Monday, 13 May 2013


Shame on me, I haven't blogged in *forever*! But this radio silence actually leads me to an important topic: Communication.
Hold on, why are we talking about communication, I thought this was a science blog?, is what you're gonna say. True. But it is also true that communication is (or should be, but I'll get to that) a big part of science. There's two parts to this story: There's science communication related to outreach, education, the "getting young (and old) people excited about science" communication, and then there's science communication in the sense of informing the public about past, current, and future events and processes, potentially for their safety and well-being. For now I just wanna talk about this second part.
Let me give you an example. I'm sure you remember what in science journals is called the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake offshore Japan that caused a major tsunami (just in case you don't remember every little detail, here's some info). Of course everyone was talking about it, newspapers were writing about how big the earthquake was, why it was so big, how earthquakes can cause tsunamis, etc etc. At this point, most of us are beyond "the gods are punishing us for xy" as the ultimate explanation for any natural disaster. Instead, we get our very scientific explanation from the newspaper, websites, tweets, blogs, ... But where does the newspaper get that kind of information? That's right, from the scientists, of course.
The problem is now that us scientists don't really know how to talk to people who know nothing about the subject. It's just the same way as it used to be in highschool: Most teachers are quite good at the material they're supposed to teach. But only very selected few are similarly good at actually making us understand and learn. So some scientists are naturally good at explaining scientific facts to the reporters, their students, or their mum. And other scientists are, well, let's say not so good at doing the same thing, even though they might be as knowledgeable as their colleagues. In the example of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami above, the outcome might be that in the end my grandma doesn't quite understand how an earthquake can cause a tsunami. Since she lives somewhere in southern Germany there's probably worse things that can happen to her. However, if she decides to move to, say, some island in Indonesia it might become more important to her to understand what's going on.
To give a more drastic example, I'm sure everybody also remembers the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake, or to be more precise, the aftermath of that earthquake (check out these interesting articles in Nature and Science). Seven officials, among them four scientists, were found guilty of manslaughter by failing to give an accurate analysis of the seismic risk and provide the public with adequate information. The uproar among scientists and others was huge, the perception of the verdict was that the scientists failed to "predict" the earthquake - we simply cannot predict earthquakes. Whether the trial and the verdict make sense or not, something else was widely overlooked or ignored: 

The actual root of the problem is the fact that most of us trained or training to be scientists never receive any training on how to effectively and adequately communicate our work to lay people.

 Yes, we write tons for our advisors/colleagues/... and have extensive rules and traditions for peer review in scientific journals. But most of us don't often have to discuss our work with non-scientists. So now there are seismic network managers, volcano observatory directors, climate change panelists, government science advisors, all of whom do great science, but potentially fail to provide crucial information to the public. This is not because they're stupid, in fact they're probably very bright people, but because once we learn all about our subject matter and about the scientific method we forget that not everybody has the same level of understanding.
Here's an example of where problems arise: Science is as accurate as possible, but always deals with uncertainty. This uncertainty could come e.g. from the measurements that we make (a measurement usually has to be made with an instrument, but any instrument has limited accuracy). It could also come from the fact that we often use statistics to draw conclusions. 
When we study earthquakes, for example, there is no way of *knowing* when the next one is gonna strike, or where. Instead, we can look at earthquakes that have happened in the past in a specific region (we can get that info from e.g. tree rings, tsunami deposits, eyewitness accounts). Based on this history, we can calculate an *average* time between earthquakes of a certain magnitude. Let's look at Vancouver, for example: There was a magnitude 7.4 earthquake in 1872, a 7.0 in 1918, and a 7.3 in 1946 close to Vancouver. Based on that information, we could say that the average time between earthquakes with roughly magnitude 7 around Vancouver is 37 years. If we were in the year 1983, we might expect another magnitude 7 earthquake around Vancouver soon, since it would have been 37 years since the last one. However, that earthquake in 1983 didn't happen. So there is a certain probability for it, but that doesn't mean that it actually has to happen.
In a different example we might say that there is a 20% chance of a volcano eruption at a hypothetical volcano. Now different people perceive facts differently, sometimes based on their understanding of the subject. 20% might sound pretty low to some people, and they might say, let's just stay and not evacuate. On the other hand, 20% is the same as saying, in one out of five cases this volcano is going to erupt. How do you perceive this statement? Does it "feel" more likely, less likely, or equally likely compared to the previous statement? Do you think a town nearby should be evacuated (of course there are more factors going into this decision, but that's a different story...)?
There is, of course, no right answer here. It's all about the way information is given, and the way it is perceived. Science is just like a human relationship, it lives and dies with the quality of communication. My whole point is that us scientists should be given more opportunities, but also make it a higher priority for ourselves to learn about these different forms of communication. After all it definitely is our responsibility to provide information (What use are a bunch of scientists that find out about some awesome and cool science just to keep it to themselves?) and it most definitely should be our responsibility to make sure that the information is perceived correctly! Enough said. What do you think?

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