Environment Magazine

Shadow of Ignorance Veiling Society Despite More Science Communication

Posted on the 19 April 2016 by Bradshaw @conservbytes

imagesI’ve been thinking about this post for a while, but it wasn’t until having some long, deep chats today with staff and students at Simon Fraser University‘s Department of Biological Sciences (with a particular hat-tip to the lovely Nick Dulvy, Isabelle Côté & John Reynolds) that the full idea began to take shape in my brain. It seems my presentation was a two-way street: I think I taught a few people some things, and they taught me something back. Nice.

There’s no question at all that science communication has never before been so widespread and of such high quality. More and more scientists and science students are now blogging, tweeting and generally engaging the world about their science findings. There is also an increasing number of professional science communication associations out there, and a growing population of professional science communicators. It is possibly the best time in history to be involved in the generation and/or communication of scientific results.

Why then is the public appreciation, acceptance and understanding of science declining? It really doesn’t make much sense if you merely consider that there has never been more good science ‘out there’ in the media — both social and traditional. For the source literature itself, there has never before been as many scientific journals, articles and even scientists writing.

So clearly it’s not declining access to information that’s the problem, nor is it a retracting body of human scientific knowledge (obviously). Many have pondered why nonsensical political extremism, religiosity, declining educational standards, scientific denialism, conspiracy theories and evidence-free dogmas are rising despite our unparalleled access to knowledge. Few answers are forthcoming, although it is my own hypothesis that we have finally entered a phase of compensatory resource competition (human density feedback) where the fight to dominate dwindling resources engenders more evidence-free ideologies. In fact, I wager that the first phase of such density feedback in humans is manifested as an ideological response, rather than a behavioural or demographic one (of course, the latter will inevitably follow).

So it is entirely plausible (although still hypothetical at this stage) that despite our increasing frequency and quality of science communication, society is still slipping into an Endarkenment1. This potentially negates everything I’ve ever said or written about the value of science communication, and certainly would make all those already in the business (or contemplating moving into it) question their life ambitions.

The reality is thankfully a little more encouraging than the simple story told by this gloomy picture. The reason there is a silver lining is that at least from the perspective of actively communicating scientists, the people who matter most in making society-changing policies are more likely to know about their expertise and their good, evidence-based suggestions for improvement than if the scientists only published in academic journals2. I’ll use one example to illustrate this.

Australia has an appalling environmental record and laughable (agonising) climate-change policies. Our governing politicians are either outright climate-change and/or science denialists, or they couldn’t give a rat’s filthy bum about the disastrous state of our planetary life-support system. Yet despite the existence of these arsehats, every single municipal and regional council, state government and even relevant federal ministry has active climate change-mitigation and environmental policies. Sure, they are for the most part entirely inadequate, but at least they exist, and the bureaucrats responsible for their implementation are getting on with their jobs despite the inane politics happening above their heads. When these policy makers need advice and data, they inevitably turn to scientists to provide it. Those scientists who do the best job of communicating their findings are therefore more likely to be noticed by the bureaucrats and invited to contribute their solutions.

These are the people to whom science communicators are now speaking, and thankfully, these are the people that matter most when it comes to making decisions about environmental protection and remediation. Do not become too stressed by the ecological ignorance of Jane or Joe Bloggs on the street, or the near-total lack of environmental concern in the political discourse; instead, make sure that your message is heard clearly by the decision makers who have the most incentive, power and desire to change society for the better.

I am not, however, convinced that we as a society will get our act together in time to avoid really horrible problems down the track, but at least we can slow the process of degradation by talking (indirectly and directly) to the people who matter most.

1The opposite of Enlightenment.

2Practically no one outside of academia reads them.

CJA Bradshaw

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