Archive | October 2014

Ebola is exposing the flaws in science communication

As anyone who actually pays attention to my blog (hi mom!) might have noticed, I’ve found it really difficult to get excited enough about a topic to write a post recently. There have been some neat stories out there, I’ve bookmarked them to come back to later to write on, but when the time comes to actually sit down and do it I’ve felt rather apathetic. At first I blamed it on my research workload, but that’s not really it. The truth is, it all started around the time that people started freaking out about ebola.

At first I thought, I’m not going to write about ebola. I’m not jumping into the fray; it’s been done to death. But then I would read things that would make me angry, and I would think yes, I should write about it! Then I would become apathetic again. The reason for this is best illustrated

If you don't know who this is by now, you haven't been paying attention

If you don’t know who this is by now, you haven’t been paying attention

in an article I recently read on, of all places, forbes.com. The article is a mostly a back and forth between the author and a Facebook friend. The Facebook friend posts an article about natural cures for ebola that doctors are refusing to explore. The author, Larry Husten in his own words “didn’t respond well.”

But I couldn’t disagree more. I think Mr. Husten responded perfectly. When his friend started on about the “irresponsible” behavior of one the Americans infected with ebola, Husten gave a calm and scientific explanation of how ebola is transmitted and the risk to the American population (practically zero). His friends response? “I stand by my statement.”

It seems like this should be the catchphrase for the American public. It seems that no matter what evidence is presented, we all stand by our original statement. We don’t want to believe in climate change, so none of the evidence supporting its existence is conclusive enough. We want (for whatever reason) to believe we are all going to die from ebola, and so no evidence that we are at very little danger of it can convince us otherwise. The only good thing about this particular fear is it means that many different vaccines for ebola are being rushed through human trials, which means we might actually be able to stop the outbreak in West Africa, where people actually are dying from the disease, not just afraid of maybe contracting the disease.

I have been interested in science communication because I have felt like there is a disconnect between what is being done in science and what the public know about science, and I think that is wrong and must be fixed. I think the ebola outbreak shows this to be the case more than anything. We scientists can tell people that a person with ebola isn’t contagious until they show symptoms, but the whole “just trust us we’re scientists” thing isn’t working anymore. Because of the fact that scientists, just like any other people, can make mistakes, it has caused the public to lose faith in us. Which is understandable. As scientists we are trained to not believe something just because someone says it’s true, we are told to look at their methods, make sure the way they got to that conclusion is sound and only then do we believe them. How can we blame the public for holding us to the same standards?

The problem is that even if people don’t want to believe scientists, they are still going to make decisions and act on their beliefs. Slate recently wrote an article about how conservative politicians now respond with “I’m not a scientist” when asked about the effects of climate change. If only there was some way they could have a bunch of scientists to explain to them how climate change works…

Obviously that was sarcastic, because scientists have been screaming about climate change for ages and none of them seem to be listening. But maybe that’s not entirely their fault. Is there some way we can explain our methods to non-scientists that will help them understand why we believe the things we do, or are doomed to forever be in an us vs. them situation? How do we get scientists not just talk about what they found, but how they found it, and how do we get the non-scientists to listen, understand, and form a new, more well informed opinion?

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