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The way science is communicated needs to be related to everyday life

In his paper entitled "Why can’t science be popular?", science historian Ernst-Peter Fischer shows that it is very difficult to communicate life science issues. Michael Statnik spoke with Professor Fischer from Constance about the reasons for this and potential ways of making the natural sciences easier to comprehend.

Prof. Dr. Fischer, why do you think that the popularisation of science is almost impossible?

Max Planck realised as early as 1919 that pure science is inherently unpopular because intellectual creations are very personal experiences and require outsiders to have a great ability to concentrate and also specialised knowledge so that the subject can be fully understood. But this is difficult to achieve. Science requires above all a precise terminology and the use of exact terms and names. However, these will lose their specific meaning or will be distorted when scientists give a popular scientific talk, trying to put their work in a context that can be understood by the public. It should not be forgotten that the language used by scientists involves terms which have a scientific meaning.

Can you give an example from the bio- or natural sciences that will illustrate how quality is lost in the process of communication?

Prof. Dr. Ernst Peter Fischer (Photo: Fischer)
In many German life science popularisations, the word “Eiweiß” is used when speaking about proteins, trying to keep it simple. (In German, “Eiweiß” can mean both egg white and protein, editor's note.) Therefore, I would call the simplified use of this word the result of intellectual inadequacy which can lead to total incomprehension. Using the word “Eiweiß” does no longer mean that the chemical reactions in the cells are carried out by biocatalytically active proteins, which are the result of gene products. Instead, the use of this word communicates the scientific fact that there are proteins to which we owe our ability to breathe, divide or react. But what does somebody learn about the sophisticated molecular mechanisms of proteins when he or she is fobbed off with the term “Eiweiß”?

Many scientific terms will lose their meaning when used in public. While mathematical “proofs” are the result of hard work and huge efforts, the use of the verb “prove” in every day life does not have the same meaning - for example, a politician approaching an adversary might say that the adversary’s statements about the tax reform only prove that he represents the interests of some clients. Popularisation will lead to a breakdown of general understanding.

But is it not necessary to explain complicated scientific issues in a very simple way in order for the broad public to understand them?

Simple way, yes. But this only means “as simple as possible”. It is necessary to make the sciences palatable, but they should not be reduced to the lowest common denominator. This, of course, requires the people who want to understand science to have certain prerequisites. In western societies however, I would call many people scientific illiterates, and this is repeatedly confirmed in opinion polls. We do not have a knowledge culture. People are not very interested in science. They often regard it as boring. If a biologist or chemist is awarded the Nobel Prize, this is usually accepted without a comment. People do not ask why the Nobel Prize was given to this particular scientist and are not interested in whether there might have been another scientist who deserved the Prize a lot more. People cannot scrutinise science and there is no natural scientific forum. A society requires educated people who are not only interested in talking about science, but who also enjoy it.

Why do the natural sciences do not have the same significance in the media and do not receive the same attention as politics, sports or culture for example?

Professor Fischer would like there to be a greater knowledge culture (Photo: Statnik)
A major difference between these areas and the natural sciences is that the latter do not produce daily news. People are usually interested in what is most current, something that has happened today must also be communicated today. But scientists are unable to provide daily updated news about the progression of their research. Statements like “potential cancer compound found” are often not satisfactory. In the media, science is somehow isolated, it is not really part of other areas of interest. However, many people expect that scientists justify themselves, their work. I think that many scientists should keep some of their knowledge to themselves and do it just as artists do it: many painters will draw a picture, deliver it and then let their oeuvres speak for themselves.

Is it not also science journalism that prevents many scientific topics from entering the public consciousness?

In many cases, science journalism does not provide us with a comprehensive picture. As far as genetic engineering is concerned, the reports more often cover the theological and philosophical aspects, something that gives a negative picture of science. DNA or genetic research is often associated with many dangers and risks because modern molecular biology makes the human body more and more public. However, the modern biosciences are also a huge opportunity for raising people’s interest in research because scientific developments also affect their everyday lives. It is also important to note that people often receive erroneous information from journalists who do not have sufficient knowledge about a certain topic. Let me give you an example. In the past, many reports warned the German public about genetically modified (GM) honey. But German law prohibits the production of GM honey. Nevertheless, the honey contained altered genes, but these were the result of bees collecting pollen from genetically modified corn plants grown on German fields. Many journalist reports did not mention this information. Therefore, I would really like to have well-educated journalists deal with such topics.

What should be done in order to bring science to the attention of society? How should the natural sciences be communicated in future?

It is very important to present scientific results in a way which enables the public to relate them to their everyday life and clearly show the importance of science to human life - something people are most interested in. Therefore when communicating scientific results, researchers have to highlight the benefit of their experiments and investigations for humankind. At the same time, science is also the art of transforming mysterious nature into cryptic explanations. This means expressing the truth at the same time as retaining the mysteriousness. In order to increase the popularity of science, I think that “science stars” might help. For me these are intelligent people who not only achieve outstanding results in their field, but are also excellent speakers and able to charm people with their charisma. Complicated things often only become popular through people. But maybe we would have to generate these stars first. In this respect, science has a rather anonymous position in our society. Moreover, science should also be entertaining and peppy. How about a science cabaret?

mst – 18 July 2008
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