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Columns

What the Public Should Not Know

By Julie Heng, Crimson Opinion Writer
Julie Heng ’24 is a Crimson Editorial editor. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.

The accessibility of science to the general public has somewhat of a backwards story. For a while in the early 19th century, many could build microscopes or pick up books to identify rock or animal species and take part in scientific truth-seeking in forests or along coastlines. But by the late 19th century and especially after World War II, science became increasingly professionalized and expensive; current massive genome sequencing and particle accelerator projects feature hundreds of contributors per paper. The gap widens between scientists and the potentially interested but more passive public.

On the flip side, science and society are more linked than ever. We don’t have to look further than the day’s top headlines to see how immunology and engineering permeate our lives.

So how much distance should there be between the scientific and public spheres?

Enter science communication, which aims to bridge the gap between science production and public understanding. Along this road of science communication, the questions continue. Who mediates what gets through to the public and what gets set to the side? How do we balance a right to know with what some may consider, subjectively, the best to know?

Current science is characterized by an informational overload. Nearly 100,000 papers on Covid-19 have already been published, for example. Each paper features hyper-specific information — specific models and criteria, highly contextualized results and deficiencies — all wrapped up in confusing jargon. Even scientists in different highly specialized biological fields can’t fully evaluate each others’ work!

Say the effectiveness of a vaccine or cancer treatment is debated. Do we limit what information gets put out, so that there aren’t mixed messages? Should there be referee panels that evaluate controversies for a degree of consensus or accepted “truth” before widespread publication or public policy implementation?

Opinions differ. Some worry that presenting scientific conclusions as preliminary can backfire, endangering public trust. However, New York Times science columnist Carl Zimmer thinks that “sounds quite condescending and counterproductive.”

“If you present things as absolute truth, you're going to have to then present some other absolute truth,” Zimmer told me in an interview.

Craig Venter, the pioneer in synthetic biology who led research on the first draft sequence of the human genome, said he thinks that controversies are oftentimes what make things “even more interesting.”

He argues that every scientist has “a moral obligation to communicate what they're doing to the public” which includes “the good and the bad, and the ugly.” Venter mentioned that “a lot of studies, for example, deserve more public criticism, because their sample size is way too small to draw the conclusions that they’re drawing.”

Despite science journalists’ best efforts to communicate nuance, science in popular media can face limited airtime or attention spans, resulting in truncated presentations of information that can lose conditionals and present findings as far more absolute than they are. Statistics may not be fully fleshed out, and headlines can broadly oversimplify. Plus, though they shouldn’t, some “reporters can be lazy and can just present things as absolute truth,” as Zimmer put it.

In the best case scenario, scientists who are experts in their respective fields become scientific ambassadors of sorts. Michael Faraday, the scientist who discovered the mechanism underlying electromagnetic radiation, gave a famous series of “Christmas Lectures” in 1825 designed for a general audience. Now, we have TED Talks, or open houses at Venter’s J. Craig Venter Institute where scientists make presentations for members of the community.

“People are interacting face to face, quite often one-on-one with scientists and they get to ask questions that they can't ask of a newspaper,” Venter said. “[They] really like it.”

So it seems obvious that more public opportunities for science communication would be valuable. Additionally, graduate schools and scientific career development should place more value on public engagement training. Having more journalists trained in science, as well as increased general science literacy, will also help. And science journalism needs sustained funding, far beyond the pandemic.

But such changes won’t be enough. As we navigate these issues of scientific gatekeeping and credibility, it is crucial to consider the public’s impression of science.

According to Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, it can’t just be presented as “one tribe making pronouncements.”

Pinker told me in an interview that it shouldn’t be like “trust the scientists or don't trust the scientists, but it should be that the actual data, the actual logic of the experiments is explained.”

“There are studies that show that when you present data in graphs, even on politicized issues, people can change their minds,” he said.

For this column, I’ve spoken to Nobel prize winners and bestselling authors, leading scientists and bioethicists. The idea of emphasizing the scientific process has come up in almost every interview so far. Science will be paramount in future policy making, especially as issues of the scientific future like climate change and artificial general intelligence will become increasingly tied up with humanity’s future. (As Venter said, if science doesn’t play a major role in future decision making, “we're screwed.”)

We have to start with the “basic epistemic humility that launched science,” Pinker said. “Remind people that we start ignorant about everything. It's only by a very arduous process of conjecturing, of explanations, and then trying to determine whether they are true or false that we can know anything about anything.”

Julie Heng ’24 is a Crimson Editorial editor. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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