Let's Talk About This

How do scientists communicate, with one another and with the public?

Richard Gallagher(rgallagher@the-scientist.com)
Sep 25, 2005

How do scientists communicate, with one another and with the public? Is discussion becoming polarized, oversimplified or exaggerated? I've had cause to wonder, and my thoughts were jogged on a recent flight during which I read Yale's alumni magazine. Here's what Yale president Richard Levin had to say in a recent baccalaureate address:

"I want to talk about two disturbing trends in contemporary political discourse in democratic nations: oversimplification and polarization. The strength of our democracy and the wisdom of our collective choices will depend on the efforts of your generation to reverse these trends.

"The tendency to oversimplification and polarization leads us to represent too many important public choices as false dichotomies.

"We need to talk sensibly about the policy choices that confront us. There are plenty of good ideas that aren't that complicated. But we need to raise the level of discussion beyond sound bites."1

At least one senior figure seems to feel that Levin's concerns extend to science. In his presidential address, British Association for the Advancement of Science president Lord Winston said, "We [scientists] do tend to hype up so many activities. The latest one in biology is the issue of embryonic stem cells. I view the current wave of optimism about embryonic stem cells with growing suspicion."2

While this is a salutary warning, I can't recall any instances of scientists hyping the use of stem cells. In fact, the opposite seems often to be the case. The problem, if there is one, is that science writers and editors need bold claims or big scandal if they are to wrestle any column inches for science.

Inadvertently, while I was still looking for evidence on the subject, The Scientist tested the quality of scientific discourse. The opinion of Philip Skell which ran in the Aug. 29, 2005, issue3 generated a staggering volume of comment. We have given over most of the Letters and Opinion pages in this issue to it, and even then we're not doing the reaction justice. The vast majority of the correspondence was negative, but it was also rational, reasonable, and detailed, with only a couple of letter writers resorting to abuse or the sort of vacuousness alluded to in Levin's Yale ceremony address.

I drew two conclusions. One, that rigorous debate in the life sciences is in robust good health. And two, that we at The Scientist needed to bring forward our discussion forum plans. So, to coincide with this issue, The Scientist is launching a new service: discussion forums. Given the outstanding software development team at The Scientist and nimble priority changes, the forums have gone live in record time.

Our discussion forums will enable free-flowing exchanges of opinions and ideas among members of the life sciences community, and are freely available to everyone. Go to http://media.the-scientist.com/talkingpoints/ to access the first three forums, covering the role of evolutionary theory in experimental biology, the question of researchers hyping stem-cell research and the stories of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath including a support network for displaced scientists. We'll add other topics regularly.

See you online for an enjoyable and informative exchange of views.