Issue 8 / 5 March 2012

AT a recent dinner party, a man who did not believe in anthropogenic climate change asked me how I could know it was “true”.

When I told him I was relying on the consensus of climate scientists who knew far more about the issue than I did, he replied with an exasperated “Scientists!”, followed by a lecture on vested interests and the corrupt academic systems that forced researchers to toe the official line in order to get grants.

Ideology can, of course, play a role in grant assessments — as it can in just about any human activity — but what struck me about this exchange was how in some circles “science” and “scientist” have become dirty words.

From climate change to vaccination, the people who know most about the subject can be regarded as somehow inherently compromised, unreliable — even corrupt.

There was a fair bit of soul searching about precisely this at last week’s Australian Science Communicators’ conference. Why, many delegates lamented, has it become so hard to get the scientific message across?

Dr Rod Lamberts, who teaches science communication at the Australian National University, was one who argued there was no point in just battering people with the facts on issues like vaccination (prompting one Twitter wit to comment that lightly frying was so much better).

Perhaps, Dr Lamberts suggested, we should abandon the word “science” and instead talk about “useful stuff”, to give people the impression this was something they might actually want to know.

Or — and Dr Lamberts may have had his tongue slightly in his cheek here — we could adopt some of the techniques of the anti-science brigade to get the point across: be emotive, use data selectively, and so on.

Personally, I’m rather fond of facts. And I think scientists need to hang on to the things that distinguish them from the shysters, scaremongers and quacks — which means staying true to the evidence.

But I do think science could often do a better job of getting its message across and one way to do that would be by harnessing some of the standard tools of good communication: telling human stories, making the message relevant to the audience, making them laugh and, above all, keeping it clear and simple.

Hmm … clear and simple. The standard objection, of course, is that science isn’t always either of those things. True enough, but coming up with clear messages about complex topics doesn’t have to mean dumbing down.

Certainly, you can respond to somebody from the wilder fringes of the anti-vaccination movement with detailed data on vaccine efficacy and side effects, explaining what a 95% confidence interval means along the way.

Your arguments aren’t going to sway the truly committed (“85% effective? You mean it doesn’t even work in 15% of children?”), but they might convince some waverers.

Equally truthfully you could say: “If these people get their way, babies will die.”

I’m not saying the second approach is necessarily the best strategy, but I do think science needs to expand its repertoire when it comes to getting its message across.

Drama, emotion, humour, personal stories: these are all important aspects of the human experience and incorporating them into the communication of science could help to win hearts as well as minds.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

Posted 5 March 2012

11 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: Science is not a dirty word

  1. Irony says:

    I find it particularly ironic that not accepting the opinion of experts blindly should be considered to be “anti-intellectual”. Not to put too fine a point on it, if anything, blind acceptance is the epitome of lack of intellect. Real experts can usually provide explanations, even if simplified, and they usually accept that knowledge will change. As a profession, we can’t know everything but we should be prepared to question something that doesn’t seem to make sense even if espoused by experts.

  2. Mia says:

    One good illustration – why science (?) has become a dirty word- would be by reading John Van Tiggelen’s piece on ‘blushing surgery’ in the Good Weekend Magazine (10 March). The ‘scientific’ position of the surgeons is clear. So is the lack of science (and the prevalent pseudoscience) the industry (sic!) relies on.

  3. Sue Ieraci says:

    There seems to be a strong anti-intellectual influence in our society, where experts are regarded as elitist and every opinion is given equal weight. I am not a climate scientist, and have not assessed the relevant evidence (nor would I be capable of doing so) – so on what basis would I have an opinion that differs from the vast majority of trained experts? The same argument operates for the clinical sciences. We have a lot of evidence about how the body works, from lab science to advanced imaging – MRI, PET, electron microscopy, and so much more. On what basis can someone then argue that their pet theory that involves homeopathic dilutions would carry equal weight?

  4. dr richard gordon says:

    It is pleasing to see articles such as this in the MJA. For about 30 yrs Australian Skeptics has been trying to draw attention to the perils of so-called alternative medicine and the failure of critical thinking of those in the medical profession who support it. The recently formed group of prominent Australian scientists “Friends of Science in Medicine”, (website, has taken on the task of raising the awareness of doctors and scientists of the insidious attack on science and critical thinking by those who support non evidence based therapies, procedures and devices. Acupuncture being a prime example.
    I would like to draw to the attention of readers of the MJA the quarterly Journal of Australian Skeptics Inc., “The Skeptic” which has many excellent articles on CAM & critical thinking.

