On the importance of science communication

On the importance of science communication
(from undergraduate dissertation)

A lie ain’t a side of the story. It’s just a lie.
(The Wire, 2008)

Science communication is not just about wishing all members of the public would get equally excited over the discovery of a comet or new species of amphibian. Nor is it simply about attempting to raise the level of physics and chemistry knowledge within the general population. Often it interacts directly with politics and public policy (Treise & Weigold, 2002). In these following three case studies, science communication has directly influenced, and continues to influence, matters that are far from trivial: the education of America’s children; global policy on the planet’s future; and the life or death of people (born and unborn) caught up in South Africa’s AIDS epidemic.

Thabo Mbeki and HIV denial
At the turn of the century, the “most powerful policy-maker in South Africa” (Jones, 2002), then-president Thabo Mbeki, had made it clear that he was in agreement with and supported those who challenged the idea that the Human Immunodeficiency Virus [HIV] caused the disease that was (and still is) devastating his country and continent: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome [AIDS]. That HIV causes AIDS is a strong scientific claim, one which is widely accepted and is the basis of response efforts and treatments (Horton & Das, 2008; Jones, 2002; NHS, 2014; Simon, Ho, & Karim, 2006; UNAIDS, 2010; Weiss, 1993). There is currently no cure, but antiretroviral drugs [ARVs] have been developed and successfully used to extend the lives of patients, as well as prevent transmission from mother to child (Siegfried, van der Merwe, Brocklehurst, & Sint, 2011; Smit et al., 2006). Denialism hinders and discourages the distribution and use of ARVs, thus reducing life expectancy of patients, endangering those who do not carry HIV or AIDS, and condemning as-yet-unborn South Africans to pointless and preventable suffering. In the first five years of the 21st century, 35,000 babies were born with HIV in South Africa (Chigwedere, Seage III, Gruskin, Lee, & Essex, 2008).

The term ‘scepticism’ is sometimes used in case studies such as those looked at here, perhaps to invoke more positive connotations, but Mbeki’s stance was an absolute denial of scientific facts (Mbali, 2002). By taking denialists seriously, the South African president was undermining both science and medicine (Bateman, 2007). In her book, which comprehensively covers the struggle for ARVs in the face of denialism, Nattrass (2007a) concluded that it was the power of ideas, above all else, which shaped the policy in South Africa regarding ARVs and the link between HIV and AIDS. Which is why this case study is relevant here. Between 2000 and 2005, the power of ideas, combined with the power of the president, cost more than 330,000 lives (Chigwedere et al., 2008). This is a science communication issue.

Denialists gain support and attention by presenting themselves as an honourable group attempting to engage in genuine scientific debate, who pose important alternative hypotheses (Nattrass, 2007b). While critical review and debate are an essential part of the scientific process, Nattrass (2007b) makes the point that respect for peer reviewed work and evidence are equally part of it, and are absent from the approach and rhetoric of the denialists. The majority of the most outspoken AIDS denialists are either journalists, or academics with no training relevant to the topic, and their most successful tactic is to exploit the inherent uncertainty in science to manipulate the laypersons response (Nattrass, 2007b). (This is a recurring theme within denial of science, as will be seen in the case studies on denial of evolution and climate change.) Freedom of expression may be incited by denialists when confronted with their critics. However, while they are right to claim this, if they wish to continue to present their alternatives as scientific then they must be subject to peer review (Nattrass, 2011). Another tactic used was the same one employed by some other leaders of newly independent African countries for a plethora of reasons throughout the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century: citing any and all Western intervention as neo-colonialism. In South Africa in particular, the subject of apartheid was invoked by AIDS denialists, along with neo-colonialism, to encourage resistance of pharmaceutical companies supplying ARVs (Wang, 2007). It is this mix of tabloidesque sensationalism and shameful manipulation of people’s fears and tragic recent history that covers up the absence of evidence, peer review, or anything resembling science in AIDS denialism in South Africa.

