Scientists Should Engage The Public, Says GYSS 2016 Panel

Scientists themselves need to help educate the public on the work they do, say panelists at the Global Young Scientists Summit 2016.

AsianScientist (Jan. 26, 2016) – When it comes to the role of science in society, the public sometimes appears caught between two extreme views. Take your own Facebook feed for example: chances are that you’ll have at least one friend who enthusiastically shares amusing ‘science-y’ articles without much understanding of the topic at hand, counterbalanced by other friends who insist that eliminating ‘chemicals’ from your diet is good for health.

In this simplistic caricature, the scientific endeavor is reduced to either a means of entertainment or an enemy to be fought, both notions that scientists speaking at the “Science Education and Society” panel sought to dispel.

“While the general population is interested in science, they tend to have a strange perception and no understanding of the results we produce. What can we do to better explain the results of our scientific endeavors?” asked panel moderator Professor Arnoud De Meyer, president of the Singapore Management University.

The panel, comprising Nobel laureate Professor Carlo Rubbia (Physics, 1984), Fields Medallist Professor Cédric Villani (2010), Millennium Technology Prize winners Professor Michael Grätzel (2010) and Professor Stuart Parkin (2014), and Turing Award winners Professor Leslie Valiant (2010) and Dr Leslie Lamport (2013), was held on 20 January 2016 at the Global Young Scientists Summit 2016 (GYSS@one-north 2016).

Understanding the psychology of science-suspicion

One reason that people might be suspicious of science is that it is associated with an aggressive and unwelcome pace of change, suggested Parkin.

“People don’t like change; [aversion to change] has been a common human emotion across the centuries. They are worried that just as machines have replaced all mechanical labor, thinking will one day be displaced, too,” Parkin said.

“I think it’s the fact that people are aware that science is changing things very fast,” added Villani. “But if they are made to feel left behind, as though they will lose their jobs for example, they will reject it. So for me, it is important to give them the impression that we [scientists] are with them in this adventure.”

Human psychology is also more adaptable than we might assume, Parkin commented. Coming from the field of computer science which has seen both tremendous progress and rapid adoption, Parkin said that although people are initially resistant to change, they have shown that they can adapt to new technology relatively quickly once it has been accepted.

“As for the prospect of machines doing our thinking for us, for me as a scientist that’s super exciting; it will free us to have more time to do interesting things,” he enthused.

Is science entertainment or religion?

But what about the other extreme of treating science as entertainment? Does it run the risk of over-simplification and trivializing the work of scientists? On the contrary, Villani believes that it is a necessary first step to tapping into the public’s interest in science.

“I think you cannot separate entertainment from science. The impression that you give is important; it matters as much as the content. Your message has to be engaging, serving some dream,” he said.

“One thing I discovered as I began to give more public talks is that scientists are very much loved when they appear and engage in discussions—even among audiences that hated mathematics.”

For Lamport, what is needed is not simply a more positive impression of scientists but a changed attitude to science itself. Describing scientific rationalism as his religion, he said that he wants to win new converts and inspire people to study science just as some people are inspired to study the Bible.

“We need to convince people that it is a religion that works, and that the uncertainty of science is not its weakness but its strength,” he said. “Unlike other religions that can answer everything, we have to be willing to admit that there are things we don’t understand and persuade people that the things we do understand are sufficiently valid and need to be taken seriously.”

Wanted: Passionate communicators

This task of educating the public on science is very difficult, added Valiant, primarily because uncertainty can be confusing.

“It is clearly in our interest to better police the way science is presented to the public, but just as in politics, we are not protected from people who are loud and not well-informed,” he said. “Scientists themselves need to be able to tell the public what science is really like, how uncertainty is part of the process.”

Agreeing that communication skills are becoming increasingly important for scientists, the panelists urged members of the audience to start sharing their passion for science with others.

“Science is not just a job; it is a passion,” Rubbia remarked. “Furthermore, science is an activity that belongs to young people, you are the ones most open to change.”

Asian Scientist Magazine is a media partner of the GYSS@one-north 2016.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Rebecca did her PhD at the National University of Singapore where she studied how macrophages integrate multiple signals from the toll-like receptor system. She was formerly the editor-in-chief of Asian Scientist Magazine.

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