  5. Glenn Rosendahl says:

    There is nothing wrong with carbon. Photosynthesis creates a high energy hydrogen entity and immediately links it to carbon in the guise of sugar. Protons, and gaseous hydrogen are difficult and costly to store. Water soluble carbohydrate simple, easy and inexpensive to store – and use. Photosynthetic carbon is the energy store of biology. We all use it – eat it – every day. Biology has given us the model – the ‘carbon cycle’. The energy cycle is ubiquitous in biology. Just look at ATP. Adenosine tri phosphate. A ‘charged battery’ created by mitochondria. Use the energy – ‘drive’ the cell – extract the phosphate ion – and you have ADP. Adenosine di phosphate. The discharged ‘battery’. Back it goes to the mitochondrion to be recharged. Snap the phosphate back on. The ‘phosphate cycle’. Can you imagine where we would be if you could not do that? Every cell had to continually pay for an ongoing external supply of ATP, and had to chuck the ADP into some wasteland? Just where would we be?
    How is that for a ‘story’?

  6. Glenn Rosendahl says:

    Jane, the answer to the confrontation you described lay in the phrase ‘vested interests’. None of the carbon consortia – the coal, oil and gas companies (yes – solid, liquid and gaseous hydrocarbon all contain carbon) want renewable energy. They make their money from ‘mining’ high energy carbon, selling us the energy it creates, and dumping it – as low energy carbon (linked to oxygen, not hydrogen) into the atmosphere. They want continuing income. At the point where the photosynthetic cycle is completed, and gaseous carbon dioxide is re-energized into high energy hydrocarbon we can re-use, the income flow to those ‘vested interests’ will probably drop to less than on tenth of what it is today. And rapidly, as the technology improves, to less than one percent. What CEO, worth his salt, could ever allow that to happen?
    Yes – there is a need for cogent comment, and people who can write good stories. Can we enlist Hollywood, before the ‘vested interests’ take control of it?

  7. Rob the Physician says:

    Science and scientists are not the “B-all and End-all”!
    They fail to explain… 1) Creation 2) Noah’s flood
    3) the “Events of Easter” 4) The “Virgin Birth”
    5) Israel’s place in ‘past,present& future’ history
    ….etc,etc,etc……..need I go on !!!

  8. Alex Wood says:

    Alas salespeople (polite expression) have always baffled brains when it comes to convincing most people, which is where we start.
    Ultimately truth conquers, but not before some are hurt. Human nature being as it is, scientific thinkers just have to stay with the message and try to help without being discouraged or resorting to unprincipled communication.

  9. Gary says:

    A sad and candid reflection Jane, on how science has been tossed around by lawyers and politicians to focus on their interests, rather than see the primary dedication of advancing knowledge on the many areas that desperately need evaluation and better management, to improve outcomes that have more direct relevance to our communities. Yes funding is not primarily orientated to supporting so much of what deserves stronger evaluation. Mentioning medical research briefly, politicians have sought to encourage greater reliance on resource from drug companies, regardless of the obvious conflict of interest, ignoring more substantive evaluation of how organic medical regimes can alleviate many community symptoms prior to lifetime allocations of manufactured medicines.
    To mention another area that readers will relate to, one that has benefits flowing in many positive directions; as we have urbanized our towns and cities, we have obliterated indigenous habitat and put token parks in these areas redefined with a European cultural design, accommodating little of the indigenous life that was once occupying these areas. Where the parks could accommodate some of what once was, by the use of native grasses and understory. Now they are mowed lawns and stray gum trees with magpies occasionally trying to live on what is on the lawns between mowing. Mental well being in our busy society is assisted by having some quiet and interesting distraction. The very elements that parks could also provide with greater biodiversity, but science that has been done is not able to drive any change, with instilled administrative and political control that could be further educated. Where to start and how to make it happen?

  10. JennyH says:

    Does science need better stories to win over the public? I think the main trouble is that science cannot agree with itself. It is becoming increasingly divided. A new climate model – produced by highly-respected experts – has reduced projections of warming by about half. Enough to frustrate anyone who wants reliable data! And medical science has developed a reputation for contradicting last week’s findings. For me, it is less about using the psychology of good communication, and more, much more, about having a consistent story that genuinely addresses the safety of devices and things like vaccines. There are problems, and ignoring them, or glossing over them, puts us all in a very bad position as communicators.

  11. Cheryl Power says:

    I agree entirely with the message of this article. All too often scientists see any issue that has been simplified as having been rendered simplistic and as such of lesser value, and view dramatic statements and stories as sensational and somehow almost irrational. I like facts too and believe I depend on them to make intelligent decisions and form sensible opinions but I know and understand that emotional and personal factors also shape these processes. I use both facts and stories to teach students and I know I am not unique in this. Guess what the students remember and what so often conveys the message most effectively? Teaching or communicating with the public is surely not so very different from facing a lecture theatre full of students?

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