Category Archives: Guest post

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Guest post by Samuel Tracey: Science Communication, A matter of life and death

Samuel Tracey, a Science Communication MSc student at Imperial college investigates the importance of science communication when it comes to risk management, especially since last month, six scientists were found guilty of the manslaughter of those who died in the L’Aquila earthquake in 2008. It illustrates that getting the science right is not enough: communicating it is at least as important.

Laquilla-earthquake-science-communicationAlmost as soon as my colleagues and I had started our masters degrees at the Imperial College Science Communication Unit, the topic of science communication itself found itself in the headlines. Six Italian scientists were sentenced to six years in jail not, as some of the papers misreported, for failing to predict an earthquake, but for failures in their communication of the risks to the people of L’Aquila. The case shows how the communication of science can be as important as the science itself. Failure to communicate properly can lead to anger, blame and even death.

In April, 2009, a team of scientists were sent to L’Aquila, Italy, to quell public anxiety caused by two factors: a swarm of seismic tremors in the region that persisted for several months, and the warnings of an amateur scientist who was predicting an earthquake based on his measurements of radon gas, an unproven method for predicting earthquakes. The committee of scientists held a public meeting and a press conference, which the residents of L’Aquila have since claimed left them reassured that there was no threat of an imminent earthquake. Their confidence was misguided; five days later, L’Aquila was hit by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake, killing 309 people, injuring more than 1500, destroying 20 000 buildings and temporarily displacing 65 000 people. The scientists, on the other hand, claim that they are being made scapegoats in a tragic situation and hold that they said nothing that the victims of the earthquake should have taken as a reassurance. However, last month a court found the six scientists involved guilty of manslaughter and sentenced each of them to five years in prison.

The Royal Society (RS) and the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) condemned the court’s ruling, arguing that such a decision could lead to scientists being “afraid to give expert opinion for fear of prosecution or reprisal”. But it should not be thought that their viewpoint represents that of all scientists. Several scientists from the fields of seismology and risk management have stated publicly that the Italian scientists deserve some kind of sanctions even if not prison sentences.

I recently went to a Nature Live lecture at the National History Museum, where David Alexander, professor of risk and disaster management at UCL, London, spoke about the case. His words stood in stark contrast to those of the RS and NAS and came from one with much more knowledge of the situation: he knows at least some of the convicted scientists personally; he has visited L’Aquila on several occasions, himself having a home nearby. He has examined all the seismological data from the lead up to the fatal earthquake as well as studying, in detail, all the statements made by the scientists to the public prior to the earthquake. He strongly criticised the scientific committee for being so categorical in their reassurances, making statements such as “there will be no earthquake”. Such statements, he said, were not justified by the data, nor the precedent of earthquakes in the region and they ignored the risk posed by the age and fragility of the buildings in L’Aquila. Professor Alexander went on to describe the scientists’ behaviour as “arrogant, irresponsible and not justified on the basis of the scientific data”, and said that he “doesn’t feel a great deal of sympathy” for the convicted scientists, although he qualified the last statement with his belief that he expects the jail sentences to be revoked upon appeal. But he was clear that he believes they deserve some kind of sanctions.

When one sees that the communication of science to a non-expert public can be a matter of life and death, one can recognise why Professor Alexander might be so harsh in his condemnations. It is not enough for scientists to say that they understand risk and uncertainty in different ways to the public. It is their responsibility to convey those differences so that the public can make an informed choice. If scientists fail to do this, then their words, as has been shown, could cause more harm than good. The alternative, silence, is not an option: it could result in harm and even death. So the only option is for scientists to realise the importance of communication. They must know their audiences’ abilities and needs; they must learn clarity of explanation. Those given the responsibility for assessing and managing risk must learn the meaning of the word “responsibility”. Perhaps prison sentences are too harsh, but whether scientists should be held legally responsible for failures of communication misses the point: they have a moral responsibility.

Scientists must learn from L’Aquila, but they need not be afraid, as the RS and NAS suggest. They merely need to realise that their words carry weight; they are, rightly, seen as authoritative. Their words result in actions and those actions can save lives or end them. So scientists can no longer hold the view that data speaks for itself: they must be the spokesmen for the data and what they say and how they say it matters as much as the facts themselves.

