CP Editorial: Decoding science is critical for the public good

Science: a six-letter word that can scare off even the most dedicated readers. Science is the world around us. It’s how our bodies function, how our technology is developed and how our medicine is discovered. So why is our personal understanding of science so limited? Twenty-eight percent of our population can’t even pass a basic science literacy test consisting of elementary science concepts, according Christie Wilcox, evolutionary biologist and Science Sushi blog writer.

The main reason for this is the poor communication of science to the public. The need for better science communication is so strong that Jack Schultz and Heidi Appel, a husband-wife research team in the Bond Life Sciences Center, created an honors course for spring semester 2014 called “Decoding Science.” This two-credit hour course is designed around the 2014 Life Sciences and Society Symposium, which will take place March 10-15.  The symposium consists of eight unique speakers who will discuss how science dialogue can be improved.

“We developed this class because we recognized a need and interest in becoming a better science communicator,” Appel said. “There is a need in all fields, not just science, for experts to better communicate to the public.”

Although there are only two journalism majors in the 15-student class, the hope is that the science and journalism students will trade their expertise. The class is focused on scientists becoming better communicators, but there is also a need for more science-knowledgeable journalists. More opportunities similar to this class should be made to breach the gap between science and journalism, because scientists’ and journalists’ lives often do not overlap in casual settings.

Recent social and technological advancements are making this gap larger. According to Wilcox’s article “Social Media for Scientists,” although 72 percent of Internet users are on Facebook, less than two-thirds of college faculty members are on Facebook. Social media is one of the most effective ways to share content with the public today. Photos, links, status updates and audio can all be shared via social media by anyone at anytime. If more intellectuals posted science-related content on social media, this gap would not be so wide.

Some science organizations have begun to implement the use of social media. The UBC Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research can be found on Pinterest, and The New York Botanical Garden can be viewed on Tumblr. You can even watch Musical Cells, biology-themed videos created by Professor Anne Osterrieder from Oxford Brookes University, U.K., on YouTube. More scientists and intellectuals need to take advantage of social media such as this to reach broader audiences, as the science presence on these outlets is still sparse.

One reason for a lack of science-related topics in the news could be the difficulty in making its relevance obvious and in keeping it timely. The public is hungry for news (according to Maryam Banikarium’s article “Today’s American News Consumer,” 88 percent of Americans are interested in news), and they consume it quickly, moving from one topic to another. Content can become “old news” in a matter of hours.

Scientists must learn to communicate their work in a way the keeps it relevant at the same rate other news categories do.

The other challenge with modern journalism for scientists is the ever-changing definition of who is a journalist. Social media has given everyone the ability to share information in the public domain through sites such as Twitter. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing. On the positive side, everyone can search, share, create and comment on science content. On the negative side, many of these people are untrained and not educated enough to weigh in with expert opinions and comments.

One scientist who has been successful in overcoming these challenges is Bill Nye, more famously known as “Bill Nye the Science Guy” from his popular show on the Disney Channel. Nye’s ability to explain science to any audience has been a large part of his success. Scientists and intellectuals can learn from Nye’s ability to captivate audiences with stories. Nye will be at the Life Sciences and Society Symposium March 15 to discuss how he makes science entertaining and accessible.

In the article “The Science of Storytelling,” Jonathan Gottschall said, “Stories pin down a wandering mind.” We live a life of stories. We gravitate to stories, listen to stories and then retell stories. Stories are how we relate to people and concepts. Adding stories to science communication would help the average person relate to science content, store it to memory and share it with others.

In addition to the Symposium, Saturday Morning Science talks take place at Bond Life Sciences Center in Monsanto Auditorium every Saturday from 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Both the Bill Nye presentation and Saturday Morning Science events are great opportunities to learn more about science dialogue. With increased awareness, science can have a stronger presence in mainstream journalism. Every American should be able to name at least one living scientist, not just 18 percent of our population.

Elizabeth Johnson

About the Author Elizabeth Johnson

I am pursuing a degree in science and agricultural journalism with an emphasis in agricultural marketing. I hope to work in corporate public relations post graduation. I have a passion for communications and anything and everything Mizzou. My dad is a CAFNR alumnus with a degree in agricultural economics, and my mom graduated from the College of Education. Both of my parents grew up on family operated farms and in rural agricultural communities. This was the main factor in my decision to pursue a degree from CAFNR. I wrote for Corner Post during Fall 2013 and had no writing experience prior to that. I now have a new appreciation for investigative journalism and am excited to continue practicing it.