Science Communication in the Worldviews and Cultures of Scientist

The following is an edited transcript of a talk presented by Dr. Inez Ponce de Leon, science and risk communication specialist at the Manila Observatory, on January 27, 2012. Her talk is part of a series of brown bag presentations by researchers at MO.

I am a molecular biologist, and my PhD is in science communication. I have always loved communicating science, and perhaps more than working in the laboratory. But I know how both worlds operate, and I consider myself a scientist on both these fronts.

I have lots of friends, PhDs, scientists, who don’t get rewards for communicating with the public. They have no trophies, no points, no honorarium; to communicate, you often have to travel on your own, pay your own way, pay for your hotel. You still need to communicate, all while meeting academic demands that actually give you rewards.

So my question is: why don’t scientists like to communicate, even when schools will ask them to? Of course, scientists from industry deal with proprietary information, and you have to know the limits of what you can talk about. But still, the face of science has already changed.

So I wanted to look at science communication from the perspective of science. There is a lot of research out there about audience perceptions, but there is also a lot of information that doesn’t get across from the scientific field. What makes a scientist communicate? How can this influence how they work with other professionals, such as mass media, students, and teachers? This can make the problem and the issue of science communication more 3-dimensional.

Science communication is not yet understood. How do researchers define science communication and risk communication? What are their worldviews and cultures? A worldview is how you see reality, your place in the world, and the interaction of different aspects of the world with each other.

For example, here’s a table. In a positivist worldview, you believe that everyone will see, measure, and perceive the table in the exact same way. In a critical worldview, you believe that the table is there, but you can never see it exactly because you’ve been told how to see it. In a post-modernist worldview, you know there’s a table, but you also know that everyone else will see it, measure it, and perceive it in a different way. In a constructivist worldview, there is no table: your brain is just telling you that it’s there, and the label is there because you learned it.

A worldview can affect what researchers choose to do research on and how they do it. A worldview affects whether researchers believe that their science is affected by society, and to what extent they base their research on society’s needs. The worldview can also affect how researchers perceive the task of communication, and why they communicate at all. Are there boundaries that they set between themselves and the lay public? What is the culture of scientists?

My research was largely deductive. I interviewed scientists, and whatever they said in their interviews was the basis from which I extracted all my information. My research was very qualitative, and I decided not to use statistics because there are a lot of answers and information that I would have missed.

My work was also a phenomenological study, which asked what it was like to be a scientist in a world that demanded that scientists communicate. I also used the post-positivist approach: I acknowledged that there is a reality, but I can “measure” it only with limited objectivity. I could not totally dissociate myself from the data.

I used four frameworks as a combination of lenses through which I could understand the interviews. I used the framework of culture, which defines people’s habits, what they hold in high regard, and what they think are punishments. I also looked at worldview, which includes the scientists’ perception of the nature of knowledge and valid methods for research. I also looked at a boundary setting framework, which looks at the boundaries that scientists set between themselves and the “people on the street”. And finally, the most important framework: science communication modelling.

There are actually many different forms of science communication. Dissemination is one that you might have heard of: a one way method of giving science communication. As a scientist, I have a knowledge, and no one else does, so I write and communicate myself, people will use my knowledge and they will be better for it. Dialogue models: I am a scientist, and I probably know nothing about what people want, so I’ll ask people what they want, go back to the lab, and give people what they want. Conversation models are harder. People know something, and I know something as a scientist, so we all need to sit down together and create things together.

These models are used for different kinds of knowledge. No model is better than the other. If you’re talking climate change or genetically modified organisms, which are very close to home, then you’ll need a conversation model. But if you talk about things like astronomy, which might not be easy to understand, then you might need a dissemination model. So in other words, the food you eat, the stuff you drink, the weather you experience, you see and feel all these directly. Conversation models might work for people who have direct experience with the products of science.

I also used another culture model, the Culture as Toolbox model by Swidler. This looks at culture as a toolbox from which to draw your tools to deal with life. For example, remember when we were young, and our parents told us: if you want to be rich, you have to work hard. Look at those poor people: they can’t be rich because they have no values. Actually, it’s not about the values, but there are actually parts of your culture that might provide you tools for dealing with society; conversely, you might not have cultural tools to help you succeed. For example, Filipinos are hardworking, we are sympathetic, we are not apathetic – and maybe these are tools that can help us move forward.

So I asked these questions. What are these differences in national culture in the two groups of scientists that I worked with? What is in their culture that is keeping science from moving forward, or what is it in their culture that helps them succeed in science?

So, how did I answer all these questions?

I had a two-page long interview protocol, which I created, based on research. I carried out rigorous data analysis and formed generalizations from the data. I worked with researchers from two cultural settings: the Philippines and the U.S. – specifically Purdue, where I worked and earned my PhD. Therefore, this research has limitations. You can’t generalize it to bigger populations, or other populations.

So, the Philippines was a former Spanish, then American, then Japanese colony. We have an efflux of scientists. There are lots of science-related issues: we have disasters, genetically modified organisms, agricultural issues, and really rich biodiversity.

Purdue is the 18th among all US public universities. It has 400 research labs and 100 research centers. It is a few hours away from Chicago, but Purdue is in rural, agricultural Indiana. It is engaged in a a lot of science education and science communication. By our standards, they receive a lot of funding; but by their standards, they don’t. I know of many people who have lost their jobs because of funding problems. Purdue and the Philippines are on very different scales; no one is better than the other.

