We need to talk about science outreach

Carl Sagan said: “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” (1) This thought was never so contemporaneous. We live in a world with a deadly pandemic, still, people reject vaccination, with a high dependency on satellites, and people that still believe the earth is flat. Some questions I ask myself are: How can we make academia more approachable to the great masses? How can we make our works more understandable? Do we have the right to be a part of decision-making (as scientists)?

ETH Magazine recently published a great debate with Prof. Nicola Nuti and Gunnar Jeschke. Prof. Nuti mentions science distrust comes to the lack of outreach of research institutions to the public. With this, the media can exaggerate or decontextualize claims. As a solution, professor Nuti mentions that academia should engage in public debate and adapt to the language of politics. On the other hand, Prof. Jeschke affirms scientists in the political debate tend to voice their personal opinions. He brilliantly mentions that the words “majority” and “authority” do nothing to spread knowledge (which makes me think about authority fallacies). He also points out that disagreements are common amongst specialists. (2)

I confess this is not an easy argument and has been puzzling me for years. I acknowledge the validity of the opposing points of view of the interviewed professors. However, the defunding of science is strongly related to deforestation and COVID deaths in my home country, Brazil (3). On the other hand, how can we be sure scientists voicing their opinions are not biased or cherry-picking evidence to support their claims. How do we assure they do not overuse their authority and the prestige of their titles to make their views prevail?

I do not mean to say a technocracy is a solution to our problems, much on the contrary. Aldous Huxley, Isaac Asimov, George Orwell, and other writers brilliantly imagined the perils of a world ruled by science and technology. However, perhaps, Carl Sagan has given a good argument as to why we should at least hear what specialists have to say: “One of the reasons for its success is that science has built-in, error-correcting machinery at its very heart. Some may consider this an overbroad characterization, but to me every time we exercise self-criticism, every time we test our ideas against the outside world, we are doing science. “(4) I believe politics and communication with more self-criticism and openness to debate, regardless of whether it is led by scientists or politicians, might help us progress and evolve as a society.   I also do believe that publicly funded science must return to society the investments made. Thus, I would vouch for more scientist outreach to the great audiences.

Image credit: “Carl Sagan (Cosmos)” by Javier is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

REFERENCES

  1. Carl Sagan last interview: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jod7v-m573k&t=134s> 28 oct. 21.
  2. Should researchers get involved in political debates. https://ethz.ch/services/en/news-and-events/internal-news/archive/2021/10/should-researchers-get-involved-in-political-debates.html Nov 2021.
  3. Taylor, L. (2021). ‘We are being ignored’: Brazil’s researchers blame anti-science government for devastating COVID surge. In Nature (Vol. 593, Issue 7857, pp. 15–16). Springer Science and Business Media LLC. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-01031-w
  4. Sagan, C., & Druyan, A. (1996). The demon-haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark. New York: Random House.

 

This article was written by André Plath as part of an ongoing series of scientific communications written and curated by BioTrib’s Early Stage Researchers.

André is researching Boundary Lubrication of Fibrous Scaffolds at ETH Zürich, Switzerland.