A great deal more has been written on Mbeki’s AIDS denialism than is covered here (see for example: Butler, 2005; Hoad, 2005; Kalichman, Eaton, & Cherry, 2010; Kenyon, 2009; Mbali, 2004; Nattrass, 2007a; Sheckels, 2004). Furthermore, AIDS denialism exists outside of South Africa and the African continent. However, from this overview of the Mbeki denial it is clear that when a scientist decides not to be involved with science communication, she is potentially turning her back on something extremely important.

Deus ex schola

Lisa: How can you teach the book of Genesis as a scientific theory?!
Skinner: This helpful video will evade all your questions. Eyes screenward!
Narrator: So you’re calling God a liar? An unbiased comparison of evolution and creationism.
(The Simpsons, 2006)

There is a touch of irony in the fact that creationists are incredibly adept at adapting to survive scientific progress, and that intelligent design has, through descent by modification, evolved from creationism. Society has a long history of resisting acceptance of scientific theories which dramatically change the prevailing worldview, but perhaps none have been resisted for as long, and with as much hostility, as Darwinian evolution.

Part of what has been referred to as the current “Republican War on Science” (Mooney, 2006), or just the “War on Science” (National Geographic, 2015), is the attempt to force schools in America to teach alternatives to the theory of evolution by natural selection. If these were scientific, peer reviewed alternative theories, then attempting to get them into the science classroom would be in the best interest of the children. They are not, and it is not. The theory of evolution by natural selection is a scientific theory: a hypothesis which has been supported by substantial evidence and has been peer-reviewed. Creationism is pure speculation. Intelligent design is, in all seriousness, a complete guess: a theory, but not a scientific one.

Actual laws either prohibiting the teaching of evolution or requiring the teaching of creationism have largely been removed throughout the US (George, 2001). However, while they may have lost all legal battles, they have won much public debate and support for the teaching of creationism alongside evolution (Moore, 2000; Plutzer & Berkman, 2008). Reports have found that some teachers continue to teach creationism in the science classroom, despite it being unconstitutional (Bowman, 2007; Nehm & Schonfeld, 2007). Other surveys have found that evolution is often skimmed over, even leaving out human evolution (Berkman, Pacheco, & Plutzer, 2008). Students seem to be subjected to the idea that intelligent design is scientifically valid, while creationism is not suggested to be so (Bowman, 2007). The tactic here by creationists may be to move away from creationism to intelligent design, seeing the former as a sinking ship and the latter as a lifeboat (Forrest, 2008). The Kentucky Creation Museum‘s website is an absolutely bizarre mix of accepting the existence of dinosaurs and even Lucy – the Australopithecus afarensis fossil which threw yet more light on human evolution (Johanson & Edey, 1990) – while still sticking adamantly (pun unintended) to Genesis. It boasts of rooms explaining how animals can adapt but not evolve, sharing evidence of Noah’s flood, and a room which “scientifically confirms [Genesis 1:1] in a breathtaking presentation” (Creation Museum, 2015).

Once again, this is a science communication issue. Children are, for a long time, naïve and suggestible, and their understanding of science comes largely from schools and museums (Griffin & Symington, 1997; Ramey-Gassert, 1997). The creationist appeal to the idea of fairness and giving students alternatives, other sides to the story, is easily rebutted by the explanation of what does and does not make a scientific theory. However, for it to be rebutted it needs teachers and scientists to put as much effort into defending science as creationists put into subverting it. There is a great deal being done: in a later section of this study, the use of websites, multimedia and books by scientists to communicate directly with the public is looked into, and evolution and creationism is one of the most common subjects tackled in these arenas. As Lawrence Krauss (himself an excellent example of a scientist turned science communicator) recently put it: “We owe it to the next generation to plant the seeds of doubt.” (Krauss, 2015)

Finally, the science communication issue here not only lies within the classrooms and museum exhibits, but also with the media. Coverage of the attempt to insert creationism into the science curriculum in public schools has been extensive (Rosenhouse & Branch, 2006).

If the Christian creationists of the USA are genuinely concerned with giving children as much information as is possible, and simply want to share non-scientific theories about the origin of life, then presumably they would accept schools teaching the Genesis myth alongside every other creation story there has ever been, giving equal time and weight to each. Typing ‘creation myth’ into Wikipedia results in a page that has links to 110 creation myths – one of which is the Judeo-Christian Book of Genesis (Wikipedia, 2015). Their bluff should be called, and their reaction to having their particular creation myth taught for less than one percent of the syllabus would make for a rather interesting study.

