Written By: Rachel Mason
In the age of the internet, misinformation seems to run rampant through online forums--particularly social media. From the impacts of vaccines to the "dangers of 5G towers”, to the haze of misinformation obscuring the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are unsure where the truth actually lies in controversial science topics. It seems that there has been a breakdown in communication between scientists and the general public, exasperated by the ease with which information is disseminated online.
In discussions about how to maintain clarity and restore trust between scientists and the general population, two concepts are often heavily discussed: scientific literacy and science communication.
The difference between the two rests primarily on who is designated as responsible for communication. Scientific literacy favors educating the public in order to interpret scientific topics better, whereas science communication places the responsibility on the scientists to be more understandable.
Misinformation contributes to obscurity in scientific concepts, and the jargon-heavy manner in which scientific discoveries are often presented in papers can make them difficult to understand. The confusing language of most scientific papers requires news outlets to interpret the studies, which can be a good way to communicate, but it also subjects the communication of otherwise unbiased scientific findings to potential bias or misinterpretation by the outlet.
More than just understanding the jargon of research papers, scientific literacy is the ability of an individual to understand the content of a topic or paper and what makes it reliable or not, rather than relying on an outside source for interpretation. For example, scientifically literate people can understand that sample size (how many subjects are included in a study) is an important element of a study's content. If everyone were equipped with this knowledge, controversies like the (false) link between vaccines and autism could largely be avoided. The study that was the origin of this link had a sample size of only twelve people, and it was not replicable, both of which would be red flags for its credibility. If the general public were able to apply scientific study and trial design principles to news-worthy moments in science, their results would be better analyzed, which is why the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine support scientific literacy in school curriculums. The Association for Supervision of Curriculum Development suggests having students learn not just scientific concepts but also data evaluation and scientific literacy.
Though schools are the ideal setting for teaching scientific literacy, this learning can occur independently of educational institutions. Websites like Snopes endeavor to battle misinformation where they can, and programs like Coursera can offer Science Literacy courses, but these must be sought out and sometimes purchased. This is far from ideal for working people, who may not have hours to spend trying to decipher science controversies, especially when Facebook presents information so readily. Additionally, while it is possible to incorporate scientific literacy in school curriculums, such programs of study would be much more difficult, if even possible, to apply to adults who are not in school. Scientific literacy programs can and should be used in schools, but in the meantime, it is vital to make sure that adults who are out of school can understand STEM. This is why we need more science communication.
STEM communication takes the responsibility of understanding away from consumers and relies on scientists and other professionals to make their work clear to a general audience. The precise, highly-specific terminology needed to categorize and communicate ideas within science gives scientists clarity but can make it harder for non-scientists to understand scientific texts. A good example of this is the difference between asymptomatic COVID-19 infections and presymptomatic COVID-19 infections. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the WHO and other public health bodies have recommended wearing masks regardless of symptoms to stop the spread of COVID-19 because people may not always show signs when infected. Controversy surrounded this idea backed up by science when a WHO spokesperson said that new cases rarely originate from asymptomatic infections. To the untrained ear, that would sound like saying that people cannot get COVID-19 from people who do not show symptoms, but this is not true, as people are infectious before they show symptoms. She was referring to people who never get sick, but this was not clear in her statement. It caused many people to think that the WHO was saying COVID-19 could only be spread by people showing symptoms. In the future, similar situations can be avoided by considering a general audience's grasp of terminology, anticipating miscommunications, and addressing potential issues before they occur, as well as after if need be.
Clearer science communication could avoid unnecessary errors and also help individual scientists advance in their careers. The more people who understand a scientist's research, the more likely it is that the right funder or collaborator will hear about it. The good news is, science communication is not an unpioneered field. Figures like Bill Nye and Emily Calandrelli have made science accessible for millions. Even scientists like Jennifer Doudna, who are not primarily media personalities, have prioritized science communication, a great example being Doudna's book, A Crack In Creation. Several avenues can be used; social media, television programs, and books, for example, can all help bridge the gap between scientific expertise and public knowledge.
While encouraging scientific literacy is a worthy endeavor that could make people better and more ethical consumers of information, educating every consumer of information in America seems unlikely. Instead, the world needs scientists to take that extra step and make sure their research is shared reputably and easily interpreted.