Scientists are an interesting bunch. We’re all taught to communicate in a very specific way: Be sparing in what you say, even more sparing in what you claim, assume your audience can recognize the difference between good data and bad and always give them your best, because they’ll call you on anything less, etc, etc.
Then there’s the public. Frankly, not many of us are any good at addressing that audience; it’s large, it’s diverse, not everyone knows how to read your graphs and wants you to shut up for a sec while they work it out themselves, etc, etc.
Yet, science has a lot to communicate with the public. And I think the public would like to address the scientific community once in a while too, but it’s not necessarily any easier to communicate in that direction either (most people don’t look through ncbi to find someone working on the topic they’re interested in learning more about and then finding the corresponding author for a quick email chat. )
There are some books out there, like Randy Olson’s, ‘Don’t be Such a Scientist’ that does a good job of helping scientists see how others like to be communicated with. Recently, at the AAAS meeting (that’s the American Association for the Advancement of Science) had a talk about how to communicate that touched on many of the same points Olson’s book covers. Perhaps most importantly is a group like Sense About Science that attempts to bring peer review to the mass media.I think this could be one of the simplest, and most powerful changes in how science is communicated. This was recently discussed in a Scientific American article outlining the objectives for the group.
Nevertheless, many scientists balk at discussing certain topics in public because it may lend a sense of legitimacy to views that are politically or religiously motivated, rather than scientifically.
What do you think should be done to open lines of communication between scientists and non-scientists – or on how media should be held accountable for providing source data on scientific claims?