Is the fight to communicate science to the public lost?

A while back I stumbled upon “Why scientists are losing the fight to communicate science to the public” from The Guardian’s science blog Occam’s corner.

In this article, Richard P Grant argues that the scientific community is failing to communicate with the general public, and that even those famous, media savvy natural scientists we see on TV every once in a while tend towards paternalism.

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So you’re trying to tell me…?

If we want to improve the general population’s understanding of science, Grant argues, scientists need to approach people on their level and take their concerns into consideration. It is not really up to scientists to tell people what they need to know, but rather to find out what people themselves think they need to know. (This is the basic tenet of all good communications, really.)

In the article, Grant mentions the physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, who opened a science hotline, where you pay 50 USD to have a quantum physicist spend 20 minutes explaining the ins and outs of whatever topic you’re curious about.

Bar the part where you have to pay an arm and a leg for a 20-minute conversation, this is actually a brilliant idea. Perhaps there is a way to to make the science community accessible to the public in a similar scheme?

In 2015, the Swedish Tourism Board launched The Swedish Number – a phone number you could call toll free from anywhere in the world that connected the caller to a random volunteer in Sweden. The number has since been shut down, but it was hugely popular and by all accounts can be counted as a branding success for Swedish tourism.

How about the science community in each nation across the globe instead launch a Call-a-Scientist phone line, to answer people’s concerns and thoughts about science? The scientists in the scheme would have regular jobs and commit a certain amount of hours to taking phone calls each week.

Of course, science is too wide a concept – no single scientist could answer questions on every topic, so there’d have to be a menu where you choose which branch of science you’re interested in. Press one for physics. Press two for chemistry. Press three for biology. And so forth.

The science hotline would not just serve the purpose of satisfying people’s curiosity. It could also act as a vehicle for increased community awareness about current safety issues or media scares. Imagine that there is a lot of media coverage about the efficacy or side effects of a certain vaccine, resulting in increased calls to the hotline with requests on this topic. The scientists would be equipped to give factual answers and debunk myths – or give advice in case of legitimate safety concerns.

Moreover, by logging the questions that are posed a nation’s decision makers could collect data on what the population’s main concerns are and put increased efforts into addressing those issues with public information campaigns, or fill information gaps in the public consciousness.

Knowledge is power, and it should belong to the people. A Call-a-Scientist hotline could help people make sense of the world around them and the news they read. In this post-truth world of alternative facts where internet users are besieged by fake news, a higher level of science literacy would also gradually equip people to recognise bogus news reports and conspiracy theories. If truly successful, it might even have a knock-on effect on the media industry and force news sources to become more nuanced and more accurate in their reporting, lest they lose all credibility (or is that just my old fashioned pre-post truth world view talking?).

Of course, such a hotline would require a lot of political backing and relentless commitment from the scientific community, but just imagine the potential.

What’s the first thing you would ask?

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