At the moment, I’m at a Toastmasters International semi-annual conference. This is an organization that strives to help people all over the world improve their communication and leadership skills. I’m a member, a passionate one, and I believe that the skills of communication and leadership are vitare in any given field; particularly in the field of environmental science. I’d like to delve a little the role of communication in environmental science in this post.
In the world, less than 10% of the world population goes on to study science in college or look for advanced science degrees. The numbers are a little better in India; close to 40% of the educated population tends to lean towards science, because of the craze for medical and engineering careers. Nevertheless, the total number of people in the world with a decent knowledge of ecological and geological sciences are but few.
That’s ok! I don’t expect everyone to be as passionate as I am in this field. Every person has different interests, and they accumulate their knowledge in that field. But in a highly interconnected and interrelated world, it is important to have your hands in multiple jars, so to speak. A working knowledge or understanding of different fields like economics, politics, science, culture is very important to survive. Haven’t you heard people saying, “I don’t know anything about politics because I have no interest in it?” Or “I really don’t understand technology, and I never will! It’s alien to me!” These people struggle to grasp the happenings of the day, from my experience.
This is where effective communication plays a key role. When there is something that will affect people across fields, it needs to be communicated in a way that everyone from the expert to the layman understands it. Technology and corporate companies do this very well. Politics, law and science, unfortunately do not.
Many people, scientists and the general public, feel that the current science education in schools is inadequate. I couldn’t agree more. This is another reason why we need to effectively communicate scientific advances and natural phenomena, because they can be easily misunderstood. I have the perfect example to illustrate this.
In April 2009, the local radio station of the town of L’Aquila aired some sensational news. A man from the town proclaimed that the town will be hit by an earthquake on 6th of that month. The local authorities and the public panicked, leading to mass evacuation. Geologists around the country found this ridiculous, and came forward to issue a statement. They said, “while the area is a high risk zone, yes cannot say an earthquake will on any particular day. It is highly unlikely that the earthquake will occur on on April 6th”. Now, that’s perfectly logical from a geologists point of view. Statistically, earthquakes have a very small chance of occuring. The more intense an earthquake, the less frequent it is. Earthquakes are a result of plate movements that happen deep under the earth, a place that we cannot monitor. Therefore, we cannot predict when earthquakes will happen.
But the media and the authorities took this to mean that the earthquake WILL NOT happen on April 6th. They went around the evacuation camp set up for the townspeople that it is safe to return home. They did so on the night of April 5th. The next day, an earthquake happened.
The public outrage was enormous, so much so that the geologists who issued the statement were jailed on grounds of manslaughter.
Another more recent example is from the blogging world. I was going through a post on Wutts Up With That, which was about how Antarctic ice sheet is growing. The argument given for this growth is that the circumpolar current, a cold current, is upwelling water around the continent. This water is cold (as are all deep ocean currents), and has been underwater for over 1000 years (once water in a current sinks to become part of a cold current, it can take between 1000-1600 years before it reaches the surface again). Therefore, this water has been unaffected by climate change.
This is not the only argument for this phenomenon, but the explanation given is sound. However, it riled people up. Most people have an idea that oceans are heat sinks; they store up heat. Now, this article stated that oceans are also holding in cold water in the form of deep ocean currents. This apparent contradiction was enough to produce some strong worded and deeply disturbing comments on that blog post (oceans are a heat sink, but this is in the upper 100 meters of the ocean water. Below that, the water gets pretty cold).
These are but two examples of how miscommunication has led to issues in the scientific world. It was absolutely unnecessary and could have been avoided if the speaker/writer had explained their side and assumed any prior knowledge on the part of the listener.
What can be done?
Ideally, I’d love it if the science education in schools is updated. At least till the high school level (I read about ocean currents in college. Had I not pursued geology, I might have been confused about that blog article too!). This will ensure that people will understand scientific information relayed to them, even if it is not simplified.
The scientists, on the other hand, need to up their communication game. Analogies, metaphor, similies and simple examples in a simple language go a long way in helping a listener understand a concept. This is what good teachers are very good at. It is probably why half the scientists in the world are scientists. Communication can capture the imagination of people and instigate great things. Today, that need is paramount. Good communication, will alone massively help in conservation, restoration and preventing further environmental degradation. It will also help us be better prepared for disasters. It will help us collectively stay safe and alert during the current environmental crisis.