Do You Believe in Science?

Science has transformed our world. It has led to better nutrition, made our water safer, improved sanitation and boosted the world’s food supply. 

It’s defeated old demons like smallpox and polio, created COVID-19 vaccines in record time, ushered in 5G cellphone service and even produced a helicopter that can fly on Mars.

And yet, as we face existential threats like droughts, famines, rising shorelines and a worldwide pandemic, science skeptics and science deniers reject what seems so clear to the rest of us. Why?

Some recent studies have shown that most people respect science and scientists but have a harder time accepting scientific findings or practices that conflict with their religious, political or economic interests. 

But it’s also clear that there is a significant disconnect between what scientists understand and how they typically explain it to the rest of us. For every Carl Sagan — a master of bringing science to the masses without talking down to us — there are 100 who struggle to communicate outside their circle of peers.

The scientific community seems to recognizes this. Do a Google search on “scientists communication to public,” and you’ll find everything from articles to blog posts to scholarly papers about how scientists must get better at telling their stories.

The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University is one place this work is occurring. According to its website, the center is designed to help scientists “switch from lecturing about their work to having real conversations about it.” 

The center — a “collaboration between Alan (Alda), Stony Brook, and Stony Brook’s School of Journalism, with Brookhaven National Laboratory and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory” — provides academic programs, professional development and improvisational skills to help scientists become more like, well, Carl Sagan.

Today, millions of Americans remain unvaccinated against the COVID-19 virus while others spread debunked theories about lifesaving discoveries. Sometimes, otherwise smart people latch onto pseudoscience as a substitute for the real thing at a great cost to themselves and those who count on them.

In times like these, it’s critical that scientific leaders articulate clearly and honestly about what is known, what isn’t known, and how our actions can make our homes, communities and our world a safer place. They must speak in a way that all of us can understand while coupling that information with a persuasive and empathetic call to action. 

It’s also critical that government leaders set policy based on science and do a better job of aligning their messages. For example, government’s mixed messages at local, state and federal levels have confused the nation about who should get boosters, whether boosters reduce the chance of getting sick, which boosters are best, and when we should get them.

Finally, it’s critical that the business community, as a powerful and influential force in policy debates and within the workplace, argues in support of the best solutions we have based on the science as we know it. 

It starts with the scientists. But it ends with all of us.