[Coral-List] getting science to the public clearly and unambiguously is difficult

Peter Sale sale at uwindsor.ca
Fri Aug 19 15:13:13 EDT 2016

Hi all,
A lot of comments on coral-list lately, spurred initially by the recent papers by Josh Cinner et al in Nature and by John Bruno and Abel Valdivia in Scientific Reports that seemingly contradicted each other, and the attempt to explain them by journalist Johnny Langenheim in The Guardian.  (Langenheim's conclusion - that they are both correct - did not really help clarify!)  Cinner et al, evaluated global patterns in reef fish biomass and concluded there were some 'bright spots' around the world where reefs were doing much better than expected, and therefore that local management was important for reef sustainability.  Bruno and Valdivia, using a global analysis of coral cover and algal cover concluded that density of local human population (used as a proxy for local impacts) had essentially zero effect on reef quality, which was overwhelmingly being determined by global impacts such as climate change.

I have just put up the first of two posts looking at the wider issue of why it seems so difficult to convey science to the public and have it understood.  I do not claim to be an expert, but perhaps I am identifying some of the issues (beyond deliberate distortion or obfuscation) that play a role.  In Part 1, I talk about the nature of science, and the nature of the way humans think.  Part 2, which will be up in about 10 days looks at the changing nature of the scientific endeavor, and the role of the media.  Both of these contribute to the distortions, the exaggerations, and the general air of confusion that surrounds stories about science as received by the public (including other scientists).  I've illustrated with examples of confusion around ecology of coral reefs, including the Cinner/Bruno/Langenheim example, and make some tentative suggestions for what scientists might do to improve the situation.  Mostly it comes down to being better scientists by taking special care to communicate accurately and precisely, while still communicating in ways that are effective and interesting.  This means less arm-waving and exaggeration, less effort to create effective sound-bites, and less use of catchy jargon, coupled with a far greater effort to communicate in an engaging and interesting way.  I admit that it may now be too late to make these corrections - we all seem increasingly locked into a communication style that compresses every thought to 140 characters or a cute photo.  Time will tell.  Part 1 is at http://wp.me/p5UInC-B4

Peter Sale
Distinguished University Professor (Emeritus)
University of Windsor

e-mail:                  sale at uwindsor.ca<mailto:sale at uwindsor.ca>
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