Sedeer El-Shawk

Guest post by Sedeer El-Showk: Inspiring Science

Sedeer El-Showk is a biologist whose love for language and writing led him to start a science blog, Inspiring Science. He is currently finishing his PhD at the University of Helsinki and hopes to become a professional science writer. You can follow Sedeer on Twitter @inspiringsci

Sedeer El-Shawk
Sedeer El-Shawk

When Julie asked me to write about why I think science communication is important, I started jotting down a list of reasons. Science has an undeniable impact and prominence in our world, which has benefited from the accumulated fruits of centuries of research. As citizens, we shape this world and are shaped by it, so it’s important to understand the science behind the questions we’re discussing, from antibiotics and GMOs to the value of a Mars mission or research in theoretical physics. This kind of understanding can also be important on an individual level. Knowing more about how your body works can help you make informed decisions about diet and lifestyle or medical procedures — or even what kind of birth control to use. These are important aspects of science communication, but they’re not really a source of inspiration to me or a guiding factor in deciding what I write about. Science communicators do have a responsibility to fulfil a role in mediating these discussion, and though I try to keep aware of that and contribute, it’s not where my passion truly lies.

What I really find exciting about communicating science is its ability to re-form our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world, to broaden our horizons and defy our expectations. Science isn’t a collection of facts or beliefs, but a methodology for deciding what we believe is true. In principle, that methodology doesn’t care about our social norms, expectations and prejudices. Rigorously applied, it lets us test our suppositions and discard those that don’t match reality. I realize that this is an idealistic view. Although scientific practice may fall short of the ideal, it still serves a powerful source of motivation for me. I’m not naive enough to think that science is practised free from social influences, but it can and has dramatically upset our preconceptions and forced us to re-evaluate everything from the source of diseases to whether events can ever happen simultaneously. Over time, science has shown us that our planet is not the center of this solar system, let alone the Universe. We’ve learned that our solar system is only one of an innumerable multitude scattered throughout the cosmos, 84% of which is made up of a kind of matter we still barely understand. Our world is far older than we had imagined, moulded over billions of years by immense forces in vast, gradual processes punctuated by dramatic cataclysms. Science has uncovered the common thread that unites life on this planet, teaching us of our kinship with other species and our interdependence with them, each a unique passenger on spaceship Earth. It has helped challenge social boundaries and tear them down, undermining the illusion that any race or sex is inherently better.

Of course, science doesn’t only drive progressive ideologies — racists and others have also used it to support their ideas. Humans are profoundly social animals and our social fabric affects everything we do; science is no exception. Effective science communication should be a part of this process, making science accessible to non-experts and enabling an informed discussion about its implications and short-comings. Science education is probably more important than science communication in this regard; people who have learned to approach issues critically, to question and to reason, have wherewithal to challenge fixed beliefs and undermine authority. The strength of the scientific process comes from its rejection of a dogmatic world view and from the ever-present possibility of being proven wrong. Although science writing often focuses on new results and “breakthroughs”, it should always strive to communicate the nuance and absence of absolutes that is the core of science.

Unfortunately, these subtleties are often lost in the metaphors we use to communicate scientific ideas. Metaphors are a powerful way to make the incomprehensible accessible; a good metaphor is vivid and memorable, capturing the core of an idea and embedding it in the reader’s mind. “Silent Spring” shaped a generation’s views on the environment and remains an evocative phrase to this day. Despite everything we’ve learned from modern ecology and evolutionary biology, the “great chain of being” lingers on, a stubborn relic of more religious times. Effective metaphors outlast the story behind them, persisting long after the details have been forgotten. These metaphors color how we think about a subject, which can cause trouble if they eclipse important details. I always make an effort to retain these nuances when I write about science while still conveying the basic idea; I can only hope that I succeed more often than I fail.

