Science in Review: The Art of Public Science Communication

Painting of Galileo before the Inquisition

Monty Python had it wrong; when scientists talk to Christians, you can count on the Inquisition coming up. (Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition by Cristiano Banti)

Anyone else watching the new incarnation of Cosmos? We’re now roughly a quarter of the way through its 13 episodes, and yet the overall thread of the series remains somewhat elusive. The first episode felt like an introduction to cosmology, with an emphasis on the vast scope of space and time. The second episode jumped to evolutionary biology (albeit with DNA models more cosmic than chemical), while the third returned to space. That doesn’t feel like a natural sequence for a general science education; in fact, the only way I can make sense of it is to assume the show is aimed primarily at people who are uncomfortable with certain scientific topics on religious grounds. Then we see that the show is ticking off those sensitive subjects one by one — the age of the universe and centrality of Earth, evolution, and most recently superstition and messages from the gods.

Although not advertised that way, the writing of the show makes it clear that the conversation with religion is a primary and explicit concern of the show’s creators. The first episode prominently features an animated sequence dedicated to Giordano Bruno which has received a lot of coverage, both for its obvious religious themes and for its questionable emphasis on storytelling over historical accuracy (although personally, saying that Bruno was burned at the stake for theological heresies unrelated to alternative cosmology is hardly an improvement for the image of God’s people).

But I think the more significant elements were the more subtle ones, such as the opening quote “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be” or the stated rules for participation:

  • Test ideas by experiment and observation
  • Build on those ideas that pass the test
  • Reject the ones that fail
  • Follow the evidence wherever it leads
  • Question everything

While I’m perfectly content to sign off on those requirements as stated, I get the sense that the last one in particular is meant to rule out the possibility of considering religious answers.

The second episode, focusing on the topic of natural selection, continues this usage of carefully chosen and heavily coded phraseology. The nucleus of the cell is described as a sanctuary, and the genomic material contained within is its sacred scripture. Later, intelligent design is specifically mentioned by name, and “blind”, “undirected” natural selection is offered as a competing hypothesis.

Photo of Halley's Comet

Strictly speaking, the fact that a gravitational model can describe their orbits doesn’t mean comets aren’t messages, anymore than the existence of routers and TCP/IP negate the meaning of e-mails (NASA photo)

The third episode chooses to frame scientific predictions in the language of prophecy. It also emphasizes our innate human capacity for pattern recognition, and its capacity to identify true and false patterns. True patterns are apparently ones that lead to accurate prophecies, while false patterns do not. We sometimes hear that religious beliefs are nothing but spurious superstitions born of our pattern recognition abilities; would Cosmos have us believe that as well?

Given all of the specifically religious language of the show, it seems to be inviting believers to “Come try science; you still get all the wonder and spirituality you like about religion, but with empirical verifiability!” And yet given the wide range of reactions to, and interpretations of, the show, I wonder if it is actually going to reinforce existing perspectives rather than changing minds.

In particular, I think the writing of the show underplays the role of empirical observation in forming the perspectives it would have us reject (or at least reconsider). The geocentric cosmology was a robust scientific model consistent with observation — unlike Bruno’s cosmology at the time he proposed it. The correlation between comets and calamities was observationally motivated. And when the show invites us to believe that the human eye is not efficient for seeing in air because it evolved from an eye adapted to seeing in water, it omits the nuance required to reconcile that assertion with the common empirical experience of anyone who has opened their eyes underwater in a swimming pool.

All of this only reminds us that science is more than just the facts; a scientific theory is an interpretive framework for understanding a set of facts. And the formation of such a framework is motivated at least in part by the questions one is asking, as well as what facts are available. It thinks this perspective also helps explain the recent study which tried to identify which educational method would improve acceptance of vaccination among skeptics. The observation in that paper was that no method actually achieved the desired result of increasing self-reported likelihood of vaccinating one’s child, and some of the educational materials had the opposite effect.

I think a common misstep made by the Cosmos creative team and public health officials promoting vaccines is failure to appreciate that they are presenting facts within an interpretative framework designed to answer certain questions which are not necessarily the questions their target audience is asking.

