Science communication, science outreach, is widely seen as a good thing, perhaps even a necessary one (Scientists: do outreach or your science dies). Let me disagree: For the most part, cutting-edge science should not be communicated to the public in mass media and doing so harms both the public and science.
At the end of the post, I provide some alternatives to the state of the world.
What is wrong with science communication?
For all the complaints that the public has lost faith in science, I often anecdotally find that members of the public have more faith in scientific results than most scientists. Most scientists know to take any paper with a grain of salt. The public does not always realize that, they don’t have the time (or the training) to dig into the paper and are left with a click bait headline which they need to take at face value or reject “scientific results”.
Most of the time, science communication has to simplify the underlying science so much as to be basically meaningless. Most science doesn’t make any sense even to scientists working in adjacent fields: We publish a new method which is important to predict the structure of a protein that is important because other studies have shown that it is important in a pathway that other studies have shown is active in response to … and so on. At the very bottom, we have things that the public cares about (and which is why we get funded), but the relationships are not trivial and we should stop pretending otherwise.
When I thumb through the latest Nature edition, only a minority of titles are meaningful to me. Sometimes, I genuinely have no idea what they are talking about (One-pot growth of two-dimensional lateral heterostructures via sequential edge-epitaxy); other times, I get the message (Structure of the glucagon receptor in complex with a glucagon analogue) but I don’t have the context of that field to understand why this is important. To pretend that we can explain this to a member of the public in 500 words (or 90 seconds on radio/TV) is idiotic. Instead, we explain a butchered version.
Science outreach harms the public. Look at this (admittedly, not so recent) story: The pill is linked to depression – and doctors can no longer ignore it (The Guardian, one of my favorite newspapers). The study was potentially interesting, but in no way conclusive: it’s observational with obvious confounders: the population of women who start taking the pill at a young age is not the same as that that takes the pill at a later time. However, reading any of the panicked articles (Guardian again, the BBC, Quartz: this was not just the Oprah Winfrey Show) may lead some women to stop taking the pill for no good reason, which is not a positive for them. (To be fair, some news outlets did publish a skeptical view of it, e.g., The Spectator, Jezebel).
Science outreach discredits science. The public now has what amounts to a healthy skepticism of any nutritional result, given the myriad “X food gives you cancer” or “Chocolate makes you thin“. If you think that there are no spillovers from publicizing shaky results into other fields of science (say, climate science), then you are being naïve.
Valuing science outreach encourages bad science. If anything, the scientific process is already too tipped towards chasing the jazzy new finding instead of solid research. It’s the worst papers that make the news, let’s not reward that. The TED-talk giving, book writing, star of pop psychology turned out to be a charlatan. Let’s not reward the same sillyness in other fields.
What is the alternative?
The alternative is very simple: instead of communicating iffy, cutting-edge stuff, communicate settled science. Avoid almost all recent papers and focus on established results and bodies of literature. Books that summarize a body of work can do a good job.
But this is not news! Frankly, who cares? Journalists do, but I think the public is happy to read non-news stuff. In fact, most people find that type of reporting more interesting that the flashy study of the week.
Or use opportunities to tie it to current events. For example, when major prizes are given out (like the Nobel prize, but also the tiers below it), publish your in-depth reporting the topics. Since often the topics are predictable, you can prepare your reporting carefully and publish it when ready. You don’t even need the topic/person to actually win. In the weeks prior to Nobel Prize week, you can easily put up a few articles on “the contenders and their achievements”.
Finally, let me remark that, for the members of the public who do wish to be informed of cutting-edge science and are willing (perhaps even eager) to put in the mental work of understanding it, there are excellent resources out there. For example, I regularly listen to very good science podcasts on the microbe.tv website. They do a good job of going through the cutting edge stuff in an informed way: they take 30 minutes to go through a paper, not 30 seconds. They won’t ever be mainstream, but that’s the way it should be.