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Science Communication In 21st Century

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An Extract From The Book "EMPOWERING INDIANS"

 

Chapter XIII : Science Communication in the Twenty First Century

Introduction

The humanity is in a period of rapid changes. Science and Technology and several forms of social sciences and their applications have transformed the human society to a state never before known in the history (Probably such a statement would have sounded true if it were made 100 years ago also!). But in this period, a generation sees multiple changes and is impacted by various changes taking place at multiple locations in the world. These changes interact with each other, in turn stimulating newer changes. Lives of people are affected substantially by these change both beneficially and otherwise. On the one hand, the future of humanity looks bright, on the other side very grim.

Problems facing humanity are not merely due to problems of inequality, insecurity of employment, or local environmental pollution or new forms of stress based diseases. There are a number of basic ecological issues; if not addressed in time, may threaten the earth as a whole. There may be many catastrophic and irreversible changes.

Also tensions within societies (or nations) and between societies are erupting in newer forms. It will be difficult to deny that at least some of them are due to the irresponsibility or mischief of the media and / or geopolitics. Wounds in societies or human psyche are opened (or reopened) citing some terrible injustices done many centuries ago. The information flow using modern technological gadgets spread, a lot of it can also be justified under the pretext that history is written by the victorious. The economics of arms trade, narcotics trade, terrorist training and anti-terrorist training etc... have emerged as a significant part of the economies of many countries in addition to the usual military-industrial complexes and therefore linked up with profits, employment, political power, influence etc.

On the other hand, advances in human knowledge about nature, have also progressed in many specialised fields. Along with tremendous progress there is also an emerging understanding about the limitations of super specialised scientific pursuits and possible dangers arising out of such partitioned super specialisations. There is some search to understand the ancient knowledge systems, which were once ridiculed as superstitious. There are also eminent scientists who have come to a conclusion that mere dependence on 'science' alone cannot save the earth in the future. Thus we are at several cross roads. There is, therefore, a need to question the very basis of what 'science communication' is, in this period of human history.

SOME BASIC QUESTIONS

Methods of Science

The methods of science arc fairly well understood and imbibed in the system. Observation-data collection-analysis-hypothesis- tests of the possible results of the hypothesis by others - acceptance, modification or rejection of hypothesis - replacement of old theories - new findings at a later period-etc... it is a never ending process of search for knowledge. It is not a single person who does the  whole chain. Several hundreds of well qualified persons often work in very narrow areas in these chains. Very few have a total picture, even post facto. In addition, in the early part of the twentieth century, physics combined with mathematics has led to newer methods of science.

These are thought, experiment and mathematical equations. The solutions to the equations 'predict' existence of a particle, or the way electron 'moves' etc. Thus a conceptualization itself starts of, as a scientific contribution and waits many years for a validation by actual experiment. During that period, it is still 'science' when the 'peer group' accepts it. Such a method has spread to other areas as well.

Also in social sciences, say economics, there is no method of validating the way it would be done for physics or chemistry.

Changes in Views About Knowledge

Thus the very 'philosophy of science' has undergone tremendous changes, though it is difficult to say there is a consensus amongst the scientists. There are now serious scientists, albeit a few in number, who would concede the possibility of understanding the world other than through the methods of science, for example, mystic insights (Ref. 1) while there are others who would ridicule it as the 'fear of the residue'. There are also scientists who look at their profession as a mere search for understanding and it is 'just fun'. 

They do not care to know 'everything', the totality, if they cannot do it by the methods they are trained at. Of course, a large number of the members of the scientific enterprise (in which I include those who apply science such as doctors, engineers etc.) do not bother about these niceties. They do their work, get their 'enjoyment', by several means and also have a good living.

But the world cannot be by the scientists (includes technologists, physicians etc.) and for the scientists. There are many more people who live in the world. They benefit from science (also suffer ill consequences!) and indirectly it is they who fund scientific endeavours (as tax payers or the consumers who are charged by the companies for their own in-house investments in science).

Communication to Non-Specialists

There are those in power (in politics, administration, military, justice,or business), and those who influence decision making (bankers, media persons, economists, opinion leaders in various fields etc...)

Most of them are not well versed in any branch of science nor do they keep up with the progress. This group of persons are crucial as their actions often determine the fates of millions of people and often the future of humanity or the world. They also have a genuine problem because one group of super specialists pull in one direction based on 'scientific' methods and another in another direction!

What do science communicators do towards these persons? It is not an easy question to answer. In reality most science communicators take a 'position' themselves amongst the myriad of 'opinions' and communicate them in a language with scientific terms.

