I originally wrote this as a guest post for Speaking of Science, a blog that tries to “de-mystify science communication by offering interviews, news, and anything else about it.”
When Julie asked me to write about why I think science communication is important, I started jotting down a list of reasons. Science has an undeniable impact and prominence in our world, which has benefited from the accumulated fruits of centuries of research. As citizens, we shape this world and are shaped by it, so it’s important to understand the science behind the questions we’re discussing, from antibiotics and GMOs to the value of a Mars mission or research in theoretical physics. This kind of understanding can also be important on an individual level. Knowing more about how your body works can help you make informed decisions about diet and lifestyle or medical procedures — or even what kind of birth control to use. These are important aspects of science communication, but they’re not really a source of inspiration to me or a guiding factor in deciding what I write about. Science communicators do have a responsibility to fulfil a role in mediating these discussion, and though I try to keep aware of that and contribute, it’s not where my passion truly lies.
What I really find exciting about communicating science is its ability to re-form our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world, to broaden our horizons and defy our expectations. Science isn’t a collection of facts or beliefs, but a methodology for deciding what we believe is true. In principle, that methodology doesn’t care about our social norms, expectations and prejudices. Rigorously applied, it lets us test our suppositions and discard those that don’t match reality. I realize that this is an idealistic view. Although scientific practice may fall short of the ideal, it still serves a powerful source of motivation for me. I’m not naive enough to think that science is practised free from social influences, but it can and has dramatically upset our preconceptions and forced us to re-evaluate everything from the source of diseases to whether events can ever happen simultaneously. Over time, science has shown us that our planet is not the center of this solar system, let alone the Universe. We’ve learned that our solar system is only one of an innumerable multitude scattered throughout the cosmos, 84% of which is made up of a kind of matter we still barely understand. Our world is far older than we had imagined, moulded over billions of years by immense forces in vast, gradual processes punctuated by dramatic cataclysms. Science has uncovered the common thread that unites life on this planet, teaching us of our kinship with other species and our interdependence with them, each a unique passenger on spaceship Earth. It has helped challenge social boundaries and tear them down, undermining the illusion that any race or sex is inherently better.
Of course, science doesn’t only drive progressive ideologies — racists and others have also used it to support their ideas. Humans are profoundly social animals and our social fabric affects everything we do; science is no exception. Effective science communication should be a part of this process, making science accessible to non-experts and enabling an informed discussion about its implications and short-comings. Science education is probably more important than science communication in this regard; people who have learned to approach issues critically, to question and to reason, have wherewithal to challenge fixed beliefs and undermine authority. The strength of the scientific process comes from its rejection of a dogmatic world view and from the ever-present possibility of being proven wrong. Although science writing often focuses on new results and “breakthroughs”, it should always strive to communicate the nuance and absence of absolutes that is the core of science.
Unfortunately, these subtleties are often lost in the metaphors we use to communicate scientific ideas. Metaphors are a powerful way to make the incomprehensible accessible; a good metaphor is vivid and memorable, capturing the core of an idea and embedding it in the reader’s mind. “Silent Spring” shaped a generation’s views on the environment and remains an evocative phrase to this day. Despite everything we’ve learned from modern ecology and evolutionary biology, the “great chain of being” lingers on, a stubborn relic of more religious times. Effective metaphors outlast the story behind them, persisting long after the details have been forgotten. These metaphors color how we think about a subject, which can cause trouble if they eclipse important details. I always make an effort to retain these nuances when I write about science while still conveying the basic idea; I can only hope that I succeed more often than I fail.
Those are all great, practical reasons, but the fact is that I love talking and writing about science because it provides such a beautiful view of the world, which is full of countless mysteries from the mundane to the unimagined. Rob Dunn wrote an excellent post last year about an undiscovered order of life (for comparison, primates are an order of life) that’s been hiding in plain sight. We’ve only explored 5% of the oceans, although they cover 70% of the planet’s surface. We’ve known about spade whales for over a century, but saw them for the first time just two years ago — and then only because a pair washed ashore. The world is richer and stranger than my imagination ever dreamed. Science lets me learn about these everyday wonders and connects them in beautiful, elegant stories. Sharing those stories — and the numinous feeling with which they fill me — is really why science communication is important. That’s why I do this.