In the case of Cosmos, the question its target religious audience seeks to answer is who made the world; the how that Cosmos is interested in is a secondary concern at best and possibly informed by the who. The who question is one that Cosmos can only answer as either “we don’t know” or “no one”, neither of which is satisfactory.

In the case of vaccination, public health is answering the question of how to prevent measles, pertussis, and other infectious diseases. But for most Americans, those diseases are thankfully abstract notions, making their prevention seem automatic. Autism, however, is a tangible reality for a growing number of families; the questions they want answered are what causes autism and how to prevent autism. Answers like “it’s complicated” and “we don’t know” will never be as satisfying for those questions as the concrete answers of “vaccines” and “don’t get vaccinated.”

This suggests a general problem for communicating science to the wider public. It would seem that quantity of facts will not sufficient to be persuasive. For effective communication, we may need to take the time to listen to the questions that people are actually asking, and frame our responses in those terms. And where the answers we have to offer are to entirely different questions, we may have to consider what additional education and dialogue is necessary to understand why those questions aren’t being asked and what it might take to raise them.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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  • Joshua commented on March 26, 2014 Reply

    Interesting post but I must take issue with the comparison to vaccination. Scientists are very much engaged on the question “Do specific vaccines increase the risk of autism or cause it any way?” It turns out that this has been studied in great rigor in most cases with the conclusion that “No, vaccines do not increase the risk.”. This isn’t satisfying for parents though, because they have the direct, anecdotal experience of seeing their kids get vaccines and then get autism. Even though this personal experience is just association, not causatitive, it is hard to take hold of that scientific truth. The problem is NOT that science is interested in different questions than patients.

      Andy Walsh commented on March 26, 2014 Reply


      Thanks for you comment. Since my educational background is in public health & infectious disease, I appreciate your desire for clarity on the topic of vaccine safety.

      I agree that the biomedical research community has applied due diligence to issues of vaccine safety in general and the possibility of a link to autism in particular, and that the evidence is on the side of adequate safety and no autism link.

      And I also agree that the scientific community is interested in the same questions as parents of children on the autism spectrum, and parents or prospective parents weighing the decision to vaccinate.

      However, in the specific educational study I referenced, and in my observation in general vaccine education efforts, the information that is being offered via educational efforts answers questions that those parents are not asking. The answers that public health has to offer are about vaccine safety, vaccine efficacy, and the severity of vaccine-preventable diseases when a population is under-vaccinated. But ultimately, parents want to know what causes autism and how to prevent it.

      And so I think this disconnect between the questions that the educational efforts are trying to answer, and the questions that the target audience are actually asking, explains the observation that vaccine safety educational efforts are not effective in persuading parents to vaccinate.

      • Joshua commented on March 27, 2014 Reply

        Hey Andy,

        Thanks for the response.

        I see where you are coming from you. You weren’t speaking broadly, but just in relation to the education to vaccines in the paper you reference.

        Though, in this paper one of the “treatment” group is given “information explaining the lack of evidence that MMR causes autism from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” This information didn’t change the parents minds about vaccinating their kids.

        So it isn’t that they didn’t address parents concerns, or answer with “it’s complicated” as you suggest in the article.

        Actually reading that paper is interesting. It seems that the main effect of sharing information was to alter the reasoning that parents gave for not vaccinating their kids. It seems as if their specific objections are quite opportunistic. If you talk about autism-vaccine non-linkage, they now agree that vaccines don’t cause autism, but still refuse to vaccinate their kids. If you talk about the seriousness of measles, they get concerned about side-effects.

        I think what is going on here is deeper than asking the right questions, etc. I think parents are very emotionally driven, maybe even instinctual, about decisions surrouding their childrens safety and health. Unfortuantely, this isn’t very scientific, or rational.

        I do agree that “It would seem that quantity of facts will not sufficient to be persuasive.” But is rationally engaging really going to make much headway?

        Bringing it back to the faith science dialogue. I think COSMOS really does miss the mark, and I agree with your critique. Honestly, it seems like they have an agenda.

