Thursday, May 15, 2008

Going Public with the Scientific Process

The Scientific Process is the heart and soul of all science. The Scientific Method you learned in school is part of it, but not all of it. Science, like all human endeavors, is subject to human error, interpretation, value and judgement. Science is the process of creating, supplementing, and updating the world body of knowledge. The March 14, 2008 issue of Science magazine has a letter about the Scientific Process. I am posting the entire letter below. All emphases are mine.


The idea of using framing strategies to communicate science to the public has recently been taken up in scientific forums (1, 2), the mainstream media (3), and the blogosphere (4, 5). Most participants in the framing science debate limit their notion of scientific information to scientific facts. However, confining science messages to just the facts interferes with public understanding of science as a systematic, logical process of human inquiry and effaces the distinction between data and scientists' reasoning about data. To communicate successfully, we should focus on scientific process by emphasizing two important elements of scientific rationality: skepticism and dynamicism (6, 7).
Scientists deliberately integrate skepticism into their procedures by trying to refute their own hypotheses, retaining them only when confronted with compelling evidence sought through carefully controlled procedures. Scientists tend to shy away from revealing the intrinsic skepticism of science to the public, fearful that it will open the door to doubt about the validity of their conclusions. But communicating only the facts of science (framed or unframed) destabilizes public confidence in science. A fact doesn't allow science communicators to reveal, justify, and ultimately promote the skeptical reasoning process that helps make scientists more confident that their reasoning is correct.
Science is also dynamic; it is a cumulative enterprise that requires scientists to situate their instrumental activities and interpretations against the evidence that has come before and to alter them in light of new evidence. Insisting that new data be interpreted within the context of past and future data will ferret out and correct error over time, but it means that a fact cannot, by definition, be anything more than the (ephemeral and fallible) consensus of scientists at a given point in time. A "just the facts" strategy can and often does backfire, ultimately fueling public alienation from science. When scientists inform the public of "facts" (like the "fact" widely disseminated in the 1970s that all dietary fats are bad for us), and then that "fact" is refined or altered (now we're told olive oil is good for us), the public is justifiably confused. Studies suggest that the public tends to regard normal scientific refinement and self-correction as equivocation or incompetence (
8-10). Instead of sweeping uncertainty under the rug, science communicators should help the public understand the logical and systematic procedures by which scientists confront it.
The true majesty and promise of science lies in its systematic, logical, skeptical, and dynamic reasoning procedures. "Successful" science communication should not be regarded as any message that enlists public support for science. Rather, we should define "success" in scientific communication as achieving a public that celebrates scientific reasoning procedures.

Ruth Cronje
Scientific and Technical Writing Program
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
Eau Claire, WI 54701, USA
M. C. Nisbet, C. Mooney, Science 316, 56 (2007).
M. C. Nisbet, D. Scheufele, The Scientist 38, 38 (2007).
M. C. Nisbet, C. Mooney, "Thanks for the facts. Now sell them." The Washington Post, 15 April 2007; Outlook section, p. B03.
AAAS News Blog, "Science has a 'serious marketing problem,' says Google founder Larry Page," 17 February 2007; available online at {}.
P. Z. Myers, "What if the right role for science is to shatter the frame?" Pharyngula, 7 April 2007;
J. Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society, T. McCarthy, transl. (Beacon Press, Boston, 1984).
H. I. Brown, Rationality (Routledge, New York, 1988).
B. Wynne, Environment 31, 10 (1989).
B. B. Johnson, P. Slovic, Risk Anal. 15, 485 (1995).
B. B. Johnson, Risk Anal. 28, 781 (2003).

1 comment:

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

thats the first thing i teach in my stats classes as well as a history of science