Very few will communicate different shades of 'opinions' looked at scientifically from different super specialised subject areas or schools within the same subject area. It is also true that the decision makers do not want to understand the complexity of the real situation and want a few 'definitive' options or even one conclusion. 'Can you tell me the conclusion - just one!' Otherwise when the scientists explain the details 'on the one hand' and 'on the other hand', they look for a 'one-handed-scientist'. In a period when the scientific enterprise can lead to money and power, there are many willing 'one-handed' scientists! In turn what they say about various aspects of 'science' which are not necessarily in their narrow discipline area and also in areas where the interfaces of science is weak, they are taken by 'public' and the 'powerful' as the final word. All of them believe that is a 'scientific' conclusion.

There are other forms of science communication. There are science fictions and also popular writings of science. They serve their useful social purpose too, though not always 'scientifically' accurate. There are also writings about health hazards, which are often contradictory, though most of them quote scientific studies. For example, reports about smoking, effects of tobacco, or alcohol or vitamins, would make one wonder what is truth. Also take the arguments for or against dams or nuclear power. Many environmental issues are discussed with one-sided cases. Even issues like 'global warming' have several schools. There are serious writings that the data base on which these are predicted have severe uncertainties and the way they are pushed are due to commercial interests of companies who have invented new chemicals suitable for refrigeration etc. It may be difficult even for those well versed in science to find the final truth, individually or as a group of persons. These are facts of life one cannot ignore.

Even a brilliant scientist in one area has to accept facts from other areas in simplified forms and her or his conclusion using that knowledge is more based on the trust she or he has on the communicator.

These complexities and real life situations are pointed out because science communication cannot be viewed any more with a narrow perspective science versus 'non-science', as is a tendency with some groups of communicators.

At this point, it will be useful to think about a quote from a commentary-article that appeared in Current Science by Sergei Kapitsa (which was written before the collapse of the Soviet Union)

(Ref. 2). Quote: "Without going into the subtle points of the philosophy of science, the distinction between knowledge and what one believes is sufficiently clear. A point one must bear in mind is that the message of the popularizer of science is in most cases taken on trust. The layman believes what he is told, as the proof is obtainable only through education. Thus the trust in the message of science demands great responsibility on the part of the messenger. On the other hand, the persuasive power of the media, especially of television, is remarkable, and the misuse of its potential is a matter of great ethical importance for society".

Another aspect of science communication is that it has to cater to the society and people, being a facilitator to help them lead a better life.

It may not always be advantageous to attack individual belief - systems, unless there are socially dangerous. It is an irony of epistemology that more we advance in science and empirical data, more we know about the situation and at the same time there are more new unanswered questions. At any given point of time, a human being desires to be happy and safe and cannot wait indefinitely for answers to his or her questions. They would form opinions and live with them. These opinions in general can be called as a part of their value systems. The way the world is proceeding (some of which have been addressed in the earlier part of this Chapter), it is more important to develop value systems that would save world and humanity rather than depend on the 'purity' of any human endeavour - science, religion, politics, culture, etc. Therefore it appears that 'science communication' cannot stand alone. Also the connectivity due to advances in transport and communications are such that human thoughts and emotions are interconnected irretrievably and in an unprecedented manner. Therefore, the role of communicators in general, and that of science communicators as well, has to be transformed to face this new reality. We do not have answers as to what it should be. It will probably be an evolving one.

It will be one that has to have a greater tolerance for various forms of human 'knowledge' however they are derived. It is not the question of abandonment of the scientific methods of exploring nature but to accept that it is a part of a complex web of human efforts along with other forms of human efforts. If not there is a real danger that science may be rejected by human societies, which will be a pity.

Media of Science Communication and Networks

In the earlier section some basic questions have been addressed mainly with an intent as to how we approach the contents of communication. Let us now address the media. They are: (a) Person to person (includes drama and dances too); (b) Through print media - letters, numbers, figures and pictures; (c) Television, Cinema etc...; (d) Electronic 'print' & Storage media like intranet, internet, CD-ROM's etc; and (e) Actual experience through experiments.

In future years with increasing knowledge acquired from brain research and other areas, there could be other modes of communications as well.

In all the five broad areas, there are tremendous opportunities for 'science communication'. There are equally dangers. As an example, since most people will mistake the modernity of media for the authenticity of its information content, there is a danger that people may access some data bases in the internet and assume that it is the final world! We should also remember at the same time the caution to be advocated to our approach to other forms of knowledge or information. That apart, there are legal rights of freedom of speech.

So, where does science stand? 'How to approach outright wrong scientific data being put on website by some persons or groups?

They have their legal right.

It is possible to think of science communicators who could devise user friendly access systems, which can enable persons to see problems that occur in some data bases (one has to be careful in the legal aspects!) and present a correct picture. There is a possibility of attacks by other groups who put wrong data. Internet or print media are not peer reviewed scientific journals, which alone have an obligation to follow scientific methodology.

