Communicating Science: Part 1

This site was created to be good citizens of the scientific community and to help communicate scientific knowledge and understanding to our family, friends, and anyone else who wanted to listen. I recently attended the Institute of Food Technologists conference (with over 24,000 other people!) and was impressed by how prominent they made the topic of identifying and communicating accurate science. The largest conference room had three entire seminars on the topic; the topic was pervasive enough that it managed to surface in some of the scientific sessions as well. As this topic becomes a larger and more prominent discussion among scientists, expect to see more voices explaining similar concepts with similar messages. Scientists tend to have a hard time connecting with normal people; the scientific community is still figuring out how to talk to people like real people and how to navigate social media. The prevailing theme seemed to be that knowledge and information that has been properly vetted needs to be communicated accurately and consistently, especially when confronted with inaccuracies and emotion.

These two posts (it’s a lot for a single post) will be a little bit different than our others in that they will mostly be summaries of concepts conveyed during these talks and less original material with references. References for specific points will still be necessary but, unless the presentations are made public by the speakers or the conference, we won’t be able to share the slides in their entirety. The three sessions devoted to this topic were by Jacques Rousseau, Ben Goldcare, and Bev Postma. We’ll give the titles of each of their talks when we get there, but our take on the topics come down to the philosophy of knowledge, the dissemination and analysis of science, and the impact of pseudoscience.

We’ll lead off with Jacques Rousseau’s talk: “Science Versus Sensationalism and Soundbites: How Can Consumers Make More Informed Choices?”

Jacques Rousseau is the founder of the Free Society Institute which is a non-profit out of South Africa promoting, among other things, scientific reasoning. He is very direct and does not mince words when it comes to established science.

He points out that knowledge is not a democratic process. There is no popular vote on what is fact. It is decided by experts in a field who painstakingly gather data and share it with other experts in the same field until there is a consensus on what is known.

This leads into another point, reasserting the primacy of subject experts. It may seem obvious that the subject experts determine what we know about a subject, but their expertise is being undermined by outsiders without sufficient background to analyze data within the field.

Given that this was a conference of food scientists, the topic of genetic modifications and GMOs came up. Rousseau pointed out the wide discrepancy between the public and scientists on the relative safety of consuming genetically modified foods. This survey is not limited to food scientists and is based on the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) members covering a range of scientific disciplines. The vast majority (88%) of scientists said that GM foods were safe to eat, while only 37% of the general population agreed with that statement. The survey can be found here with a more detailed description including how they defined “scientists” here.

How do we address the lack of faith in experts as people place their faith in outside advocates for a cause? How did interpretation and determination of knowledge become a cause in the first place?

One of the most apropos lessons from Rousseau was his discussion of rules of argument put forth by game theorist Anatol Rapaport and summarized by Daniel Dennett.

We’ve noticed the conversations are much more fruitful when loosely following these rules; you may see some similarities in how we approached vaccines. There is no discussion if one party begins on the defensive and closed off to outside views.

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Roughly, you attempt to express your opponent’s viewpoint, identify common ground, express something new that you have learned from your opponent, then, and only then, you begin to introduce counterpoints or criticism. We were particularly intrigued by this formula and hope to refine our own discussions based on it.

If anyone has experience with engaging opposing viewpoints and stimulating discussion, please share. This is an ongoing process and, just like science, it can always be critiqued and improved upon.


To be continued here.

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1 Response to Communicating Science: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Communicating Science: Part 2 | Citizenship in Science

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