Science / Science and Communication

The importance of spreading science responsibly

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[Full Disclosure: I wrote this article for the express purpose of sharing this gifset: Cosmos with Carl Sagan]

It is unsurprising that the recent creation/evolution debate stirred up some voracious animosities both in real life, and in comments on our very own blog. Discussions about the nature of science are rarely brought to center stage except in cases like these; however, maybe they should be. The struggle between faith and science and even the intermingling of the two bring up important questions about the validity of living one’s life based on doctrines that can or cannot be proven. But is religion the only tenet belief system guilty of this? The scientific method, I would argue, can also create failings for itself when subjected to the media market and population en masse.

Researchers conducting science cannot control for every possible variable and know every possible datum, so they make assumptions. This much is not in and of itself antithetical to the scientific method. Even gravitational theory assumes planetary bodies are both spherical and symmetrical, when in reality the shapes may be more complicated than that. But these assumptions are oftentimes lengthy, detailed, and boring. They can even be so complicated that they make the results of the research inaccessible to the layman. Does that mean we should ignore them?

I think the trouble arises when scientific ideas are communicated to the public irresponsibly. When you see a link in your sidebar with the headline “New Study Says Mallomars Cause Blindness” this is an example of science being spread irresponsibly. This [fictional] study might in fact posit that there is a correlation between Mallomars and blindness, but only when they are eaten every other Easter by a six-year-old boy dressed as a giraffe. Further, an egregious mistake often made in studying links between two factors is the underlying difference between the words ‘causation’ and correlation.’correlation These sorts of details are left out of the headline because they detract from the shock value. If the reader is lucky, the article may mention these caveats, but in a great majority of the cases, they don’t. This leads to an under-educated population who mistakenly believes that they are educated, because they read a scientific study. This may be a problem with journalism, not with science, but I think it’s definitely an issue we, as scientists, have to think about when we create narratives about our research. It may not be inherently irresponsible to investigate a link between delicious candy and blindness. But we should be careful not to overreach with results or misconstrue ideas, as it may form an overconfident mob ready to march into Byzantium and convert or kill every human in their wake…oh wait, I’m thinking of the wrong thing…

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5 thoughts on “The importance of spreading science responsibly

  1. My formal science education proceeded until I was 17 (twelfth year of school) and I could have written that. We lay people get exposed to discussion of these things, biases and fallacies, risk and probability, and we get to know the limits of scientific certainty. Love the gifs, though.

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  2. Thanks for the comment! This article wasn’t meant to be offensive to ‘lay people,’ just commenting on the fact that a lot of people AREN’T exposed to the detailed methods of the scientific process. I’m glad you are though, so good on you!

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  3. I was not offended. (Mmm. Should I apologise for giving that impression- er- 🙂 )

    We should at least see a difference between overwhelming proof and tentative indications. Even journalists should understand that, though the scientist perhaps should spell it out.

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  4. Thanks for that link! It’s good to see we’re all willing to do our part in reliably educating the public. I do still think that scientific papers can be inaccessible, and I wish there was a stepping stone between the raw study and news articles/media stories.

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