As scientists we are trained to speak in uncertain terms, to couch evidence in probabilities, and to be accurate about our inaccuracies. The consequence: an insider language.
To be fair, we are not trying to sound overly intellectual (at least not always). Rather, we are not taught nor rewarded for other communication types. In addition, I don’t know if we realize the extent of disconnect between scientific knowledge and the non-science, “ordinary” American. I didn’t. But if there were ever a time for us to realize this and to do something about it, it’s now.
Need to be convinced? How about these startling poll numbers?
- About 33% of Americans think humans have existed in their current form since the beginning of time. Yet only 2% of scientists believe the same. In addition, there is no credible science challenging the theory of evolution, so how can 1/3 of Americans still question it?
- Only about 50% of Americans think people are behind climate change, but there is little to no scientific doubt on this subject.
- And maybe the worst: There are still 11% of Americans who think there is no global warming at all.
These disconcerting numbers and more is revealed in a new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, which was also discussed in The New York Times article: “Survey Shows Gap between Scientists and the Public.”
And it all leads to one conclusion: If we as scientists do not get better at communicating to the general public, there could be serious consequences for conservation and the environment.
Since starting my job at The Nature Conservancy about a year ago, the number of times I have been told that we “don’t know how to tell our story” would be comical if it weren’t so true. Granted, the problem is not limited to scientists, but we certainly do not provide the most compelling fodder for others to work with. By not telling our story well, we will fail to attract new donors.
But perhaps even more insidiously, we are failing to change people’s behavior and attitudes and will continue to. Seriously, if 50% of the people in this country — a country that by every measure is extremely well-educated and one that is a huge contributor to global climate change — think people are not causing global warming, we are in trouble.
It’s time to be concise, clear and provocative with our science. We can no longer talk only to each other or a select few others. We must do better. We need to be simple, clear, and dramatic — accurate, but dramatic.
(Image: “Cobweb theorem.” Credit: SmileAngel112 under a GNU Free Documentation License.)