverage, nano scientists were split, with 27% believing that it was inaccurate, 28% believing it was accurate, and about 45% falling in the neutral middle category. Similarly, 49%of biomedical researchers disagreed that media coverage was "hostile toward science," while only 12% agreed. Their assessments of accuracy were similarly split: 33% believed that coverage of their field was inaccurate, 35% believed it was accurate and 32% were undecided. Scientists are ready to build bridges These more positive attitudes toward public communication across disciplines also translate into scientists' openness to connect with lay audiences. Data from our nanotechnology survey shows that more than half of all scientists "strongly" or "somewhat" agree that "[s]cientists should pay attention to the wishes of the public, even if they think citizens are mistaken or do not understand their work." And scientists believe that communication can make a difference, with more than 80% in the nano and the biomedical surveys disagreeing that "[c]ommunicating with the public does not affect public attitudes toward science." Judged against scientific norms and priorities, media coverage of science will always be incomplete and -- at times -- flawed. But scientists, it seems, are open to a dialogue. Overall, we do not mean to imply that data such as the recent AAAS survey are not helpful in guiding our thinking about the future of science communication. But data that potentially overstate the problem could drive a wedge between already divided groups and discourage both sides from building bridges. We continue to be convinced these that bridges have to be built, and -- based on expert surveys across disciplines and continents -- can be built. References: 1. J. Mervis, "An inside/outside view of U.S. science," Science, 325:132-33, 2009. 2. R.J. Cicerone, "Celebrating and rethinking science communication," In Focus, 6:3, 2006. 3. A. Kohut et al., "Scientific achievements less prominent than a decade ago: Public praises science; scientists fault public, media," in The Pew Research Center For The People & The Press, 2009. 4. E.A. Corley et al., "Of risks and regulations: How leading U.S. nanoscientists form policy stances about nanotechnology," Journal of Nanoparticle Research, forthcoming. 5. D.A. Scheufele et al., "Scientists worry about some risks more than the public," Nature Nanotechnology, 2:732-34, 2007. 6. H.P. Peters et al., "Science communication: Interactions with the mass media," Science, 321:204-05, 2008. The survey of nano experts was commissioned by the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University, and conducted by the University of Wisconsin Survey Center. The response rate was 40%. The surveys among stem cell researchers and epidemiologists were conducted under the leadership of the Forschungszentrum Jûlich, Germany in five countries (France, Germany, Japan, UK, and the US) with a response rate of 43% across all countries. Dietram A. Scheufele, Department of Life Sciences Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the Center for Nanotechnology in Society, Arizona State University Dominique Brossard, Department of Life Sciences Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison Sharon Dunwoody, School of Journalism & Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison Elizabeth A. Corley and David Guston, Center for Nanotechnology in Society, Arizona State University Hans Peter Peters, Forschungszentrum Jûlich, Germany Contact Dietram A. Scheufele at the Department of Life Sciences Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1545 Observatory Drive, Madison, WI 53706, or by email at scheufele@wisc.edu.
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Fossil frenzy;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55725/
[21st May 2009]*linkurl:The future of public engagement;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/53611/
[October 2007]*linkurl:Communicating to the Public;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/18146/
[20th July 1998]

Comments

Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 15

August 4, 2009

Science moves forward by chipping away at questions of scientific importance one data point at a time. We have increased our rate over my years as a scientist to the extent that I was no longer relevant at age 45. I could not find the time and now the money to maintain that relevance. My industry is compressing and the world's population is increasing. If the only thing worth staying in touch with is sensationalized science, as it seems today, then the compression behavior will ultimately continue until there is only one scientist and a dog. The scientist's job will be to feed the dog. The dog's job will be to keep the scientist from touching the instruments.\n\n
Avatar of: Michael Holloway

Michael Holloway

Posts: 55

August 4, 2009

If foxes were asked if raiding chicken coupes were a problem, the answer is likely to be "no". It is widely commmented that there is no incentive for individual scientists to play ambassador. For instance, the default reaction of a scientist to the problem of injecting creationism into biology classes is to run the other way, perhaps cursing, but none-the-less not getting involved because they're too busy doing what they're supposed to be doing. Yet there is no group with more of an enlightened self interest in a general population that knows and understands what the scientific community is up to.\n\nIf the question really is "Are scientists out of touch?" then ask how many have been to local and state school board meetings.
Avatar of: Horacio Salazar

Horacio Salazar

Posts: 1

August 4, 2009

If you want to know if scientists are connected, you look for evidence of the existence (or not) of connections. If you ask scientists, you'll get biased answers. As a more direct measurement of that engagement part, perhaps the rate of answers will be eloquent enough. Connected? They don't even answer a poll about connectedness! Good grief!
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 77

