Thursday, 19 November 2009

Degrees of Science Communication

A few years back the University of Otago started a Master's course in Science Communication, and the fruits of that are starting to come to bear. This weekend six films by Science and Natural History Filmmaking students will be shown at Dunedin's Regent Theatre. According to the Centre's website the films will constitute a part of the student's thesis.

I think that this is a great idea, and you can specialize in the above film-making, creative non-fiction writing or a general popularizing of science. I think that more people should be taking an interest in that... but then again I am a science blogger and now part of the Science Media Centre's set up so maybe I am biased.

That is not to say that I can't have concerns about some of the outputs of this venture, an article online at the Otago Daily Times highlights one of the videos being screen about the 1080 poison debate, and I think it illustrates just how easy it can be to miss the point of communicating the science.

Sure it is good to get subjects such as this out in to the public (not that this one is not already out there) but the goal must be first and foremost to tell the science's story. So below is a rant that I left as a comment on the article that I think deserves wider audience and discussion.

I find the paragraph about balance interesting coming from students of a science communication course.

Mr Holmes said while many films had been made on 1080, they were mostly one-sided, so their aim was to make a "balanced" account of the issue by presenting both sides of the argument alongside the science.

As they say they present both sides of the debate along side the science. But the key point is not the politicization of the issue or the various points of view but the facts, which are the science.

And while the students do mention this, It's a very emotive subject and some facts get lost in the argument, it does not seem from the article as if this is what they have achieved.

Sure giving the balance adds to the drama and emotion but it detracts from the aim of what they are trying to achieve. The point of their course is to teach them to communicate the science.

I appreciate the need to have a "hook" upon which to attach the science and to have a narrative that brings the viewer along. But science is not about balance, it is a one sided process that involves the facts.

Personally I do not have all the information to make a decision on this situation, although I do have my opinions, and if the intent of this film is to communicate the science and to hence give the information that is needed to make a decision then give the rhetoric of either side (or both sides for that matter) is not going to help that process along.

The goal of science communication should not be to start debates but to provide the public access to the information that settles the debate. The communication is not, as Mr Ting seems to think, about getting the two sides of the debate to talk together but to get the correct information out to where it can be accessed by all, removing the need for a debate.


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