Does science communication provide a foundation for misconceptions? Does public outreach undermine the complexity of academic research? Or does it shape society to become more educated?
engagement is not the same as education
Being an excellent science communicator implies that you have an ability to elegantly explain scientific concepts and facts while triggering curiosity in your audience. This is hard work and not something you achieve easily, but the successful outcome is rewarding not only to yourself but to society as well.
Societies today are built on science (telecommunication, hospital equipment, transportation, etc.) and with it comes an understanding of these technologies in the general public, that makes a society develop and grow into a more advanced civilization. When the public understanding fails, it leads to conspiracy theories and unfounded fear.
Each of us as communicators do our very best to engage with the public. When we succeed, we get an audience that feels empowered and in eye height. They want to discuss, learn, imagine and develop. The better we are at engaging an audience, the more committed the audience will be to science. In my case, I tell scientific stories from space and in return I see people who not only want to absorb more information; they also want to entertain their own ideas on what the Universe actually is.
My ambition in popular astronomy talks is always to make my audience feel like they are all astrophysicists, even if just for a short time while I’m presenting. I want them to feel how I feel when I learned something about space – only without spending years solving equations and treating data at the university. That part is on me.
If I make my audience feel less capable than me to understand space concepts, then I have failed. If I make them feel totally capable of understanding astrophysics or quantum mechanics, then I have succeeded. Science communication should build people up – this has always been my lighthouse.
Simple explanations do not mean simple science
The flip-side of this is that in the public space a misconception might arise that the public understanding of science is the same as the scientific approach to research. But it is not. For every hour of popular astronomy talk I give, there are years of university studies behind it. This is the same in any specialized field. An illustrator might take 15 minutes to make a drawing but it took them years to learn how to. This can create the illusion that it takes 15 minutes to make a nice drawing, when it in reality takes years when you include the proper training.
The consequence is that some people might start cherry-picking their own data and make “scientific conclusions” based on this. Because they feel like scientists and are convinced that they are capable of making the same conclusions as a scientist. And when it also includes medical approach and health, it can get really dangerous. You can’t cure a virus with flower water, even if you found some data online to support your speculations. This behavior is normally referred to as pseudo-science. However, my personal opinion is that the word “science” should not be in there at all. It should just be called misconceptions.
The solution to this problem is that we as society need to prioritize science communication as a necessity, not a pleasant encouragement. Outreach and public engagement should go hand in hand with academic research, be it via a professional communicator or direct interaction with scientists.
Only by pushing more scientific outreach in the public space can we overcome misconceptions.