        Unfortunate. It would have been great for them to present science in a way that was more accessible to religious people. And didn’t intentionally try and pick fights along the way.

          Andy Walsh commented on March 27, 2014 Reply


          I agree that there is an emotional component to the concerns about vaccines and autism, and I would say it that emotional reactions are also relevant to the dialogue between religion and science. I’m not sure that’s unrelated to the issue of which questions are being answered or not answered, however. Feeling that you are not being heard can elicit an emotional response. Of course there are plenty of other emotional triggers involved as well.

          “So it isn’t that they didn’t address parents concerns, or answer with “it’s complicated” as you suggest in the article.”

          Yes, in one study group they provided information about the lack of experimental evidence for an autism-vaccine link. That addresses the nominal concern about vaccines specifically, but does not answer the underlying question “what causes autism & how do I prevent it?”

          What I am suggesting is that, from an education or communication perspective, perhaps more focus needs to be put on answering that question directly, rather than focusing on the vaccine evidence, or lack thereof. And I am further suggesting that, if the answer to “what causes autism?” is “it’s complicated” or “we don’t know completely,” then it may not be satisfying enough to replace the vaccine narrative.

    Christ Centered Teaching commented on March 30, 2014 Reply

    Great article.

    They try hard to avoid the miraculous causality. They fear the Genesis story.
    They fear accountability to a Creator.
    They don’t seem to realize that the Creator settled our accountability by taking our sins upon Himself on the cross.
    ‘What is man that You are mindful of him?”, should be our question as we survey the wonders of creation.

      Andy Walsh commented on March 31, 2014 Reply

      Thanks for the thoughts. The comment about miraculous causality got me thinking. I wonder to what extent miraculous causality is put aside for practical reasons. For a scientist, there may appear to be few career opportunities offered by miraculous causality.

    Christ Centered Teaching commented on March 31, 2014 Reply

    Ahhh yes.
    Good point.
    Like Jesus’ s parable of the vineyard keepers who took the King’s vineyard for themselves. Creation and it’s wonders are the vineyard.
    Funding only lasts until you find answers.

    Kevin commented on April 5, 2014 Reply

    I worry if there even exists an effective way to have a conversation with religion such that the religious would be open and inviting to the evidence that science presents. I recall that Bill Nye’s much publicized creationism debate only resulted in both sides digging their trenches deeper and reinforcing their views. The underlying issue is that many religious people do not accept scientific evidence as evidence, and vice versa for scientifically minded people and faith as evidence; when science and religion interact, it only seems to increase the tension between the camps. What can be done other than having this religion conversation head on? What should Cosmos do instead?

      Andy Walsh commented on April 9, 2014 Reply


      Good question. What _should_ Cosmos do instead?

      Answering that depends on what its goals are. If, as it reads for me, it is trying to encourage people to substitute science for religion, then I am not sure there is a way to achieve that goal. For, as you observe, scientific evidence is for many orthogonal to their religious beliefs. Trying to substitute science for their religion would be like asking them to substitute a bicycle for their sandwich; it’s not even in the same category.

      And yet given the way that the Cosmos scripts talk about science, it would seem to serve as a reasonable substitute for religion in the minds of the producers and writers, since they can describe both in the same terms. So if Cosmos is attempting what I think it is attempting, then it thinks it is offering a juicy cheesesteak in exchange for a peanut butter sandwich, but their audience sees an inedible two-wheeler.

      However, let’s suppose that Cosmos is not trying to substitute but instead supplement, as some have suggested. How should it proceed then?

      If it were me, I would not start with topics like the age of the universe or evolution. Those are topics science is interested in, but most folks don’t care about. Sure, they get vocal when the topics come up, but I suspect that is mostly reactive. Instead, I would start with topics that Christians do care about, and explore how science can help illuminate the questions they are asking — questions like “What is God like?” and “How should we live together as a church?” My hypothesis is that, once they become comfortable with the idea of science as a supplement rather than a substitute, then those divisive topics will be less objectionable — provided they are also presented in a way that helps illuminate questions of interest.

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