Communication in the science community in under attack

Science has a messaging problem. Science is often corrupted in public perception so the general populace gains completely false beliefs that they attribute to science. In the opposite direction, some scientific consensuses are viewed as political or treated with outright denial rather than healthy skepticism. Scientists, who often rely on public funding and therefore goodwill with much of the nation, must communicate effectively and positively with the public. Groups like the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Park Service have been stripped of their ability to communicate with the public and other scientists. The problem has gotten so bad that scientists are planning to march in protest of the current president's actions. Pugwash discussed what is causing this disconnect between science and parts of the public and what might fix it.

One of the primary problems with communication science faces is that media often covers science extremely poorly. Often, reporters do not understand what the study actually says and end up reporting a flashy part of a bit of research, completely corrupting the research along the way. John Oliver has already completely blown up his spot for this, but Al Roker once famously said "I think the way to live your life is you find the study that sounds best to you and you go with that." This shows how badly parts of the media misunderstand science. Cherry picking your results is a recipe for bad results. However, because the mainstream media will pick up stories from science media, they’re often reporting on single studies. This is not how science is designed to work, and it causes incorrect information to flow through the public.

Many examples of single studies wreaking havoc on society exist. The famous study linking vaccines to autism has been roundly discredited, but it continues to be a driving force behind the anti-vaccination movement. Similar things happen with climate change research. These lead to decisions that are bad for public safety.

Some of this is an internal problem. Null results are essential to make sure that false positives don’t cause us to gain false beliefs. However, null results often don’t get published in papers. This leads to several outcomes, all of which are problematic. The first is p-hacking, where scientists change their data analysis to get “statistically significant” results from their data and prove their point. This leads to incorrect or misleading information being published. The second is that false positives should happen no matter what due to statistical noise. If 20 scientists perform an experiment and there has no relationship between the variables they are measuring, one of them would be expected to get a significant result. This would be the result most likely to be published, and selection bias creates bad science. This is further compounded by the fact that it’s harder to publish reproductions of other studies, so false positives end up being the final say on a topic. This means that when facts get misreported, it can be difficult to try and publish evidence to the contrary.

Communication of science can be improved by making sure everyone has the tools necessary to interpret basic scientific facts. Understanding that results are not certainty but evidence in favor of a conclusion and other knowledge of the scientific method could be extremely effective in helping people understand the science necessary to make decisions in their day to day lives.

In addition, inspiring the public through science can help make more people interested in pursuing scientific research on their own. NASA’s moon launch inspired a generation of scientists; something similar could help science strike a more positive chord with people today. This could help scientists more effectively fulfill their role of inching closer to completing the public's knowledge of the natural world.