A Science section in the Canberra Times? But Why?

An opinion piece by Rod Lamberts and I, published in the Canberra Times 16 April 2010:

Last week Sarah McKenzie wrote in these pages (Science needs a simpler voice – April 5) that she looked forward to the day when she could read a dedicated science section in the Canberra Times. We stand shoulder to shoulder with McKenzie in calling for greater public awareness of and engagement with science; as McKenzie mentioned, the last year or so has been replete with “a number of high profile, climate-change-denying columnists peddling anti-scientific messages”. We agree that there is much that needs to be done to facilitate better communication between scientists and the public, particularly on issues of wide social importance.

Yet as much as there’s a clear need for better communication between scientists and the public, continued emphasis on preaching to the converted – and that’s exactly what a dedicated science section in the Canberra Times would do – is going to do precious little to get the heathens into church.

Adding a dedicated science section to the Canberra Times in the hope that it would increase popular scientific interest or literacy is a fatally flawed strategy. Let’s apply this logic to boot-scooting. Neither of us are great fans of the activity; we don’t find it particularly engaging, interesting or relevant to our lives.

Now, if we suddenly found a whole section devoted to boot-scooting in the Canberra Times, or a prime time TV slot, we’d simply read something else or switch stations. Just because there’s more of it doesn’t mean we’d be inspired to be more involved, even if clever, passionate people told us we should be.

Now, we can hear the jubbery jowls of complaint: ‘But Science is important! Boot-scooting is but frippery!’

Yes, science is fantastically important. Its up there with the truly great human inventions, next to ‘farming’ and ‘writing’, ahead of ‘bike helmets’ and ‘pornography’. It’s done an enormous amount to improve the human condition and to tell us about the world in which we live.

But importance does not equal interest.

A dedicated science section in the Canberra Times would be loved by some, skimmed by others, and skipped by the remainder.

If we are to engage more people with the sciences, then we need to work with the interests, capacities and habits of the ‘unconverted’ in mind. It’s communications 101: know your audience. Acting on assumptions about what we think people want, need or are motivated to know can seriously backfire; forcing a dedicated science section into the Canberra Times might float our boats, but why would we think it would appeal to those who aren’t interested now? In fact, it’s likely to make them feel like science – something they might have been only ambivalent about previously – is a whole section of discourse that has nothing to do with them.

Imagine a reader who was ambivalent about science in school. Are they going to dive into the science section, or simply flip it over – like they might flip ‘politics’, ‘business’ or ‘sport’ – as a section that just doesn’t apply to them?

The truth is, they’re going to flip that section, and become just that little bit less likely to read about science in the future.

So what can we do instead? Here are our suggestions – one for the media, one for scientists.

The first thing we’d call for is a different metaphor for science in the mainstream media. Instead of thinking in terms of ‘sections’, we’d like to see science ‘embedded’ throughout the newspaper. We’d like to see journalists at ease with science when reporting on politics, health, sport or business; science obviously has much to say in each of these areas, why separate it out to its own section?

The second thing we’d call for is for scientists – and science managers – to embrace an attitude of open access and plain English communications. Right now, most Australian citizens can’t actually get access to much of the science they pay for, obscured as it is behind publishers’ paywalls. That which they can get access to is often written exclusively for scientific peers. We are not asking for all aspects of science to change, but we do suggest that if we are to develop a better relationship between science and society, then society needs multi-faceted, relevant and convenient ways to see what scientists do, and what science actually is.

Rod Lamberts and Will J Grant

Image by flickr user mac steve

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