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?

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

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”)...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

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.