Our society has become increasingly less reliant on expertise. The success and large diffusion of free or cheap internet access in many countries, the explosion of content, and social media have all contributed to building a society in which experts are increasingly seen, by a sizeable fraction of the population, as people out for personal gain or profit. This has, consequently, increased the number of Google queries concerning medicine and fuelled conspiracy theories about vaccines, pharma companies, or about the origin and purpose of the novel coronavirus.
Social scientists are somewhat used to hearing opinions about their specialist subject from people who themselves lack expertise in that subject, as economics, sociology, and political science, for example, are disciplines that more obviously directly affect everyone’s daily lives. By their nature, these are sciences that are subject to debate, be it at the governmental level or at the bar between old men playing cards.
Experts in natural sciences, however – such as physicists, chemists, and biologists – who are used to thinking of their subjects as exact sciences, are the most vulnerable to the arrival of the ‘no-expertise culture’, in which scientific facts corroborated by evidence are being challenged as if it were a debate about which soccer team will win the World Cup.
However, many natural scientists, instead of coming out and fighting this unprecedented socio-cultural war, seem to prefer to lock themselves in their laboratories or go mouldy in front of their computers, ignoring the rest of the world – perhaps hoping the trend will pass, just as it arrived. But just as the internet is here to stay, so is ‘no-expertise culture’.
Scientists keep advancing science, discussing their results with colleagues, issuing reports, writing papers for other academics. While some of the world’s population increasingly rely less on expertise and more on ‘Google science’, natural scientists increasingly narrow their expertise. In the 1960s, geneticists were studying DNA. Now, saying you are a geneticist gives others only a superficial idea of what you’re actually an expert in. You may know everything about tRNAs, or you may know absolutely nothing about it. You may know everything about gene editing techniques such as CRISPR/Cas9, or the genetic variability of fruit flies, but you may also know very little about other areas of genetics.
And so, while experts are more and more viewed with suspicion, scientists have progressively narrowed the audience of those who are interested – or, more accurately, able to understand – their work: they have kept writing for specialised journals, using language too obscure and technical for most people. This is not what scientists wished for. Rather, this is the consequence of the increased volume of complex human knowledge generated in the past decades, and the necessity for increased specialisation.
Communications training for scientists at universities was lacking everywhere until a short time ago. There were very few people with any idea of how to present research findings in front of even a specialised audience – let alone a general audience, your grandparents for example.
While the world was going in one direction, most scientists were staying in their comfort zone. Now, all over the world, people are increasingly judging the work of experts, especially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. And scientific communication, which has never been so desperately needed as it is now, is currently a poor discipline that is lacking quality and scientific rigour. Imprecise or incomplete information – even provided by the highest scientific intergovernmental body (the World Health Organization, WHO) – is fuelling incomprehension and anger among the general public, who are struggling to understand who provides correct and reliable information from the multitude of conflicting online sources. Just today a senior scientist made a public plea for not only accurate information, but equally importantly the development of an engaging and persuasive communications plan to ensure that the public enthusiastically embrace the new COVID-19 vaccines when they become available.
For some people, the reconciling theory that would explain the lack of clear information coming from scientists is that these scientists are hiding the truth for personal gain or profit. After all, many people picture scientists working anonymously in a lab, behind closed doors that offer no access to anyone else. Think about the virologist working with bats and coronaviruses: what a coincidence, many may think.
Scientists should understand that their curiosity for how things work cannot be kept secret from the rest of the world. The way people are reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic is proving this point. Scientists should come out of their dark microscopy or laser rooms, and start facing a rapidly changing society, with its demands and doubts. Otherwise, conspiracy theories and science denialism will grow further, perhaps ultimately having a negative impact on science, as proven by the already declining funding for research.
It takes passion and some effort. It takes experiment and patience. Science communication should be taken seriously, just like science itself. Scientists are driven by curiosity and the will to change the world, but they must do so by interacting with the real world. How can you cure and eradicate a disease, such as measles or the novel coronavirus, if people are not willing to be vaccinated? What’s the point of it?
Science communication should become an important component of every scientist’s curriculum, studied with the same rigorous, evidence-based structure as biology, medicine, chemistry, or physics themselves. And scientists should increasingly share their knowledge and teach the broader public the basic concepts.
We should be spared from seeing scientists debate vaccines or genetic manipulation with celebrities on television. This shouldn’t happen. Responsible science communications should at a minimum make it clear that some aspects of science are proven and not up for debate, and that expertise is vital for our society. At the same time scientists should stop trying to explain to people the details of the molecular structure of DNA, or the role of mutations in determining the progression of cancer – when most people have no idea of what DNA, or cancer, really are.
Scientists should explain the basics (and only the basics) of science to those willing to hear, using modern and effective strategies that are in step with our times. To be clear: here the ‘basics of science’ refers to scientific facts that are relevant to the general public, and upon which people make personal choices. For instance, the understanding of vaccine safety is basic science. People should be convinced of their efficacy and safety not only because of the support of scientists, but also by the unequivocal support of politicians of every party that expects to be taken seriously. Most adults accept the reality that they have never had the diseases against which they were vaccinated as children. But explaining how the immune response is triggered by vaccines is not always simple science, as the complicated immune responses to COVID-19 have demonstrated, and should not form part of basic public briefings. Full comprehension of the variations is cutting edge science and requires years of academic study, and proper training.
Academic papers are not the only way to solve the world’s problems. A set of well-tailored YouTube videos may instead yield better results. Finding effective strategies ultimately means that funding agencies and governments should invest heavily in science communication, thereby helping to build a society that trusts the work of scientists, and that is relies heavily on expertise when it comes to public policies.