The Importance of Being Relatable14th November 2017
Googling ‘mysteries that science can’t explain’ returns a pile of results all pedalling the same narrative; that “scientists think they have all the answers but they don’t really know any better than you do”. For example, the Daily Forest article ‘Amazing Mysteries That Science Just Can’t Explain’ brags all manner of ‘conundrums’ from magnetism even to the act of yawning. A lot of these cases do have credible scientific explanations that are ignored or spun in a completely anti-scientific way. How have webpages planting doubt and mistrust in scientists found a place in our society?
It seems clear to me that the problem lies in a disengagement between scientists and non-scientists. It’s not hard to see glaring contrasts between scientific literature and what is told to the public. This is by design. The precise and clinical language scientists use is a product of their workplace culture. It’s written for a very different purpose than your standard tabloid ‘Love Island’ gossip. So it’s no wonder that we feel so alienated from experts – the importance of being relatable when communicating science is just not stressed enough.
A disengagement between scientists and non-scientists comes from how we develop different fundamental ways of thinking
As well as what is effectively a language barrier between the lay reader and the scientist, it’s my opinion that a disengagement between scientists and non-scientists comes from how we develop different fundamental ways of thinking, purely as a result of our own personal priorities and cultures.
Our ability to adapt to the world is key to our survival, and our brains are super flexible in building instincts based on our environments. Young children show this most obviously. In 2004 Robert Siegler and Julie Booth of Carnegie Mellon University tested the numerical estimation of children in their first years of school. They put numbers of dots on a computer screen and asked them to position a slider where they thought the quantity fit on a number line. Adults tend to easily space numbers at equal intervals like on a tape measures, but young children make the intervals between numbers gradually smaller. Only as students got older and had more experience of counting do they gain a linear intuition of numbers.
Many people assume the view that numbers evenly lay out the number line is more correct. But placing larger numbers closer together at the far end of the number (a ‘logarithmic’ intuition of numbers) is used all the time in everyday life. For example, loudness of sound is measured in decibels; an increase of ten decibels represents a doubling of perceived loudness. This makes it useful for thinking of numbers in terms of ratios and lends itself to making quick estimates and approximations. For survival, this is clearly going to be a far more useful instinct for deciding whether you can overpower a pack of tigers (rather than deciding whether there are exactly nine or ten of them licking their lips at you…). But we use it for everything from perceiving how bright something looks to how much pain we feel.
In the case of scientists, they are especially trained to be critical.
Cultures such as those of Amazonian indigenous tribes survive without a linear perception of numbers, which shows how we all build instincts that are important to us, based on our individual environments.
In the case of scientists, they are especially trained to be critical. This makes them very effective at spotting fake news and they can get frustrated by Michael Gove telling them that people have had enough of them. For example, in the Huffington Post, Professor Brian Cox called this dangerous stance the “road back to the cave” – but it’s inflammatory statements such as these that are why, in Michael Gove’s words, “people in this country have had enough of experts”.
Gove’s statement doesn’t mean that people are fed up of the truth. Nor does it render irrelevance in the discoveries made by people who’ve spent their lives studying something. It merely points to a frustration with the lack of engagement between the experts and the people they should be educating.
But this is not to disrespect experts like Brian Cox – his good public engagement is one of the reasons I chose to study science. However, it doesn’t take a genius to see that alienating those who are less educated than you is bad practice when you’re scientist in the public eye – because making someone feel like they’re going to be shot down makes them less curious. It’s the job of a scientist to be relatable; to welcome and nurse all varieties of inquisitiveness, and to gently correct errors without patronising or insulting those who made them. If we really want to bury the idea that “scientists only think they know the answers”, we’ve got to get out of the comfort of the scientific community, and actively reach out and engage with non-scientists. Only by showing that the scientific method is relatable to everyone can we make the public trust experts again.