Is Being a Jehovah’s Witness Good Practice for Science Engagement?

An interesting comment that public engagement of nuclear, GM and nano technologies had all failed during a twitter conversation with Ruth Seeley, Hilary Sutcliffe and Frogheart had me thinking about science communication, and wondering why we even bother. After all, if there has been a problem with science communication for over fifty years then perhaps we need a new approach?

I’ve spent the last twenty years or so in science communication of various types so it’s a subject I know a bit about. For the first ten years I was helping scientists who would produce reams of spectra communicate with engineers in the space industry who wanted to know why something didn’t work, but didn’t want to have to get a PhD in surface science in order to get an answer. Large chunks of my day were given over to translating impenetrable but excellent scientific analysis into explanations of what the problem was and most importantly, what, if anything, could be done about it.

Ten years later I found myself in an equally delicate position communicating nanotechnologies to politicians and investors who were all excited about little robots with the ability to cure cancer. The trick was to let them down gently while maintaining enough of an upside to keep the funding flowing. It was tricky, but it worked.

But science communication gets a little hairy when you try to communicate it to people who aren’t particularly interested. Banging on the doors of businesses to tell them about the benefits of nanotechnologies usually produces the kind of frosty reception reserved for Jehovah’s Witnesses who come calling at 9am on a Saturday morning, though usually without getting the bucket of water tipped on you from an upstairs window. Similarly, engaging the general public without any kind of pretext gets you the same reaction as saying ‘hi’ to people on the London Underground – cuckoo!

But we keep trying, perhaps because we feel we have to rather than in any hope of making a conversion, a bit like Jehovah’s Witnesses again, but there are a number of reasons why this approach does not, and may never work.

Firstly there are plenty of vested interests. Many of the academics put forward to explain emerging technologies are boffins with no interest in anything apart from their next publication or getting a tenured position (and those with different agendas know who they are and won’t be offended). Rather than sitting in ivory towers thinking deep thoughts, most academics expend 90% of their effort on trying to stab the guy in the next office in the back and finding a way to avoid any of their rivals getting funded. The trading floors of most investment banks are courteous and civilised by comparison. Add the fact that academic egos (or indeed those of experts on anything) inevitably mean that science has to be shown to be far to complicated for you to understand, and we end up with science engagement being delegated to people with better things to do and a vested interest in keeping things a mystery. (OK so there are a few notable exceptions such as Richard Feynman, but how many others can you name?).

The next set of people who jump in to explain emerging technologies are the self appointed experts, who once again have a vested interest in showing that any new technology can do wondrous things on a short timescale and if you don’t hire them you may miss out. Consultants, egotists, chancer, bandwagon jumpers, there are always plenty.

While the general public is becoming vaguely aware of a new technology, the next set of people to pipe up are the concerned ignoramuses, Prince Charles and the like, who don’t really know much about the subject but can generate unholy amounts of work for everyone else by getting hold of the wrong end of the stick and then waving it around in the media, which of course loves a good scare story. Then in jumps the Daily Mail and other tabloids and Hey Presto! now the only thing that anyone is sure of is that Technology X might be dangerous and we have stories about nuclear meltdowns, frankenfoods and grey goo pushing any rationality off the page.

Just as we have vested interests, confusion, doom mongering and speculation all swirling about someone inevitably pipes up and calls for Technology X to be banned on the basis if something they read in a newspaper. Immediately anyone involved in selling anything involving the technology to the general public will remove its name for fear of backlashes and lawsuits, and the technology becomes more obscure. As a result, in the early years of any emerging technology, no matter how hard you try to explain it, the situation will become even more confused.

Is this inevitable? Well perhaps at first. The problem with most emerging technologies is that no one really knows, or indeed can know what the applications will be, and all opinions are therefore necessarily speculative. The debate will polarise and revolve around wild exciting dreams and doomsday scenario fears, space elevators and self replicating GMOs out of control.  But after a while the froth settles, the scientists and engineers get on with things and applications begin to emerge, and this is the point where you can have a meaningful dialogue about technology, but anything before this point is just theology.

Because the biggest problem with technology engagement is that no one is remotely interested in learning about technology, they just want to use it. If you want to communicate science, you have to talk about something that people can understand. That’s why Brian Cox can create a popular show like Wonders…, all you have to do is look up and everyone can see just what he’s talking about and the imagination does all the hard work, but where can you see gene transfection or molecular epitaxy in action if you are not a specialist? That’s what distinguishes effective and ineffective science communication, the ability to relate the science to something that non-scientists can understand. All good communication needs a hook to hang it on, and if you don’t have a hook, you won’t get a second look.

The question then becomes whether early stage science communication is futile, and the answer has to be an emphatic no.  Part of the mission of all scientists is to share knowledge, and whether that is teaching calculus to a bored class of 14 year olds on a warm afternoon or explaining organic electronics to bunch of bearded technophobic ecologists, its something that comes with the job. If you don’t try then you’re not much of a scientist. And while 99.99% of people just don’t give a damn, there is always someone who will walk away converted. There is also the bonus that no matter how well you think you understand something, the mere act of explaining it to someone else makes you think rather more deeply about it. In fact the less your audience understands about a subject the better you need to understand it if you want to make sense.

