I’m just back from teaching at a summer school on the Dynamics of Exoplanetary and Solar System Bodies. It started in Inverness and then moved to Skye, which was a lovely place to visit.
I gave a couple of lectures mostly listened to the other lectures, or spent time talking with the “students”, who were PhD students and early career postdoctoral researchers. We did get one day off, which I used to go walking in the Cuillin hills.
One evening event involved a discussion about science communication, or public outreach. Most people agreed that it was important and something that researchers should aim to do. There was a clear recognition that it was important to be aware of the intended audience, and that we should think of innovative ways to communicate. Particular examples were engaging with artists, or musicians, as a way of making science more accessible. It was clear that virtually everyone recognised that effective science communication was tricky and that engaging with the broader public wasn’t as simple as just explaining the science.
What was interesting, though, was that few seemed to have considered the potential pitfalls. During the early months of the pandemic, the UK government would often claim to be “following the science”. This was clearly intended to imply that government policy was being informed by the scientific evidence, but it also gives politicians a potential scapegoat (the scientists) when things don’t go as well as might have been hoped.
Similarly, the reason climate change hasn’t been effectively addressed, the reason some refuse vaccines, or believe the Earth is flat, is not because of poor science communication. This isn’t to suggest that science communication couldn’t have been better, but that there are so many factors that influence what people are willing to accept, or do, that science communication is unlikely to be a dominant determinant.
So, even though I think it is crucial that scientists engage with the broader public, and with policy makers, I also think it’s important to recognise the limitations of what science communication can, and should, achieve. The goal of science communication is mostly to inform, not to directly influence public opinion, or behaviour. The responsibility for the latter lies with those who have a mandate to do so.
I do think that most scientists recognise the latter, but I’m not sure that many realise that a failure of science communication could easily become the mantra if, or when, we don’t deal with various societal problems as well as we had hoped to do so. Even though it may be difficult to completely avoid such a narrative developing, it’s worth being aware of this possibility and doing our best to avoid it.