The Challenge of Communicating Science: Addressing the Top-Down and Bottom-Up ProblemsRead Now
I once heard a story about someone who asked the Nobel Prize winning physicist Albert Einstein to explain the theory of relativity. Einstein proceeded to do that, but when he was finished, the person said that he had not understood and begged Einstein to simplify the explanation. Einstein did that, but the person said he still did not understand and requested a further simplification of the explanation. After going through one or two more rounds of this, the person said that he thought he had finally understood. Einstein sighed, and said that that was good, but what he had just explained was not the theory of relativity.
This story is probably apocryphal, but it does illustrate the traditional challenge of communicating complex scientific subjects to the non-specialists which I call the “top-down” problem. The top-down problem happens when we simplify complicated scientific concepts and information to such an extent that we lose the correspondence between the explanation that we provide and the reality we endeavor to explain. And this is not a problem restricted to communicating science to non-scientists. We often also encounter this problem when scientists try to explain aspects of one field of science to scientists in another field, or even to scientists within subdisciplines of the same field!
All scientists are specialists in a given field, and as specialists are cognizant of the potential folly of stripping things too much of their complexity and presenting them in such simple terms that they become de facto fantasies. But at the same time they know that the downside of not simplifying is that detailed complex longwinded explanations with a lot of “ifs”, “buts” and “maybes” can be not only boring and incomprehensible, but also downright useless. Scientists also understand that everyone cannot be a specialist in every field, and that people need to acquire a working knowledge of fields beyond those of their expertise. Simplifications are necessary even if there is not a 100% correspondence to the truths they convey. But then the question arises, what level of non-correspondence to reality is acceptable? 5%? 10%? 20%? More? At what level of simplification is a reasonable link to reality lost?
The top-down problem in communicating science has been addressed many times, and the key to its solution requires identifying your audience, what you intend to achieve with the simplified information you are providing, and what you think the person receiving the information intends to do with it. Once we have done these things, we can settle on the level of detail that we require.
Solving the top-down problem of communicating science is an art which requires a lot of talent and discernment. One striking example of how this problem is addressed can be seen in the video below. The folks from the YouTube channel, Wired, asked astrophysicist Janna Levin to discuss the concept of gravity at five different levels of difficulty exemplified by 1) a child, 2) a teen, 3) a college student, 4) a grad student, and 5) an expert. As Jana progresses from one level to another, it’s fascinating to see how the complexity of the discussion increases even though the subject discussed is the same.
A more serious problem in the field of science communication is perhaps the exact opposite of the one I have described, and it has become widespread only with the advent of the internet. I call this problem: the bottom-up problem. The bottom-up problem occurs when people who are not trained in science or that have received limited training in science and in how to think like scientists get hold of scientific communications intended for the experts. These people then think that they are competent to evaluate this complex information and almost invariably go on to misinterpret the research and the conclusions of the scientists in ways that, not surprisingly, reinforce their own biases.
Scientists have been stunned to find that the data from their published experiments or clinical trials has been reanalyzed or reinterpreted outside a scholarly context by individuals who arrived at different conclusions. These individuals then disseminate their analyses and claims to their followers which in turn results in accusations that the scientists acted dishonestly because they have presumably sold out to special interests. I have seen this happen in the field related to the evaluation of hydroxychloroquine in clinical trials where these accusations sometimes have been encapsulated in reputation-slandering memes that have gone viral within certain audiences. Scientists of certain visibility who publish results that are negative for hydroxychloroquine often open their e-mails or social media to find them filled with insults and sometimes even threats. And sadly, the individuals misinterpreting the scientific literature are often aided and abetted by some doctors or scientists who instead of keeping their grievances and disagreements within a scientific environment decide to voice them in social media to gain a following and further their personal agendas.
What can be done to address the bottom-up problem? At the moment I don’t have an answer to this question that I feel confident about. One idea is to include a disclaimer when information meant for specialists is posted on the internet, advising that non-specialists should not in any way read or analyze the information to draw different conclusions in a manner independent from any meaningful and unbiased input from experts including the authors of the articles. A complementary approach is to create an online regulated Q & A section associated with controversial articles so the authors or their representatives can answer the most relevant questions from the public. In this way, people who could otherwise be swayed by misinformation can have a direct channel to the authors who could then set things straight. Other approaches are possible, but this is a problem that has to be addressed as it threatens to distort the communication of science to the public and make it subservient to special interests who seek to delegitimize science or twist it to further ulterior motives.
The image from pixabay by geralt is in the public domain.