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A Failure to Communicate


Hamilton welcomed computer scientist and author David H. Bailey on Nov. 3 for a lecture regarding the failures of the scientific community toward communicating the importance and wonder of scientific research to the general public. Bailey is a University of California Davis research associate and former computer scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. His talk was funded through the James S. Plant Distinguished Scientist Lecture Fund and was sponsored by the Mathematics Department.

“Science is one very big bright spot in a society that is otherwise troubled, let’s face it,” began Bailey. He noted that while the arc of scientific progress in the last century has been truly remarkable, the public at large has been in many ways skeptical, and in some cases openly hostile, to the views that now constitute scientific consensus.

This disconnect, to Bailey’s mind, can be accounted for by what he referred to as a “three-front war on science,” constituting some segments of the academic left, the religious right and industrial interest. Each combatant in said war runs against the grain of scientific consensus on different issues, he explained: the far-left often arguing that science has no monopoly on objective truth, the religious right fighting under the banner of biblical literalism, and certain major industries in both domestic markets and the world economy suppressing scientific research on issues of health and environmental protection.

The effects of this war can be seen in public opinion, argued Bailey. Today over 40% of Americans don’t acknowledge the factual basis of evolution, 52% don’t accept that human activity is a key factor in climate change, and more than 17% say that vaccines are unsafe or are linked to cases of autism; all views that the scientific community staunchly opposes.

What, then, can be done? In a world where scientists are often perceived as out of touch with common people, Bailey claimed that scientists have failed miserably to “communicate the wonder and excitement of modern science to the public.” To his mind the only path forward towards greater public acceptance of science lies in community outreach and communication efforts. “Start a blog, visit schools, give lectures, maybe even run for office” he said, before adding that “(scientists) are winning battles but losing the war for hearts and minds.”

The entire dilemma reminded Bailey of a now famous scene from the 1997 film Contact, in which Jodie Foster’s character, upon seeing a swirling galaxy remarks “no words… they should have sent a poet.”

Scientific discovery is so exhilarating, he opined, “maybe we should write some poetry.”

 

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