In a recent interview in The New York Times, the actor Alan Alda discusses how he combined his career in acting and interest in science to help start The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, located at Stony Brook University. He notes the importance of scientists learning how to effectively talk about their work:
“[…] Scientists often don’t speak to the rest of us the way they would if we were standing there full of curiosity. They sometimes spray information at us without making that contact that I think is crucial. If a scientist doesn’t have someone next to them, drawing them out, they can easily go into lecture mode. There can be a lot of insider’s jargon.
If they can’t make clear what their work involves, the public will resist advances. They won’t fund science. How are scientists going to get money from policy makers, if our leaders and legislators can’t understand what they do?”
Alda’s campaign brings to the fore the issue of making science accessible, without diluting or distorting the facts. Science journalism can easily fall prey to the risks of catering to a public with a short attention span. The facts themselves, presented without adornment, can often seem dry and uninteresting, even if they are truly important. Academic research papers do necessitate a different style of writing. However, the facts and risks uncovered through research must somehow be transmitted to a public that is often unwilling to listen.
Effective communication is clearly important for scientific discoveries and research to translate into change. The general public must be aware and convinced for any significant change to take place. Environmental issues can be especially difficult to communicate. The facts themselves are often complex, and therefore can be both difficult to transmit, and vulnerable to factual distortions. Scientific research is key to discovering solutions to the issues that endanger the environment, but those solutions cannot be put into place without public backing.
Environmental policies will rarely be pushed forward by those in power without the support of public opinion, and for that reason alone, efforts like Alda’s must be embraced. In today’s media-obsessed world, it is no longer enough for scientists to research environmental solutions – they must also succeed in conveying them to a wider public in order for significant change to occur. For example, in 2006, Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, was credited with greatly raising public awareness of global warming. The film won a slew of awards and was a critical and box office success, effectively packaging and communicating an incredibly important environmental issue. Today, global warming is generally accepted as fact (although it still has detractors, as well as those who dismiss that human action is even partly responsible).
Along with the importance of scientists effectively communicating their work, the impetus is also on the general public to fully educate themselves on environmental matters. This includes paying attention to the provenance of articles, double-checking sources, and calling out spurious claims. Furthermore, learning to successfully present the facts yourself is key (see this previous UNspOILed post for tips on tackling climate change deniers).