AN INTERVIEW WITH SCRIPPS LEADERS IN SCIENCE
By Jen A. Miller
Science is supposed to be a rational discipline: Draw a hypothesis, test that hypothesis, and then report the results, whether the hypothesis holds up or not, over and over and over again.
But discovering something new, or pushing scientific knowledge about a known thing forward, is messy. So is sharing that information with the public in a way that they can understand. That’s especially true in the current moment, when scientists and health professionals are mistreated and mistrusted, misinformation is weaponized, and whether or not someone believes in the effectiveness of a well-tested and highly effective vaccine is a matter of political pride.
“It’s harder than in the days of Carl Sagan, when there weren’t so many sources of information,” says Gretchen Edwalds-Gilbert, acting vice president for Academic Affairs and dean of faculty and professor of biology, referring to the astronomer and astrophysicist who became a household name through his award-winning series Cosmos—and who also regularly appeared on the The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. “It’s not that people will say, ‘I don’t watch PBS.’ It’s that they’re getting their information somewhere else, and that’s not always good.”
Scientists trained in critical thinking and communication can make a difference, not just in their approach to and curiosity about science but also in how they communicate the knowledge that science offers. Through the College’s Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities, and by teaching physical and biological sciences from a liberal arts point of view, Scripps is training scientists for a future where both their work and their voices will be increasingly needed.
“Having this grounding in the humanities and the liberal arts allows them to think about science through different lenses and to really interrogate science in a novel way that might be helpful for speaking to or thinking about the public in the best way possible,” says Edwalds-Gilbert.
Science Starts on the Back Foot
Lack of scientific understanding is a problem in the United States. The 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment study found that American 15-year-olds are ranked 18th in their ability to explain scientific concepts. This translates into a shaky foundation for scientific literacy in adulthood. A 2019 Pew Research Center study found that most Americans understand general science concepts, like antibiotic overuse (79 percent), but fewer can recognize a hypothesis (52 percent) or that bases are the main components of antacids (39 percent).
Of course, scientists can’t change how Americans are educated, and not every scientist needs to be a science communicator, but scientists need to be talking to the public, says Ulysses J. Sofia, Weinberg Family Dean of Science at the W.M. Keck Science Department. These voices are especially needed in times of crisis, like during the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the face of a continuously evolving, climate-changed world.
“We see right now how incredibly important science is, and we also see how misunderstood it is,” he says. “It is the role of scientists to make sure we get out the right information and put it in a way people can actually understand, so they see how it works, and they see the legitimacy of it.”
That also means training the public to recognize that science’s understanding of something, like an emergent virus, changes. “Science isn’t just about having the right answers. It’s about continuously seeing what the data are telling us, and communicating those changes,” Sofia says.
It is the role of scientists to make sure we get out the right information and put it in a way people can actually understand.
Combating Politicized Misinformation
The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a harsh light on how difficult it is for scientists to break through with these messages, especially when something as simple as a belief in science itself has become politicized, with deadly results. As of October 2021, more than 731,000 Americans, per Johns Hopkins, had died of COVID-19; by June, almost all new COVID-19 deaths were among the unvaccinated, according to an Associated Press analysis. And those deaths mostly fell along party lines: The least likely Americans to be vaccinated were younger, less educated Republicans, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor.
I don’t know why someone would randomly read something on the internet and think that’s better than advice from their doctor.
The Kaiser report also found that 58 percent of still unvaccinated Republicans said they would “definitely not get the vaccine,” compared to 15 percent of still unvaccinated Democrats. Republican-leaning states were also less likely to take basic COVID-19 mitigation steps such as required masking. Governors of Texas and Florida went so far as to ban mask mandates in schools, even as their hospitals’ ICUs overflowed with sick COVID-19 patients.
“I don’t know why someone would randomly read something on the internet and think that’s better than advice from their doctor. If you walk into a Starbucks and somebody yells something at you, you’re not going to trust that over your doctor,” says Jennifer Armstrong, associate dean of faculty and professor of biology. “The fact that we have a vaccine is phenomenal, and the public, instead of greeting it in a ‘Holy cow, it worked!’ way, they’re seeking other sources of information.”
It’s not science’s fault that it has been weaponized for political reasons, adds Armstrong. But scientists do need to realize that science in general is more accessible to anyone with an internet connection. “I never thought my mom and I would be having frequent conversations about mRNA,” she jokes.
At the same time, that information is parsed by people with their own agendas, which can take small, almost offhand comments and turn them into entire misinformation campaigns. For example, in December 2020, one epidemiologist posited a theoretical COVID-19 vaccine side effect—a theory that was quickly disproven in clinical trials. But by then it was too late. That theory was picked up and amplified into the idea that the vaccine causes infertility, which has become a persistent COVID-19 vaccine myth.
“Science moves fast and it’s hard enough for scientists to stay current in their field. It’s very, very hard for the general public,” Armstrong says.
Educating Science Communicators of the Future
Sofia says that when it comes to public misperceptions, the scientific community can’t push aside all culpability of how they’re perceived, because education traditionally hasn’t included the translation factor. “We weren’t really taught to talk to the general public about science,” he says.
While international science conferences are adding sessions on communication, and more science programs are recognizing that some of their students may be better suited for science communications or education jobs, there is more work to be done. It must become a goal across disciplines to find and train those who, like Sagan, will make sure that translating the science is a regular part of their jobs.
But it’s already not unusual for notable scientists to come from liberal arts backgrounds. Edwalds-Gilbert points to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical advisor to seven presidents, and Harold E. Varmus, who won the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes, as having BA instead of BS degrees. Varmus even earned an MA in English literature before turning to medicine.
Scripps aims to prepare students in a similar fashion by emphasizing the importance of the liberal arts as the basis for a science education. “The students get a 360-degree view of the problem,” Edwalds-Gilbert says.
Scripps does that through its regular curriculum as well as through the required Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities, a three-semester program that provides students with a broader educational base by giving them the tools to become critical thinkers.
Core has one common theme each cycle, which is purposefully broad enough that students can explore a range of topics within it. The current Core theme is truth. Past themes have focused on community, violence, and human nature and human difference.
All first-year students take Core I during the fall semester. By Core III, in the first semester of their sophomore year, students are conducting individualized, self-directed research with professors in small, seminar-style courses, and they finish the program by presenting a final project.
This approach means that Scripps is teaching “the whole person,” adds Armstrong, which gives Scripps students a better understanding of the world they’re about to join as professionals.
“Students laugh about practicing their senior research talk with their roommate who is not a scientist and might not understand,” Edwalds-Gilbert says. ”But that’s a worthy exercise because it shows the challenge of asking, ‘How do you communicate your science more broadly to people outside of the science world?’”
Scientists must play a role in the national discourse, even when the pandemic passes. Climate change will continue to affect the world, and scientists need to be there to explain the root causes, how different parts of the global community will be affected, and what mitigation efforts might offer the best way forward.
“Whether it’s climate change or other environmental issues, it took a long time for people to recognize where some of these pollution hotspots were relative to where different populations live,” says Edwalds-Gilbert, referring to more recent research into lead poisoning in urban areas.
“It’s really important that you get people to look at these issues in a broader way and from different lived experiences. A liberal arts education is a path toward achieving that.”