Comment »Posted on Tuesday 30 September 2008 at 4:10 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

Like many others I have been following the financial turmoil following the failure of the $700bn Wall Street bailout with a mix of horror over the sums involved, uncertainty about the future, and schadenfreude towards the “fat cats”.

It’s also got me thinking about the similarities between business reporting and science communication. I’d like to think I know a thing or two about science, but when it comes to the financial section my eyes are as likely to glaze over as the next person. This means that whilst I can tell you a great deal about mathematical derivatives, I’m pretty much in the dark about their financial namesake.

This lack of knowledge allows me to place myself in the shoes of those who believed stories about the Large Hadron Collider destroying the Earth. It is easy for me to see the current crisis as a group of mad scientists (bankers) who spent vast sums of money on an experiment (sub-prime mortgages) that even they didn’t really understand, and now that it has all gone wrong we are being sucked into a (financial) black hole. These mysterious bankers use jargon such as “leveraging” and “securitisation” that I don’t understand, so I turn to the media for explanation – and I find it lacking.

Where can $700bn be conjured from in a matter of weeks? Why aren’t the people who caused all this trouble being fined or thrown in jail? Why weren’t they stopped in the first place? These question aren’t being dealt with by the media, or if they are the answers aren’t easily accessible to the layperson such as myself.

How should I apply these thoughts to science communication, and my writing on Just a Theory? I think keeping in mind my misunderstanding and frustration towards business news can help me avoid those same feelings in readers wishing to learn more about science.

For example, it’s easy to make the mistake of assuming too much background knowledge on the part of a reader, and whilst it would be impossible (and frankly, boring) to explain every single detail from first principles, it’s important to consider the entry point for a typical member of the public.

This is especially true when dealing with high profile stories such as the LHC, where even people who might not normally read science stories become hungry for information. Normally I don’t really care if the FTSE or whatever is down a few points (because I don’t really know what that means), but if the government buy Northern Rock then I want to know about it, and I want to quickly be brought up to speed. The same goes for the general public, who hear that the world could be ending next Wednesday and want to know why.

Another thing to think about: the experts aren’t always right. For years the bankers have tinkered with their models and acted on their findings – often resulting in huge financial gains. Now, as it all comes crashing down, it turns out the models were wrong. The public want to know why these “experts” were so off the mark, but the truth is that to the best of their knowledge, the models worked.

The same goes with science. In the past I have called evolution a “fact” – but really, it isn’t. It’s our best model of how living creatures came to be, and if one day science comes up with a better model, evolution will be replaced by a new “fact”. I see this as a matter of semantics, because I will happily accept any alternative theory that falsifies evolution with its improved scientific reasoning – and no, intelligent design, that does not mean you. Until that happens, I’m happy to call evolution a fact.

This idea that “the model could be wrong” isn’t always well communicated to the public, many of whom see science as attempting to hand down absolute truths from on high. When scientists change their mind, or disagree with one another, people often draw the conclusion that science is worthless and lose confidence in the word of scientists – in the same way that the bankers’ broken models have lead to a loss of confidence on the stock market.

Apologies if you find this post a bit rambling compared to my usual style – hence the new category, “Musings” – but I’ve had these thoughts swimming around in my head for a while. They’re still not quite all joined up yet, but I think bashing them out on the keyboard has helped a bit. Don’t worry though, tomorrow will see a return to your regularly scheduled science blogging!

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