Sunday, 8 December 2013

Science and Sensibility

Priya Kurian & Debashish Munshi

One of the challenges of fostering a public understanding of science is to demystify science and help the wider public to view science neither as a miracle nor as a purveyor of doom but as a process of how and why things happen. The long-held deficit model of science is based on a gap in the knowledge about science between scientists and lay persons. Yet, it is not so much about knowledge but how it is communicated that leads to ‘understanding’ science. This communication has, at best, been uneven as scientific research is not always presented in ways that lay persons can comprehend in relation to their everyday experiences of life.

This is a challenge that young online educators have taken on with great gusto. For example, the Khan Academy’s famous You Tube tutorials on science have a huge following already. As a recent article in The Guardian says, the Academy’s mission is simple: “a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” Marshall McLuhan had pointed out way back in 1964 that the medium is as much the message as the content. Clearly, new media tools allow people to “experience” things in more ways than ever before. It is the experience that aids the understanding of phenomena that might otherwise seem abstract. Yet, perceptions of human experience and scientific concepts are often seen to be counter to each other and significant effort is made to dispel these entrenched perceptions.

There is, in fact, a dearth of research that explores how the general public comes to understand principles of science that often run counter to common-sensical understandings of how the natural world works. And on how unscientific views on natural phenomena sustain themselves long after they have been proven wrong. Exploring this “learning paradox”, Wolff-Michael Roth and Norm Friesen in an article forthcoming in the Public Understanding of Science, explain the process by which a YouTube science video on the heart and the circulatory system offer learning opportunities for viewers. The video, which presents the heart as a pump, is able to tap into viewers’ knowledge of the world around where “pumps, plumbing and other machine systems are part of the everyday world that constitutes common sense and, therefore, the background against which we constitute the sense of every new experience”.

It is this which allows the transition from “common sense to scientific sense”. With this in mind, Roth and Friesen ask, what if we “design science education in a way that allows people of all walks of life to hang on to their familiar discourses” instead of eradicating “prior (mis) conceptions”? As they point out, “First, all science is grounded in our everyday experiences; and these have not essentially changed in the course of history: We continue to see the sun rise in the morning and to see it set in the evening; and we continue to feel the cold come into the door rather than heat being lost to the outside”. And this “initial worldview” does not change despite scientific explanations about the earth’s orbit around the sun or the laws of heat exchange. Quite simply, it is not so much about taking people to science but making science understood by people on their own terms.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

State of the climate

Priya Kurian & Debashish Munshi

Climate change continues to make news with a report last week showing that 2012 was among the ten warmest years on record. The latest State of the Climate in 2012 report, released by the American Meteorological Society on 6 August, presents a picture of a rapidly warming planet with record greenhouse gas emissions, melting Arctic sea ice and rising sea levels. The 23rd annual report shows that concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases reached a global average of 392.7 parts per million; the Arctic warmed at twice the rate of the rest of the world; and the melting icing led to global sea level rise. These alarming developments herald a “new normal” for the climate, and the release of the report received extensive media coverage globally as seen in the LA Times, the Guardian, Indian Express, and the New Zealand Herald, among others. This has not stopped climate change contrarians to argue in recent times that global warming is slowing or reversing. Yet few deniers seem to have the desire to follow scientist Richard Muller of the University of California, Berkley. A self-described climate sceptic, he examined in 2012 the scientific data on climate change and emerged from the process convinced that anthropogenic climate change is in fact real. Another issue in establishing public perception of climate change has been the significant impact of the wording of statements in eliciting responses from people. Australian researchers Murni Greenhill, Zoe Leviston, Rosemary Leonard, and Iain Walker, in an article forthcoming in PUS, assessed “the consistency of people’s responses across questions and the relationship of different climate beliefs on a range of criterion variables” (p. 14). They found that when people were not given the option of attributing climate change to a mix of natural and anthropogenic causes, a majority were split down the middle between the two causes. Climate change beliefs appear to be multi-dimensional and hence can rarely be captured by a single survey item. Despite concerns that climate scientists are losing the public relations battle to climate sceptics, an in-depth study of media coverage of climate issues in the USA, UK, Germany and France by Reiner Grundmann and Mike Scott, forthcoming in an issue of PUS, shows that the dominant voice on climate change in these countries is that of climate advocates, not sceptics. The USA is different in terms of what gets highlighted, the researchers point out: “The USA gives most prominence to entertainment aspects within the discourse. This is evident if we look at the most visible sceptic, the late novelist Michael Crichton and the movie An Inconvenient Truth. The USA also shows weak connotations of central terms (climate change, global warming) with alarm, action or moral frames.”

Friday, 31 May 2013

Climate Watch

News about the weather is no longer confined to a nattily-dressed television presenter waving a wand at a blue screen dotted with maps, place names, temperature data, and icons of the sun, moon, the stars, and droplets of rain representing the state of the day just passed and the ones to come. It is now, more frequently than ever before, one of the main stories of the day.

The media is full of Images of hurricanes and tornadoes in the U.S with more punch than the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima, a freezing Easter in the UK that left a different kind of icing on the cake, an unimaginable heat wave in Brazil, the coldest winter in China’s living memory, persistent droughts in the watering holes of Africa, and the blazing bushfires in Australia, not to speak of the spate of floods, and the rollercoaster rides of the mercury across the globe.

But how well does the media report on one of the pressing global issues of our time – climate change? “Weird weather, global climate change, and the media” is the theme of the 8th World Conference of Science Journalists to be held in Helsinki, Finland, from 24-28 June this year. The conference aims to provide an opportunity to science, environment and health journalists and writers “to improve public understanding of extreme weather and climate change”.

