Engaging the General Public in Science

Where I believe the mainstream media gets scientific coverage wrong.


A story in the Guardian this week caught my attention – this one detailing how four in ten UK parents believe a tan is healthy. It is a good read, both interesting and terrifying in equal measure. And it got me thinking.

This article sums up one of the key conundrums I believe people face regarding science and the media: just how are you supposed to present in a way that is understandable but not patronising? I’m hoping that I’m getting somewhere close with the posts on this blog (such as this one on sunburn). I often find that the press has two methods of reporting on science. One: so utterly technical that you need to have a degree in that subject area to vaguely have a clue what’s going on. Two: oversimplifying it so darn much that the reader feels patronised because the content is getting lost in a jumble of toddler-speak.

This leads to people not truly knowing what is good and bad for them. It doesn’t help that every other week there appears to be a new study which contradicts the last. People begin to think that the field of scientific research is just a load of people in white coats faffing about with random questions (which it sort of is, there’s just a little more purpose to it than the general public might believe). The problem is that when people start to ignore science in the media, none of the important information gets across. Hence the shocking stats about parents not being able to provide proper sun protection for their children.

The next logical question is: But how can we make science accessible to the masses? My answer would be through trying to strike the right balance between technical facts and understandable language. That’s the reason I started this blog, as a way to try and make the wonderful world of science just that little bit more real for everyday folk, as it were. That’s why I can talk for ages when trying to explain scientific topics to people who really don’t have a clue but want to understand. My family and friends will message me or ask me about a recent article, because they appreciate that I will try to explain the confusing aspects of it to the best of my ability. Science is a field filled with technical vocabulary that almost is like a second language to someone who had no further scientific education beyond secondary school. If I can be but a small translator for people, then I’m happy.

But, I hear you cry! It isn’t just newspaper articles! I know. Documentaries also swing between overly technical and too simple. I love a documentary as much as the next man (maybe even a little more), but sometimes I find people I know who have also watched them feeling confused by certain aspects. At least with documentaries you can visually see what’s going on to try and get the gist. This is especially true of the many physics documentaries that are out there, fronted by the likes of Brian Cox and Helen Czerski. And David Attenborough’s entire back catalogue is essentially TV gold. Documentaries are useful, but again, sometimes the everyday general public can feel five steps behind the ‘experts’.

I suppose what I’m saying is that obviously the balance isn’t easy, and perhaps it will never be found. But articles such as the recent one in the Guardian make me want to go out and shake these people warmly by the hand, then talk to them about science. Science is more than just a dish in a lab. Science is all around us and it is fascinating. Perhaps if more people started talking about it then bit by bit it would become more understandable to everyday folk. And as much as I would love to travel around chatting to people about science, I’m afraid that’s unlikely to happen at the moment. So why not start by shooting me a question over on twitter, and we can engage in that way for now?



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