My son wrote an essay recently on the cultural antecedents to the French Revolution and declining belief in absolute monarchy. One of the elements discussed was the availability of Bible translations in languages other than Latin, reducing the role of priests as conduits of spiritual authority and raising questions about the parallel role of monarchs as conduits of civic authority. Presently, we have questions about the role of scientists and science in civic life. Do they stem from a similar shift in the public relationship to the relevant texts?
“Everyone needs to do their own personal research to make a decision for themselves.” Perhaps you’ve encountered a sentiment like this in the past year and a half. Likely there’s a certain pragmatism involved; when all you’re given is recommendations and requests, it’s natural to feel like final responsibility lies with you and act accordingly. Wariness about whether others have your best interests in mind, perhaps born out of historical abuses or personal negative experiences, may also motivate a desire to find one’s own answers. And sure, rejection of the authority of scientists in general or specific public figures may also play a role for some, but even then the result is not anti-science so much as anti-scientist; there is still a recognition that physical reality is knowable and relevant.
A desire to do one’s own research would only go so far without access to resources. In the span of my science career, research publications have transition from print artifacts available almost exclusively in university libraries, to electronic documents available…well, still mainly on university campuses, to open-access electronic documents free to everyone, and mostly recently to preprint documents available everywhere before they’ve even been reviewed by other scientists. In parallel, the raw data of scientific inquiry has also become more widely available. Everybody’s got a website with COVID-19 counts and maps, but that’s just what grabs headlines. Genome sequences, deep space telescope images, particle collider output–whatever your area of interest, there is likely plenty of data published publicly to get you started. And many of those open access papers and preprints come with the underlying data and sometimes even the software to reproduce the analyses.
Does all of this access mean we will see someone win a Nobel Prize as an independent scholar in a generation or two? Certainly there is more talent and aptitude for scientific pursuits out in the world than there are traditional academic positions to fill. Far be it from me to stand in the way of anyone becoming the next Srinivasa Ramanujan or Carolyn Shoemaker. Yet access to papers and data may not be enough to usher in the scientist-hood of all Internet users in quite the same way that mass-produced copies of Bible translations enriched the concept of the priesthood of all believers.
While it would take the Gutenberg press to make written copies of the Bible widely available, the texts themselves were always intended to be conceptually accessible to the public. They were meant to be read aloud for teaching and worship, heard by large gatherings across all walks of life. There are challenging passages to be sure, and in the present we often have to take considerable care to reproduce the original context so we can understand the meaning, but the expected audience was a wide one.
The scientific literature is not generally written that way, however. Some authors are skilled communicators. I’m not sure I’ve ever come across a paper that was actually constructed to be read aloud, but some have an eye towards wide accessibility. But many are presumed to only be of interest to the small community working on related topics, individuals steeped in the same narrow slice of physical reality. At least in their professional lives, they inhabit a context that is at least as unfamiliar to most of us as Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon or Herod’s Judea. Even with the best of intentions for public publications, scientists don’t often get feedback on their writing from anyone outside the community, and so as long as their writing works in that setting there’s little basis for change.
Some scientists communicate intentionally for a wider audience, in books and podcasts and op-eds and so on. Those provide plenty of opportunities for feedback. I’ve seen some of that feedback elsewhere, and I’m not sure it’s always the sort of feedback that will lead to clearer communication. Where science overlaps with matters of policy or culture, partisan instincts can be tough to overcome. As a result, the most vocal commentators either need no convincing or are resistant to it, neither of which helps clarify whether the evidence was communicated effectively. Much of the discussion, and in some cases the work being commented on, reminds me of the Eternal September phenomenon. So many participants are either weary of explaining the same thing over and over again and resort to shorthand or a strident tone, or they are genuinely new to the conversation and don’t realize they are repeating common errors or don’t want to ask the basic questions given the way others are responded to.
Calls to follow the science won’t solve these communication issues, because everyone involved already believes they are. Discouraging individual engagement or appealing to authority probably won’t help either. The access to literature and data isn’t going away, so it needs to be supported with education on how to productively use those resources. To get there, I think we need to close those feedback loops, providing spaces where everyone involved feels listened to. In the case of widening Bible access, churches already provided that kind of setting. Children can take their science questions to school, but where do adults go with theirs? If they have religious or theological questions, I imagine it would be pretty obvious that a local house of worship would have answers and an answerer available. I’m not saying we need to replicate churches but for science, but it does feel like there’s a missing piece of the puzzle there.
What do you do if you have science questions? If you knew there was a scientist in town who would answer them, would you go and ask?
In case you missed my announcement two weeks ago, I have switched to a monthly schedule and will be posting on the 2nd Wednesday of each month. But you should come back next Wednesday for the start of a guest series by Julie Reynolds on phenotype plasticity. Don’t know what that is? That’s fine; that’s why she’s writing about it for you.