Below, I think, is a good article to compliment the blog I posted from Chris Mooney the other day. I don't mean to dwell on this topic, but given where I have been in my career I find these comments to be compelling and important to think about; not just for people in the midst of their careers, but perhaps more importantly for those that are just starting their careers.
As scientists we tend to struggle with communication regarding our work, and there are many reasons for that. Some of those reasons, I will agree, have to do with being able to find a receptive audience that is willing to invest the time to come to a level of understanding on any given topic. Many of our audiences (and society in general) want everything quickly and simply - they don't want to work at it. This puts science and scientists in a tough postion of trying to find ways explain "science" to people and have them find it as facinating as we do while at the same time dispelling the perception that science is too complicated to understand. However, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that we are also at fault for not getting out there and making the effort to make science awesome and cool to those that aren't scientists. This is why I empahsize that people who are just starting their careers should really pay attention to this. Get in the habit of talking about what you do and why it is important - and be able to do it in layman's terms if needed. Be excited when you talk to people; you will find it is contagious!
The article below talks about the "thin line between healthy scepticism and a cynical approach which ignores or distorts inconvenient evidence" when it comes to issues in science. Another tough hurdle in communication and providing understanding to society on scientific issues.
As always - comments welcome!
We need both scepticism and consensus
John Beddington is the UK government's chief scientific adviser and head of the Government Office for Science
Science is progress, but not progress unchallenged. In our era of "instant solutions" and immediate response, it is easy, and perhaps tempting, to forget that true advancement is attained through criticism, scepticism and debate. Great scientists have often challenged the status quo, but armed with the facts and evidence required to justify their view. Those who challenge the collective view should be scrutinised, and if this scrutiny results in truth, should be rightly celebrated.
Yet if we become fixated on divergence, we lose sight of the importance of consensus; significantly a consensus built upon rigorous enquiry. Only through a collaborative effort and purpose can the greatest global challenges be addressed and tackled.
We are faced with some incredibly big challenges - climate change being one of the biggest. Yet whilst there is a scientific consensus around both the fact it is real and its fundamental cause, the serious public debate required to drive progress is being undermined by individuals or groups who cherry-pick facts to drive their own agenda. This trend is not unique to the climate debate; the controversy over the safety of GM crops is another prominent example.
What concerns me is not that uncertainties are scrutinised, for uncertainties will always exist. What concerns me is our inability, and often, fear of communicating, and admitting, this fact. Indeed, as scientists we must be more transparent, more open to describing the gaps in our knowledge. Scepticism is the driving force for further discovery and better evidence. But often there is a thin line between healthy scepticism and a cynical approach which ignores or distorts inconvenient evidence.
It is human nature to find evidence more convincing when it backs up our own preconceptions, but when we allow that impulse to influence how society acts on important issues, it is irresponsible and dangerous.
Let's return to what science actually is: the testing and retesting of hypotheses by experiment and scrutiny to create an evidence base. Where the evidence falls primarily on one side of an argument, a consensus is formed. Whether in policy advice, news reports or documentaries, to misrepresent the balance of evidence, whether explicitly or implicitly, is a dereliction of duty.
So I would issue the following challenges:
It is time the scientific community became proactive in challenging misuse of scientific evidence. We must make evidence, and associated uncertainties, accessible and explicable. In a world of global communication, we cannot afford to only speak to ourselves. We must also be confident in challenging the misrepresentation or exaggeration of evidence and the conclusions it leads to. Where significant consensus exists, it must be made obvious.
In the Civil Service and other organisations with a stake in policy, we must guard against ideology, and consider the whole body of evidence, not just that which supports our own views. I will continue to carry this message across government in my role as chief scientific adviser. Scientific evidence is only one factor in politicians' decisions but its integrity must be preserved if poor decisions are to be avoided.
I know journalists often have little time to cover complex issues. However it is not enough simply to report opposing views on an issue. The public is best served if each view, and the evidence behind it, is rigorously tested, scrutinised and challenged. The best science journalism is a testament to this and I make no apology for challenging all to reach the highest standards.
We all have a stake in this. The pursuit of truth is not just for the scientific elite, nor Fleet Street, nor the corridors of Whitehall. This is a call to all of us - follow the evidence, and challenge those who seek to distort it.
A note from Wired for Soils: If you would like to see comments posted to this article, many of which are very interesting, you can find them here: http://bit.ly/etabcU