viernes, 5 de julio de 2013

Communicating the Profession of Uncertainty

ORIGINAL: OxBridgeBiotech
by: Sheida Rabipour
Wednesday, 3rd July 2013

The work of scientists must ultimately cater to the masses


A major issue facing scientists today? Communicating their hard work and innovations to the rest of us.

Around the time Columbus set sail on his famous journey, most people “knew” that the sun was orbiting Earth, fevers were a sign of punishment by evil spirits, and living to 30 years of age marked a full life. Fast forward a few hundred years and such notions are laughable.

Scientific research has pushed the realm of possibility beyond limits once imagined. We have constructed gravity-defying machines, ventured outside our planet, and created the possibility to gaze inside the building blocks of life. We have created the means for astronauts such as Chris Hadfield, hanging in the vacuum of space, to connect with millions of people around the world in real-time. And the ability to reconstruct our body parts, even remove vital organs, such as the heart, in favour of man-made replacements. Talk about the sci-fi conceptions in Back to the Future! The creative vision and dedicated passion of scientists has transformed society, and continues to improve our standards of living every day. But how accessible is this knowledge to the general public?

Currently, perceptions of scientific studies are heavily polarized: from politicians at the ranks of Sarah Palin underestimating the value of “fruit fly” research, to the egregious inflations of commercialized therapies, shrugged off as “neuro-bunk” by brain scientists. Not surprisingly, the scale usually tips towards the latter with regards to appealing to the masses. In her recent TED talk, neuroscientist Molly Crockett of Cambridge University implores us to be wary of those who claim to read minds through brain scans or cure everything from Alzheimer’s to marital discord using neuroimaging techniques. Catchy for the public, perhaps, but such misrepresentations of science can devastate the desperate and, at the very least, waste the resources of the hopeful. Without making scientific reports accessible to the lay reader, groundbreaking advancements remain trapped within the academic bubble – sometimes even beyond the grasp of scientists in other disciplines.


The work of scientists must ultimately cater to the masses. If a finding gains popularity among the erudite but remains unheard by everyone outside a specific field, does it still make a sound? Scientists need to do a better job at convincing people that science matters. Real science, not the overstated patter sometimes sold by reporters and commercial entities. The public should appreciate why it’s important and exciting to map the genomes of plants, insects, and animals; this information has enabled us to discover more about our own genetic code, compare or manipulate genetic sequences to understand the basis of diseases such as Huntington’s, and screen ourselves for risk of developing certain types of cancer. How many among us truly understand the wonder of DNA methylation, which can alter the expression of our proteins based on environmental cues and change the way we think, behave, handle stressors and develop illnesses, including genetic disorders such as Prader-Willi Syndrome or Angelman Syndrome – both of which arise from alterations in the same segment of a single chromosome? Few non-experts would excitedly grab the latest report on DISC1 signalling pathways but many would be interested to know about the protein’s role in generating new brain cells and promoting neural development, as well as its influence on disorders such as Schizophrenia.

As Melissa Marshall of Penn State University articulated, scientists should translate their technical terms into simpler language while expressing their passion for the topic and its societal relevance. What more effective way to captivate funding institutions or policy-makers about potentially paradigm-shifting research and help them understand why such efforts are worth the investment? With proper communication, scientists can show the world why their work is worth pursuing and ignite that same passion in future generations of young researchers and academics.

At the same time, overstating research findings would do no favour to anyone. In today’s busy world the layperson rarely has the time or the energy to comprehend the argot of scientific journals. Scientific papers stem from the perseverance of experienced scholars who have undergone a gruelling academic cycle to make sense of abstruse data and contextualize their results over decades – sometimes centuries – of work. Instead, those interested rely on popular science journals and reports. The most outrageous headlines and daring conclusions captivate the masses; the public is less interested in the carefully phrased account of the cognisant scientist. The problem with such reports lies in the unintentional misrepresentation that sometimes befalls the ambitious writer or, perhaps more commonly, the zealous reader. Exaggerating the conclusions of one study, for example, has led popular science programs such as the BBC’s “Bang Goes the Theory” to dismiss the promising field of brain training as ineffective. On the other hand, slapping on scientific jargon has trapped many an unsuspecting consumer in a web of invalidated, sometimes downright fraudulent, remedies or products. Such miscommunications in science can lead promising domains to lose their credibility. If this continues, future generations may grow up to the fabled “scientist who cried cure.

The public must be guided into understanding that the carefully crafted moderation with which scientists often speak and write is because, in most cases, the implications are not yet certain. We can hope that a nano-bug programmed to identify cancerous cells will succeed at eradicating tumours. Or that curing one case of HIV will lead to a global cure or vaccine. We can wish for the eventual ability to identify “brain foods” that make us smarter or fight the signs of aging. And we have certainly come a long way from where we were 100, or even just 20 years ago. But the fact is, scientists conduct research to clarify ambiguity and comprehend mystery. In essence, scientists are employed to validate educated guesses. Professionals of uncertainty, they tackle the unknown to make it known; they render what was previously inconceivable a societal standard. Their task is highly specialized, but requires accurate and widespread communication to the rest of the world in the hope of accelerating the pace of progress. That is the beauty and the curse of science. And that is one of the greatest issues facing scientists today.

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