Some months ago now, I was perched at a bar with a group of friends from my local town. The COVID-19 pandemic was relatively new, but had been around long enough for us to be worried. Universities had shut down, businesses were worried they’d have to follow suit, and nobody really knew what was going on. Many of us had taken to checking Twitter out of habit to see what the latest update was. Our country’s Public Health Emergency Team had just announced new measures involving lockdown and quarantines. As we all struggled to take the news in, a fellow reveller turned to me and asked,
“What’s the story with this?”
I told him I hadn’t a clue, and I wasn’t lying. What happened next is one of the defining moments behind finally setting up PartyLab Industries. He replied just as quickly as I had answered.
“How do you not know? They’re your friends, aren’t they?,” referring to the government’s Public Health Emergency Team, “You’re all scientists aren’t you?”
An often misunderstood term these days.
Don’t get me wrong, I understood why he asked. He was looking for answers during an uncertain time. But this interaction gives some insight into the public perception of “scientists” – namely that they have all the answers! My research had nothing to do with virology, immunology or epidemiology and yet I was still thrown in under the term “scientist” and asked to communicate reasonable answers.
This poses quite the double-edged sword of a problem.
- Some members of the public can at times think that any scientist should be able to communicate complex research in any field to anyone who asks
And perhaps even more worryingly…
- Some scientists believe this too, and offer up advice and expertise beyond their research scope
Number one can be dealt with quite easily if you ask me. A quick explanation that you specialise in other areas and that you aren’t comfortable giving an answer to a question you don’t have all the evidence for should be enough to keep most people happy. Number two is the more worrying issue. There’s two main reasons I find it worrying:
“That Can’t Be Right…”
The first is that it can spread misinformation. No matter how serious the subject, whether it’s COVID-19 or the physics behind Spiderman (oh yes, we’re serious), it’s extremely important that any information we communicate to the public be correct. People say incorrect things all the time, but when someone is given a platform as an expert and proceeds to say something incorrect it can cause serious issues. I need to point out, I’m not talking about a simple mistake or slip of the tongue here; that can happen to anyone. No I’m talking about incorrect data, misleading stats, and general misuse and misunderstanding of the underlying research.
Science Can’t Explain it All
The second reason I find this so worrying is the level of distrust it brings to science as a whole. When so-called “experts” communicate misinformation to the public from a position of influence, eventually someone will correct them. The more this happens, the less trust the public will have in scientists and researchers who are given a platform in the future. It’s already begun to happen across the world. People have continued to rally against guidelines brought out by various government agencies. As Dr Gregory Poland, Founder and Director of Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, puts it,
“I’m amazed at the people who get interviewed who have no expertise or very little expertise in this domain. That can mean politicians, researchers from very different areas of science, public health officials — and they make misleading statements that aren’t checked. The public sees all of them as doctors and sees that there’s no clear agreement. It’s maddening.”Dr. Gregory Poland
It makes perfect sense for people to push back when all they’re being served is confusion. That leads me onto my next point…
Science – Do Better
Science communication is an often forgotten aspect of a researcher’s life. Just like writing a paper or performing an analysis, it’s a skill that requires honing and practice. Just because you are a good scientist, doesn’t mean you are a good science communicator. Too often we see reports filled with complex jargon, charts that would require a degree just to decipher, and statistics that make no sense to anyone not ingrained in that particular branch of science.
It is our job to make our research accessible and understandable. Understand that your knowledge is deep, but frustratingly narrow. Consult with researchers from other disciplines if you need your facts checked, communicate with journalists who want to discuss your work and ensure they really understand what you’re saying, practice explaining your work as simply as possible to people who don’t work in science. As Einstein once said,
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”Albert Einstein
Start the Party
All this brings me to where we are now. PartyLab Industries was set up with the explicit purpose of making research accessible, understandable, and hopefully enjoyable. Science isn’t something to be hoarded and discussed in closed off labs and research offices. It’s there to be discussed, to be argued, to be lived. We plan to bring you research from all around the world, and to communicate it in as many different formats as we’re allowed to. If you don’t like reading blogs we’ll have infographics. If you don’t like infographics we’ll have YouTube videos. If you don’t like Youtube videos we’ll have Podcasts. If you…you get the idea.
We want to be your go to destination for all things good (and bad) in research today. We want to show the side of science that we see. Science is as much art as it is research, and we’re here to prove it!
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