Citizen Science

whose fault is it that nobody understands science writing

by by Katie Okamoto

The public's knowledge of science relies for the most part on scientists, who are as well known for their eloquence as doctors are for their penmanship. But let's be fair. Some of the most celebrated books of the last 10 years have been scientific ones made accessible to a lay audience: their communication of technical science balances accuracy, precision and compelling language.

Brian Greene, author of the popular The Elegant Universe, wrote in a foreword: "Non-scientists sometimes blur the distinction between the intimidating language--mathematics--in which physics is developed and the engrossing ideas with which it tussles. But that would be like my trying to read Huckleberry Finn in Greek." So Greene set out to explain the quest for a universal theory of physics with the straight-shooting speech of Mark Twain.

Get Smart
Greene and others like him have used good writing to move science into pop-consciousness. Dava Sobel, who spoke at Brown last week, is a renowned science writer who says that her latest book The Planets was written for "people who were not interested" in the solar system. (She was inspired when she discovered that her agent didn't know the difference between a solar system, a galaxy and the universe). Then there is John McPhee, whose epic Annals of the Former World got him a Pulitzer for turning hard geology into an American poetic narrative.

It is in the area of research science, however, that non-scientists seem to shut down. Specialized vocabulary and intimidating variables are often unexplained, and prior knowledge assumed, by scientific writers deeply immersed in familiar work. The effect of a scientific paper on an uninitiated reader can be paralyzing. For a long time, this criticism of scientific writing's inaccessibility has served as the excuse for public ignorance of cutting-edge research developments. But scientists acknowledge the exclusionary language of their profession and are making conscious efforts to reform their parlance.

The notion that science must be communicated accurately to the general public is a fairly new idea that has been underscored by global problems like climate warming, which require a cooperative understanding of nuanced concepts. The National Association of Science Writers, which was founded in 1934 to foster the dissemination and interpretation of accurate scientific information to the public as well as to guide professional science writers in their work, has taken on a special responsibility in our age of information proliferation and exchange. Journals like Science and Nature always run contextualized discussions alongside technical papers, with the rationale that scientific studies need to be analyzed and placed in social, economic and even moral terms in order to be useful. These solid efforts to communicate between scientific and non-scientific communities do not align with the popular criticism that biophysicists can't even spell "thesaurus."

It is not that scientists couldn't or shouldn't improve their writing. But given the improvements made to science writing, and to the ongoing disconnect between scientists, the public and policymakers, the scientific community cannot be expected to bear the burden alone.

Inconvenient truths
Just as poor science writing is acknowledged by the public, the public, in turn, is notorious for being alarmingly misinformed about--or, at best, unexposed to--key scientific concepts. To some extent, this is the fault of the division of disciplines in academics. In a structure in which subjects are partitioned and framed as if from philosophically disparate cultures, there is little likelihood that a science major and non-science major will independently contemplate the other's perspectives. In fact, in some academic climates, science and the humanities are erected at ideological odds.

At institutions like Brown, where cross-disciplinary dabbling is not required, the potential for isolation and ignorance would be great were it not for the diverse interests of individual students. On February 3, the Committee on Science and Technology Studies and the Cogut Center for the Humanities at Brown University sponsored four panel discussions on "The Politics, Ethics and Science of Food." The event, dubbed "Fishes and Loaves," brought undergraduates and professors across disciplines together to discuss regional issues relating to food. It showed the rewards of bringing science and the humanities together in academics as well as highlighting their accessibility to the public.

The ecologist James Lovelock wrote: "We have no trouble with the idea that noble entities such as people are made up from an intricate, interconnected set of cell communities. [But] it took the view of Earth from space... to let us sense a planet on which living things, the air, the oceans and the rocks all combine as one." In the universe, everything is part of a connected system. While it may be practical to have academic, focus, it is dangerous to hone in at the expense of peripheral vision.

