Monday, 16 November 2015

Science Communication - Confusing Concepts - Energy and Power, Mass and Weight - HELP!!

Why is it so difficult for scientists to talk to the public? 
In talking science, one generally starts well with lot of interest but then soon you notice this vacant - I am lost -  look;  time to change the subject - yet another failed attempt at communication.

We have all experienced how frustrating it can be to explain simple concepts to people around us.  I have often wondered why and what can one do about it.  I am coming to the opinion that the problem lies in the way the language and concepts that scientists use are different from what people are accustomed to.  Scientists are not careful in the way they communicate with each other either but that does not present too much difficulty - the difficulty comes when they are talking to non-scientists - essentially it is culture gap. Somehow we have to learn to bridge this gap.

To demonstrate the point I am making, let us look at some simple examples:  We say that 

  • The weight of an object is 2 kg
  • Mass of a proton is 931 MeV
  • We are building a power station of capacity 1000 MW
  • The light bulb uses 60 Watt of electricity
Not very surprising if the general public finds us difficult to understand. In the way, science and technology is permeating every aspect of our lives, I find it tragic that we, the scientists, are unable to talk to the public.  I have serious problem with some of the TV programs which spend an hour wowing fellow scientists with some fantastic graphics, sound effects and cutting edge discoveries.  All very well, but how do these programs help 99+% of the population.  BBC might be using most of its science budget for the benefit of 1% of the population. 

A few years ago, I went to my local authority to seek some support in advertising my free science talks to the community.  My idea was to give a few six to eight hour courses on suitable topics (cosmology, climate change, nano-technology etc) to adults in the community absolutely free of charge.  I was able to get an auditorium with free parking, free local newspaper adverts etc.  The local council turned down my request to publicize the talks in neighbouring boroughs on grounds that adult education is not their responsibility and in any case my talks will not generate any extra employment opportunities for people in the community.  The talks went on for a few years with up to 70 people attending.  

Another example, how we are failing to reach the public, is from a university in Glasgow.  I wanted to reach adult population by bringing my programme of free talks to the adult education department.  They refused to offer the courses free of charge but wanted a course fee of about £8 per hour. The courses were advertised but only a handful registered - the course was deemed not to be cost effective and was dropped.  The process was repeated for a few years.

It appears that structurally, our institutions are unable to understand the importance of science communication and they certainly do not appreciate that culture gap must be overcome before meaningful education of general population may be achieved.  Failure to communicate effectively is damaging for our ability to compete globally, and also to give people a better understanding of life around them.

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