The public need help to understand science’s imperfections and complexities, its (sometimes) binary nature, and the fact that it can’t always provide answers. It’s time to ditch the “Trust me, I’m a scientist” mindset, argues Collin Diedrich.
When I was growing up in the US I learned about the scientific method at around the same time that I was trading beanie babies and obsessing over super hero colouring books. I thought scientists were magicians, using magic to answer impossible questions to solve all the worlds’ problems. We learned that scientists ask a question, form a hypothesis, design experiments, analyze those data, and communicate results. In my naïve head, these answers were undeniably perfect derived from a perfect system.
But perfect is not part of science. In the real world, the scientific method is far more complicated and convoluted. Hypotheses go through countless revisions and are sometimes finalized after all experiments and analyses are complete. The paper that eventually results from this work is one tiny puzzle piece in understanding a specific topic. Other pieces of this puzzle might be contradictory to your information, so scientists need to determine how experiments and analyses differ from one study to another to determine what they believe is most likely correct. This means that science isn’t binary, it’s a spectrum. Scientific knowledge moves along this spectrum until “scientific consensus” agrees that certain hypotheses are correct. Then new data might come to light that contradicts the “scientific consensus,” and what was once “correct” might not be in the future when scientific consensus moves in a new direction.
This is science; a subject with the expressed goal of better understanding our world while simultaneously acknowledging what we do not know. I think the latter part of this statement is hard for most non-scientists to grasp. In a world where the extent of human understanding is literally an immediate click away, it’s frustrating for people to think that science is hard to understand and it is easy to be misled. The non-scientist has two options for understanding the most late-breaking scientific information by reading from scientific articles in reputable journals that are published for other scientists, or by reading summaries in news articles or scientific blogs.
The problem with reading articles published in scientific journals is that you need a significant amount of education to understand them. But if you only get your information from news articles or blogs you might only be reading “eye catching sound bites” that might misrepresent scientific advancements. We, as a society, need a middle ground, to close that gap in knowledge between scientists and non-scientists.
Although scientists need to write papers for other scientists, we shouldn’t produce science just for each other. We should be able to explain our research in non-technical terms so high school and middle school students can understand. We need to contact news agencies and bloggers that cite our own work, or that cite work we are familiar with to help clarify their statements. We should also engage in scientific discussions with our friends, families, and curious strangers in person and, if you have the stomach for it, on social media. We need to help the public understand the benefits of our own research. Likewise, we need the public to understand that scientific progress is not always linear and that sometimes scientists disagree. We need to help the public understand when scientific disagreements are valid and when they are not. It is up to us to teach the public about scientific consensus.
We need to shy away from statements like, “trust me, I’m a scientist” and instead explain why data support our reasoning. By reaching out to the public we can help them understand what the scientific process entails. Science teachers should explain to their students that the scientific method encourages dissent and that scientific consensus, although occasionally incorrect, is the best system we have for understanding our world. And as scientists, we need to be comfortable explaining our research to anyone that asks, no matter their age and education level. We are scientists, and it is our job to share the awesomeness of science with the world! It is our job to make science a universal language.
Collin Diedrich is a postdoctoral research fellow in HIV/TB co-infection immunology at the University of Pittsburgh, US.