Package deals
Scientific knowledge, as Al Gore has now beat dead, can be inconvenient. It makes models messy. It does not always fit into the agendas of policymakers, the lifestyles of individuals or the worldviews of scholars. It can contradict, complicate and interfere. But even when it is inconvenient, science--and its misuse--influences policymakers and voters every day.
It takes only a cursory glance at the relationship between government and scientists to see how fundamental science is to major political decisions. Communicating the scale of climate change and its implications to members of Congress, who by and large have no scientific background, has been like running through water. And there are less loaded examples: few developers and regional governments heeded the warnings of coastal ecologists and environmental engineers about the importance of wetlands to buffer storm surges. Then there is a perennial debate about the science of toxicity and acceptable levels for air, water and food, not to mention the mixed message delivered to the public about serious and minor health hazards. Of course, citizen activists, a galvanizing part of the legislative process, must understand enough about science to know when it's really worth hollering.

In the '70s and '80s, a remarkable effort by scientists, public servants and an informed citizenry created enough commotion about UV rays and skin cancer that chemical companies realized the damage their products made to the ozone layer was a liability. Since the ban of the damaging chemicals, the ozone layer has been on the mend. The world is seldom so lucky. Climate change is the obvious poster child for woeful inaction on the part of the American public and its government, despite climatologists' efforts to alert people to the urgency.

On a basic level, the nitty-gritty of scientific theory is not required to thrive in our quotidian world. Passengers don't need to understand how to navigate latitude and longitude to take a plane. It isn't necessary to memorize the special properties of water to ice skate. But the basics of climate science, toxicity tolerances and coastal systems are crucially tied to human safety. In this sense, knowing the difference between latitude and longitude is important, because it comes as part of an educational package. But it is worth pointing out that more important than knowing is caring to know.

Scientific civic duty
To say that science is poorly understood because it is poorly communicated looks only at one side of the conversation. Scientific knowledge should be thought of less as a lecture series and more as a seminar. One half of the responsibility lies with the citizenry to seek out science, to question the universe and be active participants as learners.

In this way, scientific ignorance has everything in common with political apathy. Democracy, we can all agree, fails without the interest and investment of citizens. If citizens of the US have the responsibility to take part in democratic processes, to be informed of elections, to vote and to be aware of current events, then citizens of the natural world are responsible for wanting to know more about everything.

It is up to scientists to write better and articulate their findings and conclusions; it is up to us to be active readers, seekers and googlers. Key political decisions about environment, health, agriculture and natural disaster (to name a few areas) cannot succeed without the inquisitive minds of responsible and engaged thinkers. That means taking off academic blinders, getting out of intellectual comfort zones and being willing to be confused.

Shock and awe
A reinvigorated sense of scientific civic duty has practical impact in terms of organizing and understanding legislation and navigating hot button issues. But there is also another effect: wonder. Science has a profound pertinence to life that, when realized, can knock socks off. As children, some of us are lucky enough to visit science museums where we can stand on scales and weigh in at 30 pounds, a change in relative reality so startling that it blasts through the limits of quotidian imagination. Those who grew up in suburbia know the rocketing sense of freedom when great mountainous horizons are seen for the first time, with all their pre-ancient stories rifting and faulting like sunsets.

There is a gilded moment at the end of Amelie in which a man, reading that the number of cells in his skull is greater than the number of stars in the galaxy, looks up in amazement. Being aware of the world from a wide variety of angles, of which science is only one (albeit an important one), makes living in the world more stimulating and more enjoyable. Active questioning and seeking answers about what's going on are requisites for dynamism in society. To put it another way, acute awareness of what surrounds us engages us in ways that simply living cannot.

Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote, "The universe is a big place, perhaps the biggest." A man of his intellectual twinkle was well aware of the importance of questions, discomfort zones and citizenship. Expecting scientists to inspire the public to realize such wide-eyed possibility might be asking a little too much. Yet we expect them to tell us clearly what is happening--as we should. Now the second and more important step is that we ask them questions.

KATIE OKAMOTO B'09 still thinks Pluto is a planet.