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Q&A: ‘We’ve Got to Make Science Accessible’ Says Kean Expert Robert Pyatt, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor Robert Pyatt, Ph.D. teaches molecular genetics in the New Jersey Center for Science, Mathematics and Technology at Kean and holds a doctorate in pathology. He talked about improving science communication in the era of the coronavirus.

Q. Your professional background and education is as a geneticist, but you publish and present workshops on the topic of science communication. What got you interested in that? 

While my training is in genetics, my passion is really science communication. As scientists, we’re trained that our goal is to do laboratory discoveries, to be the first person to uncover something never before seen. While that is really exciting and I love it, I realized a big hurdle is people’s understanding of the process of science. That led me to write about science communication and develop workshops where I teach people who don’t have any background in science how to analyze a scientific study, do critical thinking and better understand science.

Q. Why is it important to communicate science well?

Two things, really. One is, science is hard. It’s complicated, regardless of what field of science you’re talking about. There’s a need for effective communication. The other is the time period we live in. With the internet and other forms of communication, we’re bombarded more and more with information, and it’s harder and harder to look critically and decide if information is something we should know or if it’s misinformation. I think there’s a misconception that people are turned off by science and they don’t care. People are interested.

Q. A huge scientific and medical story is happening now, namely the coronavirus. How is the media doing with it? 

In general, the media is doing an OK job. We’re talking about a diverse group of print, broadcast and internet journalists. One challenge they all have is, this is an ongoing situation, with daily, hourly, even minute-by-minute updates. That makes it very hard to keep up. One challenge is to present accurate information in a timely fashion. 

One of the biggest issues everyone is having is balancing concern of the unknown. Because it’s a new virus, we’re not sure of its pathogenicity, its infection rate, and unfortunately, how many people may die. That inherently stokes some fear mongering. I don’t know that it’s being hyped more than it should, but the context is being left out. We’re in the middle of flu season, which globally each year kills 300,000-600,000 people. The flu is a much more immediate threat. There are flu vaccines, whereas with the coronavirus there’s no vaccine yet, but we have behavior we can follow. We can wash our hands. Stay home if we’re sick. Wear a mask that’s rated to stop the spread of viruses. People are concerned with the coronavirus and they should be, but in the United States right now you should be more concerned about your chance of getting the flu and possibly dying from that. 

Q. Let’s shift away from coronavirus. What are the worst problems occurring in science communication, and why are they bad?

Hopefully I’m not falling into the biggest pitfall, which is the use of jargon. Jargon is any specific group of terms that only one select set of people understand, and in science we use it all the time. A study just came out from Ohio State looking at jargon and found it kills people’s interest in science and politics. Any barrier like that we have to cut out.

Another problem, especially for print journalism, is copying the press release. Press releases are promotional, not necessarily journalistic. We’ve seen journalist staff cuts, reduction in the space devoted to covering science, and to cut corners people will just copy a press release. Studies have shown press releases are inherently biased.

And there’s ‘click bait’ mentality. Too often headlines are exaggerated, inaccurate, clearly designed just to get somebody to click on a website. There are people who are motivated by getting larger numbers of people to go to a website for commercial gain. They don’t care about accuracy.

Q. There are also people who simply don’t believe science, such as climate change deniers. What are your thoughts on that?

That gets to a change we’ve undergone in our society. Science is a process where we test things. It doesn’t really require belief. Belief is when, without any evidence at all, you accept something. Science is about evidence, testing, using the scientific process to put together a body of evidence in support of or against something. Deniers of any science, such as climate change or vaccines, are essentially saying they don’t care what the evidence is, they don’t care to review it, and they don’t care what the opinions are of experts trained in that field. The entire process of science is thrown out by deniers. It’s a disconnect our society has from the scientific process, a complete rejection in favor of personal opinion. 

Q. Is this something new?

I think what we’re seeing is the ability of people with viewpoints to connect. Fifty years ago, you may have been a denier, but you had limited ability to connect with other deniers and share your personal belief. In today’s connected world it’s much easier for these individuals. While they may have been below the surface 20, 30, 40 years ago, it’s much easier for them to connect and make their voices heard. You can text, go in chat rooms, post on websites, none of that requires evidence or critical thinking. It’s just about promoting your viewpoint.

Q. What are some ways to improve science communication?

Scientists have to get out of their labs, go where people are and talk to them. I’ve spoken about science at tattoo parlors, in church, at a Mensa convention, at a waterpark, at “science nights” at bars — anywhere we can find people interested in the subject. Use stories. People are engaged by a story, anything that can connect a person with a subject. And use humor. 

I hold workshops for people without a science background that I call “Weird Science.” I use funny stories — bizarre examples of studies looking at things like, can you absorb alcohol through your feet? We’ve got to make science accessible. Nobody is going to enjoy 100 percent of everything, but if we can make it engaging, people will be more open to it.

And for members of the media, one really easy thing is to contact a scientist. Don’t just accept a press release. Find someone knowledgeable. Ask if a study used appropriate controls, or any controls at all. How large was the sample? How was the study done? If the press release is about a research paper, get the paper itself. If you don’t have science background, find a scientist to talk to about it. Science is not something a single person can do alone.

Assistant Professor Robert Pyatt, Ph.D., enjoys helping people learn about science. You can find out more at Weird Science, https://www.facebook.com/groups/127551350616790/  and his podcast, Trackside Science, at http://tracksidescience.libsyn.com/