In the cases where concerted efforts have been taken to communicate new technologies to small groups of the public the effects have been rather unsurprising. If GM technologies can result in cheaper food and less hunger then they are seen as good. If nanotechnologies can help diagnose and cure cancer then the reaction is also generally positive.

Perhaps the biggest problem lies in the way that science communication has traditionally been done over the last 50 years, in a linear, top down way. A boffin lecturing the masses with information flowing only in one direction results in nobody involved learning anything of value.  Social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook are giving us new modes of interaction, and new ways of reaching out to those who may be interested without spamming the whole world. We are nit there yet though, platforms such as Second Life are full of people who don’t have a first life, and cutting through the noise on Twitter can be a major headache especially for new users.

But the answer must be to use technology better to communicate science, and as increasing numbers of scientists and the general public become more familiar with social media the job may get easier. If it doesn’t, then scientists will just have to polish their shoes, put on a smart suit and spend a day a week knocking in doors.


Comments 3

  1. Hilary Sutcliffe

    Nice post time – humour & public engagement in the same article – there’s a rarity!

    I have been wondering the same as you, and think that we have to break it down a bit more, though haven’t got the boxes yet. eg

    ‘Public Dialogue’ usually means asking people what they think about an ology after some form of explanation, usually with an academic of variable communications talent telling them a bit about it by video. This is not dialogue, this is MARKET RESEARCH. This is a perfectly acceptable practice, it’s useful and important to know what people think about your potential or actual product, but if they still don’t understand it when you’ve explained it to them, and if you only talk in top level generic language (which happens a lot in nano engagement) then you get top level generic responses.

    Other ‘public engagement’, generally with governments, universities or more rarely companies going out in the media and direct to talk about their ology or product and explain more about what it can do and why they are doing it is called PUBLIC RELATIONS. Again perfectly acceptable, but let’s not pretend it’s anything else. PR can also be done ‘anti’ a technology, by those who don’t agree with your position or product. That happens all the time too.

    Your Jehovah’s Witness scenario, also called ‘public engagement’, but in any other life it’s called SALES. The difficulty is with nano that it is quite hard to do, as you say ‘no matter how hard you try to explain’. But then you have to go back to what you are selling and why. (I won’t even start on the ‘deficit model’ of engagement!)

    The most important thing about good Sales is to have a product that people want. Sometimes Market Research can help identify that, sometimes not. But it should always fill a real need that someone has, whether they knew they had that need before they found out about the product or not.

    However where the customer doesn’t trust the company or the product you need to try much harder with your Market Research, PR and Sales. The benefit has to be abundantly clear and unequivocal, you have to really listen to your market research and adapt and evolve the product to reflect the concerns of your customer. You have to act in a trustworthy way, that usually means being much more open about they way you develop the product, what potential downsides there may be and how you have made sure it is safe for them to use. This could just be called ‘good business’, but it sometimes gets called ‘corporate responsibility’. It’s a shame for science, but here as in any other arena it takes a long time to get a good reputation back when it’s been damaged. Sometimes the damage is self-inflicted, sometimes it’s collateral, but however it happened you have to try a lot harder.

    Then there is INFORMATION PROVISION, which is what we were trying to do with, which is neither PR or sales, but aims to provide impartial information for the public about the issues in the round. The trouble is as a company it is tricky to pull off, without it being seen as PR. We, as an independent, mult-stakeholder organisation, hoped to have credibility by doing it, governments sometimes can and some consumer groups and ngos can also do it well sometimes. I think that is incredibly important, partly so that the scientists, companies, ngos and others can get on with their PR happily, and partly so that the public can have some source of info which gives the issues in the round.

    Is there anything left which really is public engagement? This is the bit I’m not quite clear on. I think the distinguishing characteristic is that if you listen and change based on the feedback you get, wherever you get it, you have done ‘PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT.

    There is ‘CO-CREATION’ or ‘CROWD-SOURCING’, that might be the ultimate public engagement where you get the public to actually help you create your product. Time consuming all round, but as you say easier with social networks.

    I think my comment is longer than your blog – sorry!

    PS: Poor Prince Charles has been vilified unfairly and never said grey goo at all and actually raised very sensible and thoughtful issues about nano most of which have not effectively been answered to this day. See BBC website here –

    1. Post

      Thanks Hilary, great comments. Perhaps the problem is also that we are taking a whole area of technology and then trying to communicate it to ‘the public.’ Whether sales or communication, it’s always a good idea to know your market/audience.

      I’ll take some convincing about Prince Charles though, he doesn’t have a great reputation for being well informed but it could be worse, his younger brother could be involved!

  2. Pingback: Public Engagement – when is it Market Research, PR and Sales? « Hilary Sutcliffe's Blog

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