I came across a Guardian article called why scientists are losing the fight to communicate science to the public. The only polite way I can describe it is missing the point entirely. The article was motivated by Brian Cox’s appearance on Australian Question Time and concludes with
It’s not changing minds and it’s certainly not winning hearts and minds.
Science communication is not about changing minds, or winning hearts and minds; it’s very simply about communicating information. That is all. It’s not the responsibility of scientists to decide if society should be convinced of something; their only responsibility is communicating the information that they have.
It often seems that what some expect from scientists is highly inconsistent. They have to be objective and make all caveats and uncertainties clear. However, it’s also their fault if people aren’t convinced. Scientists are not salespeople and certainly are not trying to market their ideas to the general public. They’re simply people who try to understand things and, ideally, communicate their findings to others. Whether others choose to accept what they are told, or not, is up to them.
In my view, it’s all quite simple. A scientist/researcher who is speaking on behalf of their institution should behave professionally and should treat those with whom they’re communicating with respect. However, someone who has a public profile who also happens to be a scientist can – as far as I’m concerned – behave like anyone else with a public profile. If a scientist, like Brian Cox, encounters a politician promoting conspiracy theories on a TV panel show, I see no reason why they should think: “I’m a professional scientist, I should avoid making this person seem like an idiot”. They might in some circumstances, but there’s no obvious reason why they should restrain themselves when others do not.
The article also says:
How many science communicators do you know who will take the time to listen to their audience? Who are willing to step outside their cosy little bubble and make an effort to reach people where they are, where they are confused and hurting; where they need?
I actually think many do come out of their supposed cosy little bubbles, but I think there is also an irony to the above suggestion. This isn’t saying “come out of your bubble and participate as if you were just a member of the public”. It’s saying “come out of your bubble, but behave as if you’re still in it”. There seems to be an expectation that scientists who engage publicly (in whatever way) have to behave in some pre-defined manner; they have to be polite and respectful and should avoid getting frustrated and avoid saying anything that makes members of the public feel stupid.
Not only do I think this is fundamentally wrong (scientists are as much members of the public as anyone else) I think it’s also wrong from a science communication perspective. I think that it’s good for scientists/researchers to show that they’re human like everyone else; to show that they’re not just people who only come out of their ivory towers to explain things to the masses. In fact, the latter would seem far more condescending than a scientist – every now and again – mocking a politician on a TV panel show.
As far as I’m concerned, science communication itself is difficult and there isn’t one right way of doing it. It depends on the circumstances, the audience, and what’s being communicated. There are also no fixed rules; if we knew what worked, it wouldn’t be so controversial. Scientists are people too, and just because they might have specialist knowledge about some topic, doesn’t mean that they have special powers of persuasion or a super-human ability to avoid showing their frustration at what they encounter.