I interviewed a total of 40 bench scientists: 20 from the Philippines, and 20 from Purdue. There were more females compared to males in the Philippine sample, while the opposite was true with the Purdue sample. I interviewed all these scientists, took fields notes, printed them out, and carried out both deductive and inductive data analysis.

With 800+ pages on hand, I looked for passages and concepts that corresponded to worldview, culture, and the other aspects of my conceptual and theoretical framework. I marked all these places, looked for themes, and then recoded the data using the themes. I looked at all the themes, assembled them into generalizations, and then found quotes from the interviews to exemplify these generalizations. I also did inductive analysis on the data that hadn’t been coded, but that could be valuable to my research.

I found that many of the scientists follow the dissemination model of science communication. That is, they believe they have all the information, and they simply need to hand it over to science communicators, who will give it to the people.

I also asked about the cultures against which the scientists operated. Filipinos said that they lacked funding, which made Filipinos resourceful. Filipinos named a lot of cultural constraints on science: crab mentality, ningas cogon mentality, secretiveness. On the other hand, the US scientists readily said that they were taught to be creative. It seemed that Filipinos easily thought of bad cultural traits that curtailed scientific progress.

On the other hand, I found several traits in the Filipinos’ discourse that showed how our culture was encouraging science. For instance, many of the scientists admitted that they were religious, which gave them moral grounding. They also believed that Filipinos did not live in too patriarchal a society, so females were given more freedom to pursue their careers.

In terms of science communication, the Filipino researchers believed that the public did not know anything, and it needed science communication to tell them the facts. All that the public needed was facts and then the public would change and everyone would be a scientist automatically.

In terms of scientific work, the Filipino researchers defined objectivity as completely stepping away from the data, going into it with no religion, no family. This would make science truthful, which is what the scientists believed was public perception. I also found that some scientists believed that Filipino science contained a lot of duplication and overlap because people didn’t like sharing data and talking to each other. This was a waste of money, when in fact, people could work together and move science forward together. The scientists believed that Filipino scientists are also easily discouraged, so they often can’t publish in their fields because of the massive edits they often have to make on their papers. And, as always, the scientists talked about the hard facts being on their side.

Now as for the Purdue scientists, as I mentioned earlier, the dissemination model of science communication still holds. However, the perception of the dissemination model is different. To the Purdue-based bench scientists, science does make mistakes and is imperfect; scientific knowledge changes. There is no such thing as a hard fact, so scientists have to be flexible in order to adapt to the changes in knowledge. The bench scientists acknowledged that politics played a large role in dictating what kind of science could be done. They also thought that the public did not trust scientists and were actually contemptuous of science in general.

The bench scientists thought that people did not understand that science is about asking big questions; that science is not about answers; that science is about methods, not results. They wanted the public to appreciate how science worked, and they wanted to share their experiences in science with the lay public. They recognized that the public in the US was already very anti-science.

In general a lot of the scientists hated the mass media because it compressed and oversimplified facts. They believed that the mass media was in a clash of cultures with scientists. As for the culture, the Purdue scientists thought that scientists weren’t all that special: they simply did their job, had a way of doing things, and were simply doing things the way they had been taught. They also believed that scientists always have to question dogma because it is the only way that science can move forward.

What is this culture like? The mass media might believe that knowledge is set in stone and will never be contradicted, but scientific knowledge does change. Let me give you an example. In the US, around August of 2010, research came out on how an excess of Vitamin E can cause breast cancer. The media were all over it. A few months later, research came out on how Vitamin E can actually prevent breast cancer. The public was confused and it resulted in a lack of trust in scientists. But that’s just the nature of science: findings will change because you’re not wrong, but your instrumentation could be limited.

The same clash can be found in school science, which often paints science as stable, absolute, and never-changing. In the real world, science is the exact opposite. Experiments today will be wrong tomorrow. It’s just the way that science is, and school often fails to deliver that message.

So what do these findings imply? I asked the participants in my study if they believed that scientists in different cultures are also different. Most of them said that the national culture doesn’t matter, and that all scientists are the same. However, this research shows that perhaps the opposite might be true.

A lot of the beliefs that scientists hold arise from their cultural beliefs, or could even be in forced opposition to these cultural beliefs. This could form a good theoretical base for science communication, which is still largely poor in theoretical foundations. We as researchers might need to ask scientists about what they feel is important, why they are here, what their duties are, and perhaps we could find a better theoretical base on which to build our science communication. This could be more fruitful than asking an audience what colors they want on their brochure.

This could also be valuable for the mass media, which clashes a lot with scientists. They might need to come to a discussion over what scientists say or want to say.

For the longest time, I studied ways of talking to people, of dialogue and conversation. But I never looked critically at how science actually influenced science communication. This leads me to the recommendations for more research: more Filipino scientists, perhaps look at the differences in beliefs between male and female scientists, and build more theoretical foundations for science communication.

I thought that by going into a PhD program in science communication, I’d go for something much easier than molecular biology. It was “just” communication, “just” mass media. Apparently, it also meant diving deep into philosophy and politics, into worldviews and culture. My program showed me that the world of science communication, like science itself, was full of questions.

I hope that as scientists, you, too will ask more questions about the discipline, and how you influence other fields that work with yours.