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Science Wednesday: The Importance of Sharing Our Science

2010 June 9

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

“Is America flunking science?”

When Joe Levine, an environmental educator, posed this question in a presentation to EPA employees in Research Triangle Park, NC, my immediate answer was “no way.” After several examples of scientific misunderstandings, Levine started to change my mind.

Then, Levine gave an example that really hit home. He referenced how students are often taught about the skeletal system by having to memorize the names of human bones. I started to rack my brain for any bones I could remember and all I came up with was a verse from the song “Dry Bones.”

“The leg bone connected to the knee bone, and the knee bone connected to the thigh bone, and the thigh bone connected to the hip bone.”

Levine explained how in many classrooms students memorize series of seemingly unrelated scientific facts (like the names of human bones), without getting a true understanding of how science works.

As his presentation continued, Levine focused on the difficulty of communicating science in today’s society. The topics presented resonated with me not only as someone working as a new member of the science communications team for EPA’s National Research Programs, but also as a communication student.

My education has engrained in me the belief that effective communication is necessary in every industry and field. As the country faces complex environmental issues, the importance of science outreach, education and communication only grows.

But, science communication doesn’t come without its challenges. Levine highlighted the need to:

  • Increase scientific literacy so more people understand how science works
  • Present scientific information in short, digestible forms
  • Provide a strong scientific presence in the media, especially online

I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in a communications campaign at EPA that’s meeting these needs. The Office of Research and Development’s Clean Air Research Program’s campaign, Air Science 40, is sharing research accomplishments and scientific contributions through things like a short documentary film, Science to Protect the Air We Breathe and events.

Levine summed up the potential and value of science communication with one of his final thoughts, “scientific knowledge empowers people.” With the right approach, science communication can be as innovative, interesting and important as the science itself. I’m happy to be a part of that effort here at EPA.

About the author: Rachel Canfield is a student services contractor in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. She is a graduate student in communication at North Carolina State University.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. armansyahardanis permalink
    June 9, 2010

    There are structural arrogance among scientists, engineers, sociologists, … that they are the best from the others. However, all of them are interdependence. If they are agree to make just one system, then sharing our science will be realize…..!!!!!

  2. Jesús Torres Navarro permalink
    June 9, 2010

    Pienso que la única manera de realmente aprender es a través de nuestras propias “deducciones”, de ahí la enorme importancia de que se insista en que de lo que se trata “es de aprender a pensar NO de aprender que pensar” Eso por lo que se refiere a los Educandos, pero respecto a los Educadores, lo que pienso que se necesita es, “enseñar a pensar NO enseñar que pensar”
    Difundir cosas que no van a ser comprendidas correctamente por la mayoría del público, puede ser algo negativo, aún y cuando la intención sea la mejor
    Felicidades por el artículo es excelente

  3. Linda permalink
    June 11, 2010

    When I tutored high school students in math and science, I found the best way to connect and communicate was to make the subject relevant to something that was important to them … hence, the best way to teach percentages to a 16-year-old turned out to be teaching her how to compute compound interest for a car loan. At the end of the lesson, she turned to me, eyes wide with shock, and said, “So if I want that car, I need to start saving my money NOW!” I took younger students through the water cycle with simple drawings and watched as each discovered for himself that there is no new water … every bit of it has been through the cycle over and over again.

    To communicate science, you have to make it something real and relevant!

  4. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    June 13, 2010

    Science is one of the most important things that children should be taught in school. But it is also being nutured now with all the cuts going on to the school districts across the country that are so severe as to be resulting in teacher layoffs. At the same time. school administrators keep their large salaries, car allowances and etc. If people are not taught well in science while they are in school, they will not be able to make informed decisions on scientific issues later as adults. And so here in California an initiative has qualified for the November ballot that, if passed, would suspend California’s clean air legislation until the state’s unemployment rate has fallen below a certain percentage point for 3 streight quarters. Falling below this percentage point 3 quarters in a row has never been done before; so if this initiative passed it would result in permanently suspending California’s clean air legislation. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  5. oracle2world permalink
    June 14, 2010

    Plenty of people flunk science and math in school. I think the issue is that little of science matters in the day-to-day lives of people. Now engineering is important, and engineers can easily show how their stuff makes life better, but television programs on time travel and climate WAGs 100 years out just don’t resonate.

    And let’s cut to the chase. A well known radio commentator with the largest audience in the business began questioning lead toxicity on one of his programs. After busting on global warming. Which I think should be a huge wake-up call about communicating science.

