|Every day, new scientific claims are plastered on the web, in the newspaper and on social media. Science finds a cure for aging! New discovery proves that humans interbred with early hominid species! Studies of voles reveal monogamy gene!
But in truth, science is much conservative than how the media portrays it. So how do we make sense of sensational headlines about new scientific discoveries?
Scientific reporting generally relies on journalists, who interpret the studies, present the conclusions in meaningful ways to us and sometimes provide their own speculation on the study’s implications. But conveying technical scientific information to non-scientists can be challenging for many scientists.
That is why Dr. Abby Olena, post-doctoral fellow at Duke Science and Society, works with scientists on communication. In this conversation, Abbey describes how she teaches scientists to communicate their work accurately and effectively so that the consumers of scientific information can better weigh and frame the results into the context of world around us.
So once we have a better understanding of the latest science, we can use that knowledge to inform public policy more effectively.View Transcript
My name is Abby Olena, and I have a Ph D. in biological sciences from Vanderbilt University. Here at Duke University, I work with the Science in Society initiative, and my role as part of that initiative is to help scientists get better at talking about their work with people who aren’t scientists.
I think that one of the most challenging things for scientists when they’re trying to talk about their work with people who aren’t scientists is that they have to step outside of what they do for lots of hours every week, and really almost speak a different language. So scientists have a lot of jargon that they use on a daily basis that they don’t even think about, and that can be really challenging when they try to talk to their neighbor about what their work is, to put it in terms that their neighbor can understand.
Another challenge that scientists face when talking about their work is that they care so deeply about it, and are so embroiled in the details of what they’re doing on a daily basis, that they often forget to take a step back and remind people why they should care about what they’re doing. So that’s another challenge that we face when we’re trying to help scientists, you know, talk about their work to people who aren’t scientists.
I think that actually one thing that makes communication hard for scientists is that they’re very cautious and they don’t want to overstate their findings. Many scientists that I have talked to have a lot of trouble with the ways that journalists and the media overstate scientific findings, and so they’re almost hesitate – so I should say that scientists hesitate to do any communication about their work because they’re so scared that it could be misconstrued. And something that I tell scientists when they’re worried about talking about their work, and they don’t want to overstate their findings, is that people are always going to frame what you say unless you do it for them. So they have to give people a contexts in which they understand what they’re doing, or people are just going to make up their own context.
I think there’s a pretty wide spectrum of personality types among scientists. I think that it sort of traditionally is a job that suits introverts pretty well, so people who are happy to be in the lab for pretty long hours, but then again science is very collaborative, and so the better you are at sort of reaching out to people that are scientists and not scientists, and doing the sort of communication that I think it’s really important, the better you are at doing science. So I think, you know, in terms of the kind of people that are doing it, it really runs the gamut from people who are really internal and quiet and people who are super gregarious and excited to share what they’re doing with everyone.
In terms of – I haven’t thought about you know the genetics of what makes somebody a scientist, but I do think that there’s a lot about what’s inherent about personality that goes into how comfortable people are communicating with other people and in that sense you know if you are a scientist who really is most comfortable working in the lab by yourself or with a small group of people that are scientists like you, and sort of having intellectual discourse, then it is a lot to ask for you to sort of move beyond who you are inherently to then do these things, like communicate to a policymaker about why science funding is important, or speak at your daughter’s elementary school about why kids should care about the brain, or some, you know, any number of contexts you can imagine where communication is important. And it, you know, it’s a lot to ask of people who would prefer to be doing those more internal things. But I think that people can rise above it, and I see them do that every day in my work.
So when we’re thinking about how to know if we’re successful at teaching scientists to communicate their work to people who aren’t scientists, a lot of what we look at are confidence in the individual scientists. So I think many scientists are just petrified when they come into a class. Like, I teach a Communication for Scientists class, because they really, you know, like I said earlier they’re nervous about their work being misstated. They’re nervous about giving false impressions about how much the data can really tell us, they’re worried that in the media, science is often portrayed as a series of breakthroughs, when in reality that’s not how science works.
