Communication & Rhetoric of Science

The Social Consequences of Scientific Insularity

Fear of falling from academic rigor

Probably a biologist…

Written by Jason Abdilla 

Traditionally, scientists dislike the dissemination of their work to the public because it “dumbs down” the purity and rigor of scientific knowledge. What is at stake, then, in keeping scientific knowledge reserved for the secret societies of scientists?

This question is central to some recent research discussed in an article from The Economist. The article covers a study done by François Gonon of the University of Bordeaux in France where Dr. Gonon and his colleagues surveyed academic journal articles as well as newspaper media to see how Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) had been reported during the 1990s.

Dr. Gonon and his team found that though the research was relevant and highly informative at the time, many of the hypotheses and conclusions reported in the 90s about ADHD are no longer supported in light of new studies. Yet, the news media, who covered ADHD extensively in the beginning, have not followed up on these recent findings. The author of the Economist post asks if this is a case of ADD among science journalists, who are rapt by the “new and exciting” and then quickly lose interest in the matter. The author also notes that scientists also share responsibility to disseminate research. But the lingering, inferred question is: Isn’t it the job of the journalist, not the scientist, to get the information to the public?

In this seemingly logical question lies a contentious and age-less problem in the science-society interface.

What this scenario underscores is not necessarily a problem of responsibility for reporting science, but rather the tenuous relationship that scientists have with the mass dissemination of their work, especially considering the tentative nature of  scientific knowledge in the first place (especially biomedical research). As I mentioned earlier, many scientists may not risk putting their research into a public arena where it could be tarnished by the whims of language and public scrutiny, but when it concerns issues of public health and safety, shouldn’t scientists accept the fear and be more proactive in promoting their work outside the insular communities they work within?

This hits the central nerve in the discussion.

When scientists actively promote their work, they take a risk of wandering from the sacrosanct path of scientific rigor.  By promoting their work, it may seem to some that scientists may have suffused their findings with personal interest–maybe even a whiff of bias–which is considered taboo in traditional scientific endeavors. Furthermore, when scientists emerge into popular media with evidence of new findings, he or she takes the risk that newer findings will “disprove” (a word never actually used by scientists, they prefer “refute”) their work. Granted that science is already facing heat as a credible, disinterested pursuit of knowledge (consider Climate Gate and politicized energy research), more public displays of scientific “ineptitude” damage–it would seem–the scientific edifice that has taken centuries to erect.

However, this may also be an issue of the public’s scientific illiteracy. Not illiteracy in that the public misunderstands the often complicated language or content of science, but rather an illiteracy in understanding who scientists are and what they do, and how science goes about settling on theories and knowledge. A basic understanding about how science builds upon the broken hypotheses of refuted research may mitigate science-skepticism and promote a more optimistic view, like the turning of a new intelectual leaf. But for this to happen, old uncle Science must come out of his den and talk to us.

Scientists have done an excellent job at barring themselves from the rest of society, only emerging when their hair is just right, their clothes perfectly pressed, and their shoes scuff-free. So long as science arduously works to maintain a squeaky-clean image as a discipline that always has the right answers, then it is questionable whether scientists will ever venture to promote their science, unless they can assure that no risks to their occupation and reputation are being taken.

If this is so–and I believe that a close look at the current culture of science will say it is–then this is tragic. Especially when there is so much we can gain from the scientific knowledge in academic institutions.

The scientific enterprise has become its own worst enemy, and in order to save itself from itself,  it needs to regain some humanity and humility. Who knows, maybe it will end up making some new friends, as well as continuing to improve the lives of many.

-Jason Abdilla

5 thoughts on “The Social Consequences of Scientific Insularity

  1. Very interesting post, Jason. It raises lots of great questions. I must take offense to one statement towards the end. Science does have a sense of humor, however, it usually isn’t communicated effectively. Some of my colleagues have not taken themselves or their accomplishments seriously sense grad school. Kudos, great post. May I link it to one of mine?

    • Thanks for the note mhrussel! I also think you’re right about science having a sense of humor, but just not always being able to communicate it effectively. A colleague’s wife works in a lab at the Anschutz Medical Center, and after spending an afternoon with her, I soon learned that there is a unique, witty, and dry way of talking about their work. It was incredibly refreshing. I just wish more people could experience the funny bone I know science and its practitioners have.

      Of course, repost this or share it or whatever. That’s why it’s up!

      Cheers, and thanks again for commenting!

      JCA

  2. Pingback: Weekly Science Sightings: Recap and Forecast (December 12-14) | To see science

  3. I do agree with your points–I know a few academics who feel as if they have to walk a fine professional line and not be perceived as being unprofessional. Then I am reminded of the “cold fusion debacle.”

    I can re-call the problems that the University of Utah ran into when their p.r. held a news conference prior to having the finding go under peer review. As I further recall the incident, the two scientists who claimed the revolutionary finding could not re-produce their own results (to the best of my knowledge). I can only imagine how difficult it would be to get funding after that “nightmare.”

    It is probably the case where the two scientists may have taken themselves too seriously–sadly enough.

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