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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Thursday, 5 November 2009

Ares Boldly Goes

Ethan at Starts With a Bang has a great post up about just how spectacular NASA's first new rocket in over 30 years is. Videos of the test launch, which took place on 28 October 2009, has been circulating on Youtube:

But why spend all this money on sending humans into space, it is dangerous, and relatively pointless, and robots can do so well without us there. Well firstly there is at present a limit to what robots can do either on there own or with our help, problems such as they are generally designed with a specific purpose, where as a human in the same situation is much more versatile.

But the most important reason is that on this pale blue dot of ours there is a limited amount of resources and indeed time. At some point or another in the next 4 or so billion years that it has remaining, the Earth will no longer be able to support us and we will need to be somewhere else if our species is to survive. To that end we need to now begin the efforts of seeding the stars with populations of Humans (and for that matter cattle and grains etc. you know things that we will need to survive).

So by all means use the robots to find out where we can go and how we can get there and what we will find when we get there, but remember that the Earth is the cradle of humanity and one cannot stay in the cradle forever.

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