Science — a blessing or a curse?

by Catherine Schmitt, Science Communication Specialist with Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park

 

Scientists often express frustration over their attempts to communicate with public audiences. Through our workshops and presentations, I’ve come to believe that one root of this frustration is the difference in nature-related knowledge and experiences between scientists and their audiences. Unaware of this difference, scientists present their work or share their story using scientific language, concepts, and perspective, without realizing that the audience has no idea what they are talking about. In a way, their knowledge becomes a “curse” that prevents effective communication.

 

The curse of knowledge: When you know something very well it becomes hard to remember what it was like not to know it. Conservation scientists spend their days surrounded by nature and other scientists. They tend to forget that most people live in a very different world.

 

Take formal education, for example:

 

66 % of high school graduates go on to college, and less than 10 % major in biology or ecology.

13 % of U.S. adults have a master’s degree; only 17 % are in a STEM field (most are in business).

2 % of U.S. adults have a PhD; only 4 % of PhDs are in biology (most are in medicine or law).

Combined with years or decades of experience, this education and training adds up to a lot of knowledge.

 

Meanwhile, the majority of American adults have no idea what scientists do, how they do it, or, most importantly, why. Some information about what they know comes from the National Science Foundation’s Science & Engineering Indicators:77 % of American adults don’t understand the meaning of a “scientific study.”A majority of Americans think scientists are “odd and peculiar.”

The average number of correct answers to a series of true-false questions about science topics hasn’t changed. Half of Americans don’t know that electrons are smaller than atoms. One-quarter of Americans don’t know that the Earth revolves around the sun.

Ask a question about some aspect of conservation science and the result would likely be similar. The public’s knowledge of animals is limited mostly to mammals and birds, and wildlife they can see. Science, investment, public outreach, and media are biased toward mammals, birds, and endangered species, and these trends reinforce each other.[3] The lack of nature knowledge among youth is well established.[4] In a recent study of North Carolina youth, most were more familiar with exotic or domestic animals than local wildlife, regardless of whether they lived in urban, suburban, or rural areas. Only experience with hunting appeared to influence familiarity with local wildlife.[5] Even rural children spend most of their time indoors.[6] In another study, hikers were asked about amphibians. About half said they liked amphibians. But 40 % said they did not know.[7] This means a good portion of a recreational audience, with some connection to the outdoors, does not even have an opinion about amphibians!? In the case of endangered Atlantic salmon in Maine, decreased populations led to decreased prominence in people’s lives and increased psychological distance. Salmon and fish in general were not relevant or motivating to the average resident, a finding both surprising and disappointing to salmon advocates.[8]

This difference in knowledge is just that—difference—and doesn’t mean that scientists are smarter or better. It does mean that scientists should be aware of how their knowledge and particular lived experience might be unfamiliar to their audience, and how it can prevent shared understanding or information exchange.

Most people are psychologically distant from nature. When nature is far away and unfamiliar, it is difficult to relate to scientists and what they are trying to communicate. This is why it is so important to reduce jargon and use simple language.

Scientists love to talk about “biodiversity” and “ecosystems,” and consider them more important than individual animals or plants. But non-scientists associate “nature” with individual animals, plants, trees and forests, the color green, water, and beauty.In Maine, people relate to towns and specific bodies of water, not “watersheds.”

 Public knowledge is partly the result of changes in nature, and ways of experiencing nature. People who don’t spend their lives working in nature (and who are not part of Indigenous cultures) have a different relationship with their surroundings. For the majority of Americans, “functional attachment” and active engagement with nature, such as through fishing, hunting, and gathering, have shifted to more “aesthetic attachment” and passive experiences, such as enjoying natural scenery.

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