The issue, of course, is not as much about journalists as it is about the institutions they represent. The media is not one entity and media institutions often have strong ideological or political leanings which determine the positions they take on issues and this has an impact on their news coverage as well. For example, liberal media organizations are more likely to give more weight to the human hand in climate change than conservative ones which tend to deny anthropogenic climate change.

Findings of a U.S-based study forthcoming in the Public Understanding of Science now show that following conservative media reduces people’s trust in scientists while using non-conservative media increases trust in scientists. The study, by Jay D. Hmielowski, Lauren Feldman, Teresa A. Myers, Anthony Leiserowitz, and Edward Maibach, shows that a decreased trust in scientists leads to a sceptical view of climate change while an increased trust in scientists allows people to be certain about climate change and its impacts. There is, therefore, a correlation between the ideology of certain media institutions and the climate change beliefs of people who follow them. Although earlier research seemed to treat “media use and trust as independent factors”, the authors say that “considering the interplay between these variables” and how they “uniquely influence atti­tudes may provide a more comprehensive understanding of why people hold particular beliefs about climate change.”

Measuring people’s beliefs on climate change is not easy but, in another article forthcoming in PUS, Australian researchers, Murni Greenhill, Zoe Leviston, Rosemary Leonard, and Iain Walker, suggest that differences in the wording on survey statements can elicit different responses. More about that in the next blog.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Dateline Today

Debashish Munshi & Priya Kurian

The plot of Robin Cook’s new thriller on medical nanotechnology is unfolding now – April 2013. Unlike several other science-fiction narratives on the tinier than microscopic realm of nanotechnology, this page-turner is not set in some distant future. The dateline is today.

The prolific novelist’s latest offering Nano emphasises the here and now of a technology that a lot of people still imagine to be futuristic.

The plot of course has many of the ingredients of a popular thriller – an attractive and headstrong woman scientist determined to bring to light the unethical practices of a billionaire playboy businessman who heads a secretive nanotech corporation; international business deals; gangsters; spies; security devices; and the usual rollercoaster twists and turns of the storylines. But it’s not so much the story that hooks the reader but the possibilities of nanotechnology in curing medical conditions – Alzheimer’s, for one.

That the author dedicates the novel “both to the promise nanotechnology brings to medicine and to the hope that any downside will be minimal”, points to the potential of the new and emerging technology. The disclaimer about the dodgy ethics of human experiments notwithstanding, this novel is more upbeat about the ability of tiny nano-robots to destroy bacteria, viruses, and other disease-inducing organisms. This is in sharp contrast to the work of another bestselling science fiction novelist Michael Crichton who presents a far more dystopic view of nanotechnology in his novels Prey and Micro. The more recent Micro not only outlines the possibilities of nanobots annihilating the vital organs of a person without leaving a trace of the causes of death but also talks of bio-prospecting of natural resources at levels unseen by the human eye.

As we said in an earlier blog, regardless of its utopic or dystopic potential, nanotechnology is now entrenched in the present and nanoparticles are ubiquitous in several products of everyday use. Even tiny robots are already in use in medical surgeries. Yet, public understanding of this new technology is still extremely limited and this is something that science communicators and researchers alike have to take up.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Neuroscience and personhood

Debashish Munshi & Priya Kurian

The eternal Nature Vs Nurture debate keeps re-surfacing in many different ways. Is social behaviour determined by our biological architecture or is it a result of the social, cultural, and political environment we are exposed to? Is the human brain pre-programmed with genetic circuitry or can it be trained to adapt to social influences?

The escalating interest in neuroscience in the last decade has put the spotlight on the brain, its intricate pathways and its sophisticated signalling systems that control physical and emotional responses. Graphic full-colour images of the brain are now ubiquitous in the media.

But is the proliferating coverage of neuroscience in the popular media radically changing the way people think of notions of Self or personhood? In other words, is the public engagement with neuroscience making significant changes in the way people think about the brain and its influence on the complexities of human agency? This is a topic that Cliodhna O’Connor and Helene Joffe grapple with in their forthcoming article on “How has neuroscience affected lay understandings of personhood?” in Public Understanding of Science.

In a thorough review, O’Connor and Joffe conclude that the propagation of radical neuroscientific explorations has come through “in ways that perpetuate rather than challenge existing modes of understanding self, others and society”. This is because “people selectively attend to and interpret science in ways that cohere with their pre-existing values, identities and beliefs.”

In the course of their review, the authors touch upon what they call the “philosophical battle” between conceptions of every human being as a “free agent” and conceptions of a human whose character, behav­iour and life-course are pre-patterned by their biological constitution”. The latter conceptions, the authors say, paint “neuroscience research as the definitive refutation of the notion of free will, which is cast – in Nobel Laureate Francis Crick’s words – as ‘no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules’.”

Talking of Francis Crick, news has just come in of the decision of his family to sell his Nobel medal and give the proceeds to research institutions – see LiveScience. Crick, of course, was not only credited, with his colleagues, of mapping the structure of the DNA but also for his discovery of the molecular structure of nucleic acids and the role this structure played in the transfer of information in human beings. 

Commenting on the news of the sale, blogger Grant Jacobs, in the blog Code for Life, draws attention to one other item for sale – a letter written by the Nobel Laureate to his 12-year-old son to explain the Double Helix structure of the DNA. “It’d be interesting to see his efforts at science communication from the time of suggesting the model for the structure of DNA”, Jacobs says. It would indeed. As James Borrell says in his blog on How to communicate science and not be boring: “There’s a saying that if you can’t explain your research to a child, then you don’t understand it well enough yourself.”