During the last IMPRS interdisciplinary symposium New Frontiers in Science the topic of “Science and Society” was clearly exemplified by two prominent researchers and science communicators. While Prof. Ernst-Peter Fischer from Germany talked about “The public misunderstanding of science”; the Mexican Prof. Ana Maria Cetto addressed “The scientists’ misunderstanding of the public”. But who are these scientists and who are the public?
Scientists build knowledge by explaining and predicting our natural world. In reality, however, scientists do not have any idea of what reality actually is. Albert Einstein said that theories are free inventions of the human mind, so scientists never discover the truth, they just invent it. In fact, science presents the world as we know it in a different form in order to understand the world by giving it the form that scientists create themselves. Thus science is art. Art is defined as a process of arranging items often with symbolic meaning in a manner that influences human senses and intellect. As art, science also has classical personalities like Galilei, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Planck, Heisenberg, Delbrück, etc. All these scientists should be regarded as artists because in the end, scientific models are not discoveries but artistic human inventions.
Take for example Newton’s laws of motion. These cannot be found in Nature, but rather in the book entitled “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica” published on July 5th, 1687. As art, science should be also incorporated into history. This will help unraveling disciplines like nanotechnology or synthetic biology not as fashionable terms looking for impact factors, money, or funding; but rather as well-established old interdisciplinary approaches with clear potentials – and not agendas that overlook scientific applications – and limitations to our knowledge so that scientists could be able to perform basic research.
In 1919, Max Planck stated that “pure science is inherently unpopular because intellectual creations are very personal experiences”. According to Planck, science is by itself unpopular; it cannot be popularised. Scientists create something that is a personal experience and cannot be conveyed to someone else. In other words, creative moments are just a personal experience where words cannot help. To understand science, scientists need to have a personal experience of creating something that will correspond to their reality. However, although Planck said that it is impossible to popularise science, he gave a hint on how science can nonetheless be popularised. He said that one must be creative. Consequently, the only way to popularise science is not by giving an answer, but rather by asking questions – they become the creative person that bears an understanding of science.
Who are the public? The public are very far from being homogenous; they are a complex and dynamic mix of people with different opinions, knowledge backgrounds, expectations, interests, concerns, ways of thinking and questions. The scientific community makes a big mistake in missing this heterogeneity. The public are often regarded from the Ivory tower as an abstract mass out there, most likely because scientists have no time to interact with scientists from other disciplines, other professionals, none-professional workers, young people, children, funders of science, journalists, the media, lawyers, politicians, or diplomats. In spite of this heterogeneity, the public can be regarded as a big onion whose interconnected layers allow the scientific communication to take place. The farther away scientists move from their comfort zone, the more difficult it is to transmit the message both in terms of content and language. Furthermore, some scientists exaggerate that their models fit perfectly with reality and that they will help solving the problems of humankind. To avoid conflicts, both the public and scientists must understand each other.
What is the main difference between the public and scientists? It is not the information, which is more or less accessible to all nowadays, but rather the ability to interpret, select and amplify information in order to draw conclusions and create knowledge. Scientists are privileged because they know how to use information. Conversely, the public, having access to the same information but without the necessary tools, will draw unscientific conclusions by applying their own peer-review, as can be seen in social networks in the internet. In this regard, scientists have an advantage, but also responsibilities towards society. However, all people are naturally predisposed to certain bias, prejudgment, ignorance, and false assumptions. Although scientists are more trusted than politicians and the media, according to statistics, when it comes to complex issues like climate change, vaccines or GMOs, the public trust of scientists is at risk. The public can have legitimate questions and concerns, but if they do not get an answer, it will create scientific misunderstanding. Moreover, when scientific matters have public relevance, there can be many kinds of political, financial, or environmental agendas that will influenced the behavior of scientists. To avoid this, it is essential to have ethics committees and rules that line up the behavior of scientists, but also of some groups of “the public” including politicians, journalists, and other sources of research financing as they have likewise agendas.
The best way to communicate science is to engage both scientists and the public by establishing an open, informative and respectful dialogue between them. The complexity of the subjects, public relevance, access to information, the level of democracy of the society, the availability of scientists, and other factors will determine what is the best communication approach. On one hand, the scientists should give lectures and ask for help to science communicators. They should not give answers, but questions. Science education should avoid repeating what the experts tell because there will be no public understanding of science; it will be merely a reproduction, not a creation. On the other, the public should attend scientific conferences like ESOF or perform experiments to expose to science. Science has not been, and maybe it will never be, able to answer what life is. The public should not ask the expert what life is but rather find life within them by looking at their cells. Science transforms the mysterious nature into more mysterious explanations.
Einstein said that people are only interested in mystery. Science should be told as a detective story because it is full of mysteries or simply as art. This is very important for the public understanding of science.
Featured image credit: Kuznetcov_Konstantin_via_Shutterstock
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