Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Cargo Cult Communication

By Roger Beckmann

Science communication necessarily focuses on outcomes, but what about the process?

It’s 2012, and it’s respectable to be a science communicator! Those of us who want to promulgate science don’t seem odd anymore. But while welcoming our escape from the closet, we need to be mindful of a pitfall.

A potential concern is what I call “presenting” science – the whole point of science communication. Reports of, say, a “cure” for Alzheimer’s disease, or another extra-solar planet, or a new fuel source, should all be exciting and newsworthy, but all too often the presentation does not involve explanation. When the media show the spectacle of science, or the power of its products and findings, they are not telling the whole story.

What, then, is the danger in accurately reporting this sort of breakthrough? It is this: science is seen as coming down from on high, and is merely received by the masses. The emphasis is mainly on results and their application, rather than inquiry. Last of all comes method.

Fair enough! We don’t want tangled detail. We want relevance: problems solved, lives improved. But it has its dangers.

One of these is the development of a “cargo cult” mentality. Goodies are delivered either as speculation (“scientists now believe that more penguin meat in the diet could help psoriasis sufferers”), as gizmo (“the aircraft seat that performs an abdominal ultrasound”), as discovery (“El Niño events triggered by wombats”) or as aesthetic fillip (“the first pictures of methane snow on Titan”).

The magical drip-feed of these gifts at first leads to worship. Perhaps this was the stage in the 1950s – those days of scientific optimism. Worship is so much more welcome than apathy or outright hostility! The cultists themselves enjoy both the act of worship (even the financial sacrifice they must offer up) and the ensuing receipt in return of magical objects, intriguing snippets of gee-whiz information and an all-pervading sense of hope. There’s a feeling that everyone is getting good value.

But as the object of worship becomes unable to satisfy all the demands of the cultists, and sometimes issues contradictory writs, the hostility sets in. Like the adolescent who discovers that parents are not the demi-gods they once seemed, rejection is the dominant emotion, followed by a feeling that anyone could do this job better anyway. Chuck out the science – we can get along without its false hopes and utopian dreams. They just make up their crazy theories.

This is exacerbated by the original awe in which the priesthood was held. No ordinary person could hope to understand the origin of the magic, so they didn’t try. The easygoing ignorance that at first defined the cultists and separated them from the priesthood (“oh, better go ask the boffins how that works, I can’t wrap my mind around all that stuff”) now breeds fear and loathing. (“What are they up to? They’re changing nature... playing God… cold and calculating.”)

Science is suddenly turned upon. Although it never asked to be worshipped in the first place, it is now accused of failing to do all that it had claimed, or of not going far enough, or of consuming the financial sacrifices laid before it without providing enough goodies to the faithful in return, and it is generally seen as a false prophet. The fickle cultists look for a new feel-good arrangement with another source of reverence and hope, abandoning traditional science rather as their grandparents started the abandonment of traditional religion.

So how can we solve this problem? I have no idea. Injecting method and a twist of philosophy into science stories is one way, but seems unlikely to succeed. I do know that there have been several successful attempts to explain how real science proceeds and how different that is from the movie stereotype.

But whatever communicators do – and it is all, no doubt, laudable – scientists themselves should keep plugging on at their incremental, painstaking, often unglamorous work, even if they may sometimes feel slightly unappreciated.

Rather like the clergy perhaps?

Formerly a science writer for CSIRO and a columnist for The Canberra Times, Roger Beckman now lectures at the Australian National University’s Crawford School.