Science and the Masses: Bridging the Gap

by Kelsey Doiron

Recently, the show Cosmos, originally created and hosted by science communicator Carl Sagan, has made a comeback. Although Carl Sagan is no longer alive, his legacy lives on through the program, now hosted by Neil Degrasse Tyson.

Admittedly, while the scope of this show does not compare to a college education in science, it provides a useful reminder about the importance of the field. The Earth’s magnificent story is revealed with ample evidence in the form of fossils, isotope systems, sedimentary rocks and so much more. On the show, Tyson shows how insignificant and brief human history is in comparison to the 13.8 billion-year history of the universe.

While Cosmos is not designed for the academic and scientific community, it is meant to entertain and enthrall the rest of the population. Scientists often find it frustrating to discuss a topic that is heavily science dependent with someone not in the scientific community. The general population, unfortunately, does not have a very solid foundation of understanding for areas like chemistry, physics and biology – much less how those areas interact. Some of these issues easier to fully understand with a proper background include: radiation, the fresh water crisis, genetically modified foods, pesticides, and vaccination, just to name a few.

Insane Clown Posse’s song “Miracles” does scientists no favors and highlights the depth of this problem, with lyrics like “F**king magnets, how do they work? And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist. Y’all motherf**kers lying, and getting me pissed!” This is a hyperbole of the issue, but it is not far off from the distrust of scientific, factual testimony many people seem to hold.

Unfortunately, it seems there are quite a few people who don’t want to talk to scientists, but why not? Why don’t they trust scientists or believe the scientific community when it comes to certain topics and issues? It can be so frustrating sometimes when I try to have a discussion about the facts of an issue with an individual that I end up just shutting down and ending the conversation.

There is a great psychology study from 1990 mentioned in the book, “Made to Stick” based on a game including two players, the tapper and the listener. The study takes two people: one, the “tapper” and the other, the “listener”. The tapper will tap out the rhythm to a popular and simple song such as “happy birthday” and the listener needs to guess the song based on the taps they hear. Naturally, the tapper hears the melody in their head and assumed a 50% success rate, however, the listeners only guessed the correct song 2.5% of the time.

This idea of the tapper and the listener serves as an appropriate analogy applicable to scientists trying to communicate concepts to laymen. These concepts are what they live and breathe on a daily basis, but the rest of the world may just be getting introduced to such ideas for the first time. The scientist, getting frustrated at the person without the same background as them, is often not giving the other person enough credit for the very difficult job of being the listener. Just like the tapper in the Stanford study cannot remove the melody of the song in their head, it is not possible to remove a heavy scientific background and imagine what it is like from the listener’s point of view. Scientists often fail to present information, because empathy for persons without the same extensive knowledge regarding a topic is impossible. If not properly conveyed, an idea can be warped and turned into something the general public is afraid of.

The idea of radiation is often associated with cancer, and that terrifies a substantial amount of people. What many do not realize is that we are exposed to small amounts of radiation all the time. Since the beginning of life on earth, all living organisms have been exposed to radiation from radon which is often found in bedrock such as granite. However, I was only informed about this specific relationship because of a graduate level geochemistry class. Luckily a degree in geology or chemistry is not necessary to come to the understanding that radiation is natural and generally harmless in low levels.

Once we can get past the misunderstandings between the two parties, we can move forward; while easier said than done, this not an impossible goal. A topic of that could be of particular benefit to society, if the stigma is removed, is irradiation of food. The word “radiation” sets of red flags in many people’s minds. So, the term irradiation can often immediately instill fear in a person who may not be familiar with what irradiation means in the context of food and how it works. Irradiation of food gives food a longer shelf life and could reduce the risk of salmonella poisoning, e. coli and other harmful pathogens. What if your strawberries did not go bad after a week? What problems could we solve if our produce had a shelf life of months instead of days or weeks? An obscene amount of food is thrown out because it is easily perishable. To be sure, radiation can have a negative effect on living things and should be avoided in high levels when possible. But the key fact is that irradiation of food would only be with plants and meat that is no longer alive.

Fun Fact: Radiation of dead things such as picked berries or cuts of meat cannot alter the DNA and will cause no detrimental effects on the consumer.

I have hope that someday soon we will bridge, or at least narrow, this seemingly vast gap between the tapping scientists and the rest of the listening population. But how do we accomplish this goal? First we need to recognize both groups are not without fault and share a responsibility to each other to improve this relationship. Cosmos is a great example of one of the many ways to fix the problem, and both sides can learn from it. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, just like his predecessor Carl Sagan, is a role model for scientists as a master science communicator. For those who do not have a life in the scientific community, the show offers a non-intimidating way to learn more about the beauty of our immediate, and not so immediate, surroundings with an enlightened perspective and a scientific base. The show also offers the priceless inspiration that young people need. Fear of science because it is “hard,” or “a field for men,” are examples of misconceptions that act as brick walls. You do not have to be a member of an exclusive club to study science; you can be a person who decides to get a PhD or a subscriber to the Scientific American.

In letters to a young scientist by Edward O. Wilson, he calls out to young scientists and says, “We need you desperately”. That statement holds so much truth. Not only does the world need young scientists to advance theirs field of choice, but we need them to be communicators of their studies and work in such a way that someone not in their field can understand it. The first step is bridging the gap of understanding, and then we can move forward in the world – united and not divided. And as cliché as it may sound, children really are the future for this planet. If we want them to have the best world possible to carry out their lives, changes need to be made. It is important to teach them the importance of science at a young age. There is an insightful idea that, “save the planet” is no longer the main concern. The Earth will be just fine with or without us. A better slogan might be, “save ourselves.” Learning to trust science is our only hope.

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