So they have a lot of anxiety coming into it, and so you know where I can really measure success is when I look at the end of a class or at the end of a course, and I can see these, you know, individuals who are really nervous about talking about their work at first, you know, step in front of a class or, you know, get in a mock-cocktail party scenario, which is what we do at the end of our class, and really see them at ease and comfortable and having a little bit of fun talking about their stuff. And then on the flip side of that is the people that they’re talking to seem engaged. So those are really the two best ways that we measure how successful we’ve been in teaching people these things.
But how can a well-meaning citizen be involved in furthering scientific progress? Many people selflessly want to donate their time, personal information and even their own biological samples to advance science. But how do we know what the long-term effects of using human samples might be? What effect can it have on the donors , both physically and psychologically, one, five or even twenty years or more down the road? What about the recipient of the biological material? Whose rights are involved and how will privacy be protected? Is there true informed consent?
Those questions drive Dr. Thomas Williams, a lawyer and post-doctoral fellow at Duke Science and Society. He takes us into his world as he discusses how we, as a society, must continue to be proactive in thinking about the potential human impacts of modern scientific advances.View Transcript
My name is Thomas Williams, I am a lawyer and a master’s in bioethics. I am a post-doctoral fellow here with a focus on biotechnology in the law. So, we’re doing a lot of interesting activity around understanding how science relates to policy, and looking at legislation around science and how it’s discussed and framed. We’re also trying to inform the courts about science that’s introduced that’s new and innovative, or perhaps junk science. My personal research really looks at how we quantify and consider life as a property value, and how that can change contextually, is my interest, in terms of, if we look at our own personal bodies as property, does that provide some kind of remuneration when the government takes it from you?
So, so many people do want to be a part of scientific endeavors and research and moving us forward, and then you come into the idea of informed consent and trying to make their care a part of that process, and it ends up being really confusing and hard. A lot of us look at our doctors as these primary – their primary role is a caregiver, is a person who’s there to help us. I went to undergraduate school with a number of people who are now in the Ph D.’s and they are in this combined role, which this researcher and scholar in the legal academy named Jay Katz talked a lot about, that there’s this bifurcation of that role. And so when you go in to get something done, and you want to be part of a clinical trial, you haven’t yet, I think, been able to discern who’s your doctor and who is a clinician who’s trying to find a way to a research aim.
And I think it leaves us in a really funny place in terms of how we look at involving ourselves in research and consenting to it, and what that relationship actually means vis-a-vis this person is my doctor, versus this person is a researcher. And it means that we’re commodified differently based upon the role that they’re playing.
Well, I think I’m guided, and went to law school, though I ended up at a corporate law firm, really moved to be a voice for people who cannot – and the idea of social justice is critical, it’s been something that my family has been connected to for generations. And my faith says that justice is key, that treating others well is the priority. And so, at the end of the day, no matter where technology goes, no matter what we have access to, I think we always have to come back to fairness and ideas of social justice, and how we choose to use that technology, and whether or not what we do widens gaps in wealth and inaccessibility in health, or whether it helps to limit them or can be used to do that. And almost all technology plays both sides, but I think when we think about policy, we really have to consider what direction we’re choosing to go into instead of demonizing or making a saint the technology itself.
We are in an age where technology has far outpaced our regulations and policy discussions. As we continue to make advancements in genetic technology that affect who we are and what have the potential to become, we have many more questions that need to be asked and pondered. Once again, Ian Malcolm’s powerful statement in Jurassic Park comes to mind – “…your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
We need scientists, and even more so, non-scientists, to help us understand why we should pursue certain technologies, and have deep conversations about their implications. Human dignity demands it.
(This post is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum, a collection of perspectives on specific topics. It is part of our series “Are We More Than Our Genes?” For more on our series of videos exploring this question, please look at the post Our Genes, Our Selves.)