Those are all great, practical reasons, but the fact is that I love talking and writing about science because it provides such a beautiful view of the world, which is full of countless mysteries from the mundane to the unimagined. Rob Dunn wrote an excellent post last year about an undiscovered order of life (for comparison, primates are an order of life) that’s been hiding in plain sight. We’ve only explored 5% of the oceans, although they cover 70% of the planet’s surface. We’ve known about spade whales for over a century, but saw them for the first time just two years ago — and then only because a pair washed ashore. The world is richer and stranger than my imagination ever dreamed. Science lets me learn about this everyday wonders and connects them in beautiful, elegant stories. Sharing those stories — and the numinous feeling with which they fill me — is really why science communication is important. That’s why I do this.

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Guest post by Gina Maffey: Same demands, different disciplines

Gina Maffey is a PhD student in Applied Ecology at the University of Aberdeen. Among other things she talks about deer a lot. If you like deer, and other things, you can find her @ginazoo on twitter. She who has recently completed a Media Fellowship with the British Science Association and this post she tells us about the similarities she discovered between science and the media.

A_stack_of_newspapers“Why are you applying for a British Science Association media fellowship?”

This was one of the questions that was on the media fellowship application form, and the one that I felt most prepared to answer. “Science communication is a vital part of the research process.” “It will help further my own PhD.” “I want to get a true understanding of how ‘the other side’ works.” I still stand by the first two of these statements. However, ‘the other side’, may not be a phrase that I continue to use in the future.

For six weeks this summer I spent my time at the BBC in Birmingham with Countryfile, Costing the Earth and Farming Today. It was an eye-opening experience and one that I would happily repeat. The fellowships are designed to help bridge the communication gap between journalists and scientists facilitating a better relationship between the two disciplines. There are a lot of things that have already been said of the differences between science and the media, and there has been much work done by the Science Media Centre to improve links and dialogue across the two. For me it was the three similarities that I found in both science and the media that were more surprising.

Money, time and audience. Research and filming are both restricted by money. If you haven’t got the funding a research project can’t go ahead and a film can’t be recorded, no matter how interesting you think it is. Time is also a major limiting factor. The time required to put a project together, the time to get the right people involved. Science and the media just work on slightly different scales. And finally, audience. If you’re not making pieces that engage with people, if you’re not conducting research that research councils are interested in it’s difficult to be sustainable. In short, it’s difficult to do anything if no one is listening.

If, however, the media do start listening it’s important to remember that the media is made up of people too. Yes, some can be intimidating and a minor few might be out to trip you up, but the majority are friendly, polite and inquisitive people (just maybe a little time pressured). At the end of the day it’s a conversation that one of you is going to learn something from. And, I’d ask, how is that any different from Science?

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Guest post: Reporting on science vs religion

Rory Fenton, a physicist, humanist, and budding science communicator has written for the Guardian and was shortlisted for Amnesty International’s Student Human Rights Reporter of the Year 2011. Here gives his ideas of how best to go about the science vs religion debate.

3978414091_a12244faff_mI’ve ended up writing quite a bit about the science/ religion question over the last few years- mostly because my own view kept changing. I’ve gone from conservative Catholic then to bat-shit-crazy atheist now, my metaphorical needle head-banging its way along the science-religion compass in a flurry of self-contradiction.

But along the way I’ve picked up some ideas about how to actually report on the debate in the first place. I suffered, dear reader, so you don’t have to.

The most important thing I can say about the “Can you be religious and a scientist?” debate is that it’s REALLY, REALLY BORING. I don’t think I can stress that enough. It’s boring because the answer is evident- yes, yes you can be. There are too many religious scientists like Robert Winston for anyone to say otherwise. Likewise asking, “Does science disprove God”, “Is science just a form of religion” and so on. The attention grabbing topics tend to result in heading banging articles. Much more interesting are the more nuanced questions- questions that aren’t so much designed to provoke wild debate as just interesting thoughts. Try asking an atheist scientist what questions she doesn’t think science can answer. Now that can be an interesting discussion. How about asking a religious thinker what they think they can learn from the scientific method. Getting people to reflect on what they believe rather than attack what others believe is more likely to lead to an interesting piece. After all, people should know more abut their own beliefs.

But maybe I’m wrong. Could just going for the Big Questions and bashing heads together produce interesting articles? Let me know your thoughts!