Suggestions For Networked Action

More positively, science communicators could take several steps to make 'science' available to public and decision makers:

(i) a large number of science communicators around the world can have a loose confederation and divide themselves the topics and the task of writing in the data bases, texts, graphs, figures etc. through which people can study authentic science. A large number of such data bases, which can link to each other by simple operations, would be a great source of authentic information. (Eventually with the spread of technology such data bases should be easily available in other languages of the world also in voice forms). Uniqueness of these data bases should be to explain the uncertainties in current knowledge base as well in frontier areas of knowledge, in addition to the definitive statements about new findings.

(ii) On issues like nuclear, environmental, health etc. special information, data bases which authentically anaiyse various view points (without emotions or biases), should be attempted. It may be difficult to have a global context and therefore many such data bases have to be in the local context.

(iii) While science in a broad sense is universal, in principle various geopolitical, commercial and other nationalistic or narrow group pressures introduce biases or even  deliberate suppression of data. Also issues like that of intellectual property protection may prohibit or inhibit exchange of scientific information. In such cases, specific case studies can be put on web. Over a period, one can hope humility would find a way out of the divisive forces.

(iv) The above networked actions still leave a large number of poor and underprivileged and (technologically) laggard groups outside the access-networks. Reaching science communication to them would still have to depend on the traditional media (oral, print, TV, etc...). Infact, it is extremely unlikely that any of these will be displaced in the future even in different societies.

(v) In addition to the above, networks from and about exciting areas of exploration (Antartica, Deep sea, Outerspace, Genomes, etc...) can trigger imagination of the people (and the powerful elite) about the exploratory excitement of science. Such imaginative networks are also important because human mind cannot be always kept on a sedate dose of scientifically accurate data alone.

Conclusion

On the whole, the challenges and opportunities for science communications are plenty. Networking between them is all the more essential. Such a networking not be merely for a spread, but also serve a greater purpose of improving the knowledge and value systems in the society. Therefore, such networks should not confine themselves to scientific networks alone but also be able to work with other groups who work for betterment of humanity and the world albeit with other view points. It would also mean that in future the scientific community should be able to look at such communicators and networkers with better understanding as a broader part of the group that does super specialised research in narrow areas. It may not always be possible for the specialists to communicate in various forms that will be required in the future. 

At this point, the author would like to quote from "The Quark And The Jaguar Adventures In The Simple And The Complex" by Murray GellMann(1994) (Ref. 3).

Quote: "Unfortunately, that information explosion is in great part a misinformation explosion. All of us are exposed to huge amounts of material, consisting of data, ideas, and conclusions" much of it wrong or misunderstood or just plain confused. There is a crying need for more intelligent commentary and review.

We must attach a higher prestige to that very creative act, the writing or serious review articles and books that distinguish the reliable from the unreliable and systematize and encapsulate, in the form of reasonably successful theories and other schemata, what does seem reliable. If an academic publishes a novel research result at the frontier of knowledge in science or scholarship, he or she may reap a reward in the form of a Professorship or a promotion, even if the result is later shown to be entirely wrong. However, clarifying the meaning of what has already been done (or picking out what is worth learning from what is not) is much less likely to advance an academic career. Humanity will be much better off when the reward structure is altered so that selection pressures on careers favour the sorting out of information as well as its acquisition.

But how do we reconcile the critical examination of ideas, including the identification and labeling of error with tolerance - and even celebration and preservation - of cultural diversity?

Yet the difficulty goes far deeper. Many of the local patterns of thought and behaviour are associated not only with harmful error and destructive particularism but specifically with harassment and persecution of those who espouse the universalizing scientific and secular culture, with its emphasis on rationality and the rights of the human individual And yet it is within that very culture that one often finds people concerned, as a matter of principle, with the preservation of cultural diversity.

Somehow the human race has to find ways to respect and make use of the great variety of cultural traditions and still resist the threats of disunity, oppression, and obscurantism that some of those traditions present from time to time"

Thus, it is not enough to acquire and master networks and  associated gadgets and work stations and the people to person them.

All these are useful for science communication; but one has to look much beyond anchored in deeper issues of the world, universe and humanity. The challenges for science communication will come from this and a network of committed persons are required to face these challenges.

References

Taul Davies, "The Mind of God, Science and the Search for Ultimate  Meaning", Penguin Books (1992);

Sergei Kapitsa, "Escape from Reason: Antiscience Trends in the USSR";

Current Science, Volume 61, Number 12; 25 December 1991;

Cell-Mann Murray, "The Quark and the Jaguar's Adventures in the Simple And The Complex", Published by Little Brown and Company (UK) Limited, London (1994).