Climate change (or specifically, climate change and global warming accelerated by human activity) is arguably the predominant case study in modern science communication. In November of 2009, emails between climate scientists from the University of East Anglia were hacked and then published on the Internet (Maibach et al., 2012). The scandal which erupted and the debate that followed took place throughout blogs, the media and scientific journals (Nerlich, 2010).

The term ‘Climategate’ was popularised by a writer and denier of anthropogenic climate change named James Delingpole (Delingpole, 2009). The name itself plays on the Watergate scandal of the 1970s in American politics, and was no doubt used in order to create the feel of controversy and deception before a reader has even begun whichever article, cover story or published paper that has no choice but to use the term. There has been much analysis of the emails and the behaviour of the climate scientists in terms of freedom of information and proper conduct (Boulton, Clarke, Eyton, & Norton, 2010; Grundmann, 2011; Ravetz, 2010; Ryghaug & Skjølsvold, 2011). However, rather than discuss the terminology and actions of these climate scientists, in this study the ‘Climategate’ example serves to highlight the issue of when one scandal affects the public perception of scientists and scientific information. With climate change, it runs the risk of stifling, delaying, or halting urgently needed policy and action on dealing with anthropogenic global warming. As with the politics of South Africa and the education system in the US, this is a science communication issue. However, it is a tricky one. Hacking into emails and subsequently publishing them online is no doubt illegal, and this case study begins to touch on something quite complex: do professional scientists have to choose their words with the utmost care and precision even in private communication?

The negative consequences are not purely hypothetical. Studies have shown that ‘Climategate’ had a significant negative effect on public confidence and trust in scientists, as well as the public belief in anthropogenic global warming (Koteyko, Jaspal, & Nerlich, 2013; Leiserowitz, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, Smith, & Dawson, 2013). Worse still, it has been shown that ‘Climategate’ caused a number of American television meteorologists to lose certainty about anthropogenic climate change and global warming (Maibach, Witte, & Wilson, 2011). These are science communicators losing confidence in a whole field of science due to one scandal. These meteorologists have influence reaching beyond just their on-air weather segment, into blogs and websites, and they often represent the only staff at these stations with scientific training (Maibach et al., 2011).

There are those, both journalist and scientist, who have tried to use science communication to defeat the scandal. A writer for The Guardian published an article explaining how the emails were being used by climate change deniers to deceive the public (Pearce, 2010). One of the climate scientists at the centre of it all gave an interview to the journal Nature (Heffernan, 2010). This is what is needed. The ‘Climategate’ case study makes it abundantly clear that it is extremely important for scientists to be involved in science communication, otherwise their research may well be for nothing.

The moral of it all
This section began with a simple, but powerful, quote highlighting a major issue within science communication through the media: that some opinions are categorically, scientifically, and dangerously incorrect and do not deserve equal coverage or consideration. If certain ideas and opinions are shown to be legitimately incorrect, as the denial of science in these three examples repeatedly have been, then to continue to share them (or to give them a platform on which to be shared) is not to provide fair and holistic information to the public. It is to lie and mislead. There will be situations – “teachable moments” (Baram-Tsabari & Segev, 2013) – where it is correct to give time and space to explaining these denials and rejections of science, where they come from, and why they develop such a strong following. Scientists and journalists can both cover these issues for positive ends. But the argument that HIV does not cause AIDS should not be used to increase reader numbers. The idea that global warming is not happening and business as usual is the way forward should not be encouraged in order to increase profits and percentages with some reader-baiting controversy. Attempting to use innocent children as tools to perpetuate one particular myth at the expense of their learning robust, accurate and important scientific knowledge is psychological child abuse, not entertainment to be financially benefitted from.

When scientists refuse to become involved in media coverage of science, or any form of science communication, then unfounded denialism has more room, more coverage, and more chance of success.  If the coverage of “manufactured scientific controversies” (Ceccarelli, 2011) like these is left to those who concern themselves with only the business side of it all, then the public will be presented with fabricated controversy far too often.


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