Science today is incredibly complex. Anyone who ever did scientific research knows that, but many in the general public seem to be completely unaware of this. I think this is a point where science communication can improve.
- “I listened to some science TV show, now I came up with my own theory.”
This could have a chance if the TV show would fully cover the topic. It does not.
- “Scientists don’t know detail X, therefore they know nothing.”
- “Scientists were once wrong in point Y, therefore we cannot trust any result.”
Frequently seen as response to scientific arguments against various crackpottery.
If you are unaware that theories are backed up by hundreds to thousands of measurements, each based on various other publications and often years of research covering tons of details and various cross-checks, then those misconceptions can come up. Can we do something against that?
When I get asked what I am working on in particle physics, I always try to give both the overview but also an impression of daily work: Yes, the long-term task can be something like the search for new particles. But what you actually do is more like calibrating the response of some detector part to particles at different detector temperatures, different radiation damage, or one of the hundreds of other tasks involved in the overall publication that produces one round of news in the popular press (if you are lucky). I’m not sure how that can be translated to TV shows, newspapers and so on. “We search for new particles” sounds much more interesting than “I’m working on some tiny detail of the search”. But then the news reports “scientists looked for new particles”, drop one or two names of leading scientists, and it gives the impression scientists would “search for new particles” all day.
Another aspect: Science taught in school is often very basic – Newtonian physics for example is very simple compared to more recent theories. You cannot start with quantum field theory, obviously, but if you see Newtonian physics only you could assume quantum field theory is similar to the way Newtonian physics is taught: Do one or two experiments and then write down a few formulas. If that would be true, then sure, be very skeptical. But it is not true.
This is also related to funding: if you don’t understand the complexity of modern science, you don’t understand why experiments can cost billions of Euros/Dollars. Funding decisions are not made directly by popular vote, but the public opinion does have an influence on science funding in general.
What do you think? Can science popularisation improve in that aspect, and if yes, how?