Science communication should be better, expert says

2014-03-20 09:40
Science education is a key priority at the Cape Town Science Centre. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Science education is a key priority at the Cape Town Science Centre. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Cape Town - More effective communication from scientists is key to help dispel the negative perception of the scientific method, a top science educator has said.

"There certainly are scientists who do it well, and there are scientists who could do it better, like any discipline," Dr Graham Walker from the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University told News24.

Walker has been performing science shows for the past 13 years and is one of only two people in the world with a PhD in science show performance.

He argued that in some quarters, the public was moving closer to science as global issues drive a greater understanding of scientific evidence.

"One of the things that is changing in the world at the moment - issues like climate change; human health - they're bringing the general public closer with science."


It is also possible that pop culture has played a role in the popularisation of science and technology.

Movies like Gravity and Superman have captured the public's imagination in much the same way as Star Trek and Star Wars did a generation ago.

However, science can also threaten belief systems.

"We all have fundamental beliefs of one sort or another and it is very threatening if somebody is saying they're wrong," Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell told News24.

A recent poll found that South Africans are worse than Americans when it comes to basic scientific concepts.

The survey, conducted by Media24's online Forum24, found that only half of South Africans were aware of basic scientific concepts like the Earth revolving around the sun and the evolution of man.

The UK faced a similar problem in the 1980s when one third of Britons believed that the sun circled the Earth, but government policy was enacted to expand science education.

However, despite this, Jane Gregory of the University of London, wrote on SciDev.Net that research has ignored how knowledge about science has affected people's attitudes.

Walker said that the need for improved science education was key, particularly to help children understand that concepts that will better prepare them for an increasingly technological world.

"There's an emerging role for more communication - the fact that the discipline that I'm a part of science communication has grown out of this need. It's critical that we communicate science better; especially to young people."

Renowned science educationalist Bill Nye recently debated creationist Ken Ham and their discussion highlighted the political nature of science in the US, where some commentators have disregarded established science such as evolution and climate change.


"There is a debate going on, and in some cases, I think the debate is productive; in other cases, not productive," said Walker.

He said that it was unfair to expect that bombarding the public with facts would generate positive sentiment for science concepts and scientists.

"I think science has to work just as hard as people who may be opposed to those views to get the ideas across and get not just the hard facts across, but also bring the general public along on that journey.

"Issues like climate change; stem cells, it can get very emotionally charged and I think scientists have to acknowledge that in the way they’re communicating it," Walker said.

Walker will be performing two science shows at the Cape Town Science Centreon 20 and 21 March 2014.

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