August 4, 2009

First, fairly representing "science" is a daunting task - scientists themselves are likely to give answers that range from unrealistic idealizations to worst-case examples. \n\nSecond, there are precious few, if any, trained scientists in any of the many media organizations. Worse, editors do not insist that reporters have a short list of experts, in each of the fields on which they report, to consult for perspective when another scientist publishes or makes an announcement in one of those fields. Instead, and particularly when it involves a politically controversial area such as climate change, stem cell research, or animal studies, the journalists fall back on their ever-ready, but dubious, "balance" policy which is satisfied by simply finding any noisy contrarian, regardless of merit, and quoting same. To the naive reader, the appearance of the two claims, together in the same piece without qualification, leads to the perception (rightly or wrongly) of equal status and credibility. That the media today thrives on ratings - and those ratings thrive on controversy - there is a not-too-subtle conflict of interest in profit-oriented media between straight-up reporting and reporting anything that is - or can be contrued to be - controversial. \n\nTherein lies most of the reason that "touch" has been lost between scientists and the public. While out-reach by scientists may help some, most such efforts will be nullified by the much more pervasive and intentional dumbing down, equating of unequals, and politicization by the media. The general drift toward questioning and challenging all authority, regardless of competence and integrity, probably accounts for most of the remaining reason.
Avatar of: David Hill

David Hill

Posts: 41

August 4, 2009

Due to poor education, most students in the United States do not learn what science is. They tend to think that science is a body of organized knowledge that they are supposed to learn in school. Judging from widespread scepticism about the family-tree relationship of Homo to other old-world monkeys, it is pretty clear that biologists are not getting through to the public. Quantum electrodynamics, anyone? How about a real scientific attitude?
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

August 5, 2009

The fact that only 3% of scientists talk to reporters probably says more about the generally sorry state of today's media and journalism than about scientists' communication skills...
Avatar of: Ralph Galewski

Ralph Galewski

Posts: 2

August 5, 2009

two main reasons hapen to have this situation\n1.- the languahe used to comunicate with people,has to be a normal and every-day language and not a scientific language which people does not understand\n2.- It depends on the nature of research.It must be of a general interest, for example new possibilities to improve very comon diseases now difficult to deal.\nThis means that perhaps practical research is more receptive for people in general.\nI could be an example:i am searching electroacupuncture treatments for neurological diseases.It has a high prevalence rate, so results concerning new possibilitiues to improve these diseases are more to be read than comenting some metabolic disorders of these diseases.
Avatar of: Alan Marnett

Alan Marnett

Posts: 1

August 6, 2009

Public attitudes toward science have a profound effect on us (scientists). Aside from the obvious fact that a significant amount of academic research is funded through tax dollars, more subtle consequences exist as well. Science is a tough profession. Long hours and low pay are two of the sacrifices we make in pursuing a research career, particularly in the academic sector. Add to that a potential lack of public interest in or respect for our work, and it can be hard for an individual to justify the continued sacrifices. However, science is too important not to try to build the bridges you suggest.\n\nPart of the challenge in communicating science is that it?s a foreign language to most people. But it?s also just plain foreign?many people have no idea who or what is behind the laboratory walls. As a result, the typical ?mad scientist? and ?nerd? stereotypes linger. Our inability to clearly communicate our work with the public does little to change the dialogue. I recently left my postdoc at MIT to support scientists lives both in and out of the lab via a new web resource called BenchFly, http://www.benchfly.com. We provide a platform for researchers to share videos of scientific tips, tricks and techniques- essentially creating the same demonstration-based learning model we use everyday in the lab - just now on the internet. \n\nScientists will broadcast the work and the personalities that is currently lost behind the walls of labs and relegated to notepads and journals. Not only will this distinguish individual personalities, but it will collectively create a new self image for scientists and hopefully change the dialogue between scientists and the public. It?s true- ?bridges have to be built, and?can be built.?\n

August 7, 2009

Usually, we Germans are said to be the world's leading pessimists. However, when I read the comments on our article I am wondering why US scientists seem to be so keen on finding something to grouse about and on rejecting or ignoring the (at least partly) positive message of our research mentioned in the article: the involvement of researchers in public communication in major knowledge societies, including the US, is higher than many people expect, and while media coverage of science is rated ambivalently (but not dominantly negative), scientists rate their own encounters with journalism mostly positive.\n\nNobody should expect relations between two subsystems of society governed by different rules ? such as science and journalism ? to be without tension. Actually, the complete absence of tension would be a reason for concern because it would indicate that either science or journalism (or both) fail to do their job properly.\n\nOne anonymous commentator points to the 3% of researchers in the AAAS/Pew survey who indicated that they "often" talk to journalists. In our survey of biomedical researchers about two thirds of the US respondents (rather similar to France, Germany, Japan and UK) reported contact(s) with journalists "in the past 3 years", and 17% even said that they had contact with journalists more than 10 times in that time period. Michael Holloway asks in his comment how many scientists have been to local and state school board meetings. We did not exactly ask this question but we asked (as part of a list of outreach activities) whether the respondent had given talks in schools and colleges and almost 40% indicated that this was the case in the past 3 years. More than 40% said that they had been involved in preparing a brochure for the general public, and 50% said that they talked to lay visitors or visitor groups of their respective institute etc.\n\nSeveral commentators have expressed their doubts regarding the validity of surveys. I completely agree that survey results require cautious and careful interpretation, and that self-reported behavior cannot simply be equated with actual behavior. There may be bias caused by the sampling process, selective responses and social desirability. However, there are ways to assess the extent and direction of bias due to missing responses, and this assessment led us to the conclusion that there is no strong bias towards researchers with higher involvement in public communication that would invalidate our main findings (see our discussion in the online appendix to our Science article, pp. 6-8). Furthermore, a social desirability bias inflating the amount of reported contact to journalists and outreach activities would at least indicate that scientists accept involvement in public communication as a legitimate normative expectation.

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