On the Origin of Science Communication
Science communication began with the written word.
Since the birth of the scientific method, scientists have been recording and sharing their findings in letters, books, and articles.
In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus published his book: De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of Celestial Spheres).
In 1660, The Royal Society was founded by Sir Christopher Wren at Gresham College, London.
The Society provided a space for scientists to exchange methods and hypotheses. It is the birthplace of Philosophical Transactions, the oldest continuously-published science journal in the world.
Exclusive clubs to the general public
At this time, scientists were only concerned with communicating their research to other scientists, particularly members of the exclusive Royal Society.
It was Charles Darwin who broke this trend, although only temporarily.
When Darwin published his infamous On the Origin of Species in 1859, his language was targeted at the general reader, not at fellow scientists.
H. G. Wells, famous for his science fiction novels, began as a biologist, science teacher, and science journalist.
In 1894, Wells wrote an essay titled Popularising Science in which he voiced his admiration for scientists such as Darwin who addressed their works to a general audience.
He also expressed his disappointment that this had not become common practice.
“As a general principle, one may say that a book should be written in the language of its readers, but a very considerable number of scientific writers fail to realise this. A few write boldly in the dialect of their science, and there is certainly a considerable pleasure in a skilful and compact handling of technicalities; but such writers do not appreciate the fact that this is an acquired taste, and that the public has not acquired it,” – H. G. Wells.
Science and the Press, from Cheerleaders to Watchdogs
An early landmark in science reporting was the discovery of X-rays.
Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895, and shared his findings with physicists all over Europe by sending out packages containing his notes and X-ray images.
These packages unintentionally became the first media kit when one of these physicists showed Röntgen’s work to the editor of the leading newspaper in Vienna, Die Presse, who published it as front page news the next day.
By the time Röntgen presented his findings to the Royal Society in 1896, his work had already become an international phenomenon, and later earned him one of the first Nobel Prizes.
Science journalism took off in the early 1900s, when The New York Times hired scientist Carr Van Anda as managing editor.
Similar to H. G. Wells, Van Anda was a science “cheerleader” who recognised the need for science to be translated into plain language and delivered using narrative style.
Scientists tended to distrust journalists and treat them with suspicion, despite decades of reporting which focused on the wonders of science, respect for scientists, and their potential to “perfect” society through innovation and technology.
In the early 60s and 70s, science journalists began to question the potential adverse effects of emerging technologies, beginning with Silent Spring (1962) which brought to light the effects of DDT on wildlife.
The watchdogs were born. This new breed of Science journalists took a critical approach to new discoveries, especially when the work was funded by industry.
The late 1970s and early 1980s saw a boom in science journalism; more and more newspapers included a science section, and new popular-science magazines joined the ranks of Scientific American.
Sadly, this boom was short-lived.
Closing the gap – scientists and the public
In 1985, The Royal Society published the report The Public Understanding of Science, an issue considered by the Vice-President at the time to be “important not only, or even mainly, for the scientific community but also for the nation as a whole and for each individual within it.”
The report highlights the importance of every individual having a basic understanding of science in order to make well-informed everyday decisions.
It also comments on the need for scientists to communicate their work “without jargon and without being condescending.”
An issue addressed by H. G. Wells almost a century earlier.
“What [the scientist] assumes as inferiority in his hearers or readers is simply the absence of what is, after all, his own intellectual parochialism. The villager thought the tourist a fool because he did not know “Owd Smith.” Occasionally, scientific people are guilty of much the same fallacy.”
The Royal Society report goes on to detail the vital roles of formal education, the mass media, the scientific community, public engagement activities, and industry in engaging the public with science.
Where are we today?
Science communication has entered the Digital Age, and reached a turning point.
In 2013, 97% of scientists recognised the benefits of a public with a good understanding of science, but only 56% took part in science communication activities in the previous year.
Thanks to scientists such as Sir David Attenborough, Professor Brian Cox, and our own Dr Karl, the general public have enjoyed having science broadcast to their own homes in plain language, and without condescension, for over 60 years.
There are ever more programs and courses available to scientists to help them communicate their findings to the media, reducing the risk of editors publishing them with sensationalist headlines.
With a plethora of new ways to communicate science to the general public, thanks to the internet and social media, accessing science should be easier than ever for the general public.
So, why is there still a communication gap between scientists and the public?
This may be because the delivery has always been based on the Knowledge Deficit Model (KDM) – repeatedly presenting the evidence until the audience accepts it.
KDM relies on logic, and objectively presented facts or data to be persuasive enough to be accepted and remembered.
In 2016, a group of experts and practitioners were brought together by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to research how science can be communicated effectively.
Interestingly, they found that the KDM approach does not work.
What does the future hold?
An exciting and emerging trend in science communication is a method which is as old as language itself:
“The fundamental principles of construction that underlie such stories as Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” or Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” series, are precisely those which should guide a scientific writer. These stories show that the public delights in the ingenious unravelling of evidence… First the problem, then the gradual piecing together of the solution. They cannot get enough of such matter,” – H. G. Wells