    Climate science isn’t in the same ballpark as lead poisoning, or mercury, or phosphorus, or radiation. Not making this distinction between the two has badly hurt the environmental movement. So the lack of precision in climate science has to be clearly stated, because right now it isn’t.

    Scientists make plenty of mistakes, that is why there is a process for retraction of scientific papers. This is normal. But understand if science is used to justify policy, expect all sorts of folks to come out of the woodwork taking their best shot. No scientific theory explains it all, and critics will always find some unexplained anomalies. The biggest issue in communicating science is not stating these anomalies upfront. They are ignored, buried, dismissed with cursory explanations, etc. The critics find them, and have a field day.

    A good example is the imprecision of climate science. The typical dismissive explanation is that it can never be precise. True, but that explanation hasn’t changed anything. Acknowledge it. Because the most unusual aspect of climate science is that it is too perfect. There are absolutely no holes or anomalies in the theory. Even the general theory of relativity has problems, but climate science doesn’t.

    So is America flunking science? I think America wants a full disclosure of ALL the information before they agree to someone raiding their wallets.

  6. Joe Levine permalink
    June 16, 2010

    Thanks very much for your comments on the blog thread about my presentation in RTP a few weeks back.

    I’m not sure from your post whether or not you heard my presentation, but it directly addressed the main issues you raised, including the need to make science relevant to people, and the importance of describing scientific research (from medicine to ecology) as efforts to use data and scientific thinking to empower people and to improve the human condition. My presentation also explained how “we” (meaning scientists and science educators) have made, and continue to make, important mistakes in teaching and communicating about science.

    For a start, we shouldn’t teach “human ecology” as a list of anthropogenic catastrophes, with global climate change assuming the role of the latest and most serious mess. This approach leads people to feel that we’re headed to you-know-where in a handbasket … and that there’s nothing any of us can do about the problems … so we might as well enjoy ourselves in the interim.

    Instead, we should use examples, such as research and resulting policy around chlorofluorocarbons and ozone concentration in the atmosphere, as evidence that when data are properly gathered and analyzed, the results can inform public policy in ways that have positive, global effects – without causing major economic turmoil.

    It is also useful to discuss other, more complex scientific issues where data and predictions cannot be precise – yet where a scientific approach can be useful nonetheless.

    Take earthquakes, for example, Seismology and geology can’t predict exactly when and where earthquakes will occur or precisely how strong any given tremor will be. But they can identify general areas where earthquakes are likely to occur, and can offer probabilistic ranges for their likely severity.

    In the same way, meteorologists can’t say for sure how many hurricanes will form in any given season, how strong each storm will be, or what paths any storm will take. But they can offer statistics on past hurricane paths and strengths.

    Properly interpreted and applied, information from both those branches of “imprecise” science provides data that can be used to make prudent public policy recommendations. Those recommendations, after appropriate consultation and deliberation, can be translated into building codes that attempt to improve buildings’ resistance to tremors in California and to high winds and rain in Miami. Buildings constructed according to earthquake- or hurricane-related codes are likely to cost more than building without those built-in precautions – and once the information provided by science is taken into account, local governments and other stakeholders can make cost/benefit decisions as they see fit. The result, absent non-scientifically and/or non-rationally motivated rabble-rousing, is informed construction, rather than umbrage or outrage that anyone is raiding anyone else’s wallets based on incomplete or uncertain information.

    But there are also two other major issues, one of which is intrinsic to the scientific/educational community and one of which is extrinsic to it.

    The intrinsic issue relates to the problem you raise about people wanting certainty in the outcomes of scientific research and analysis. That desire is natural; who among us doesn’t wish for more certainty? But the expectation that such desire can be satisfied by science is based in fundamental misunderstanding of what science is and how the process of science works. The reality is that uncertainty is almost always part of the scientific process. Unless and until we start teaching science – all science – in a way that more accurately portrays the nature of science, we will inadvertently create fertile ground for those who Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway refer to as “Merchants of Doubt” in their eponymously-named new book.

    Which leads us to the extrinsic issue. Climate science is, without a doubt, devilishly complex. Certainties are few, confounding factors are many, and models vary in their predictions. Powerful segments of American and global society view climate science and its predictions as a threat to their operations. Given the “fertile ground” mentioned above, these entities are spending heavily, not just to stymie efforts at regulation, but to cast aspersions at climate scientists and to cause the public to doubt the science of climate change itself. As scientists and educators, it should be our challenge, and our responsibility, to help explain to the public, not just what we “know,” but also how we know it, what we don’t know, and where thoughtful deliberation, based on persuasive, though incomplete, information, can lead us.

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