Home » Blogging » How can we expect the general public to trust scientists if they don’t understand what we do?

How can we expect the general public to trust scientists if they don’t understand what we do?

It is no news to any of us that science is currently under attack with the current administration – with EPA dismantling, proposed funding cuts to the NIH, but also with erroneous views about climate change and vaccines causing autism. But more importantly, this seems to me to be a consequence of how the general public view science, overall. They tend not to trust scientists because they cannot relate to us. They don’t understand what we do, and also they don’t believe to know any scientist. The #ActualLivingScientist hashtag was a great response to this, but we still need to fix the fact that the general public don’t really understand what we do.

The scientific community as a whole does not think about the public as being an audience of what we do as scientists. When we get a grant, we should be thinking about how to explain to the public why we are doing this, to get their engagement in the science (@SenatorPhD, heard on the ScienceDisrupt podcast)

During the last #AAASmtg there was a lot of discussion about #SciComm and public engagement (you can read more about this on a previous blog post). Yes, most scientists agree that they should do science outreach,  but do we really know how to do it? Scientists are trained to communicate their research in a technical level, but not to talk about its impacts to society. How can we expect the general public to trust scientists if they don’t understand what we are talking about?

Last month I published a guest blogpost at the PLOS Neuro community discussing a very interesting paper on neuroendocrinology of female reproduction. I was very happy with the final result, but IT WAS EXTREMELY HARD TO WRITE IT! First, because it was my former area of research, and I wasn’t sure how simple I should get. But also, having read so much about this particular topic made it harder to actually make it more simple and appealing to non-experts. Writing to a general audience is not an easy task, and it requires a lot of practice and attention to the language (passive voice and jargons, anyone?)

It is important to properly communicate our results to the general public – not only to gain their trust, but also to avoid misinterpretation of results. We discussed this topic during our last #DiversityJC and how this can harm science and society in general. One of the main critics to the #OpenAccess movement is – “why should science be open to the general audience if no one is going to be able to understand the research?”. In fact, science needs to be more open, but also more accessible!

Apparently there are a couple of journals that already started including ‘plain-language summaries’ to their research articles. eLife published a nice guide explaining its summary (called e-Life digests) and the importance of doing so. But if the journal where you published your research is not among those, there are still several ways you can increase the visibility of your research, and among all those suggestions, I totally encourage you to blog your own research. It’s great practice to “explain or expand upon your research for non-specialist audiences, and to provide additional information and background that perhaps didn’t make it into the final version of a paper.”, as @protohedgehog suggests.

You may say why should I bother if there are already science journalists and communicators that are trained to do this job? The problem is that only super hot-topic research ends up being presented and discussed to the general audience. Others may also argument that no one reads science blogs anymore. I can tell you by experience that the general audience will not follow your blog, but it will sure find your blog post using google. My post about Prolactin secretion and miscarriage was published back in 2013 and since then it hasn’t had a single month without a reading.

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As Albert Einstein said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. And we all should start practicing to be able to explain it simply. To share your knowledge and to fight for science!


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