Scientists should present results more clearly for public accessing studies

As I grew up, my bedroom was full of bookshelves, and each bookshelf was full with books. But one shelf in particular I was most proud of. It held neatly arranged volumes with hard-covered, acid-free pages and gold-printed names like Shakespeare, Nietzsche and Newton. If I wanted to read a treatise on optics or Jung’s theory of dreams — and I was the sort of child who did — all I had to do was slip into my room, find the right book on the shelf and crack open its spine.

Today, that same feat could be accomplished at the corner laundromat with an iPad in hand.

No longer are home encyclopedias and corner libraries the go-to source for knowledge. Now it’s Wikipedia and Google.

And that’s true even for me as a researcher. If I forget Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems, I can just Google them. If I want to read an article, I can print it out at my computer instead of waiting for the library to open. If I have a question, I can visit message boards full of other researchers discussing thousands of questions that interest them.

But not only can I do that, so can you. You can read about Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems, or cutting-edge research in astrophysics, or discussions between researchers. The Internet has made science far more accessible to non-scientists.

There are still limitations though: Most journals require payment to read, and university libraries remain the de facto archives of scientific knowledge. But the trend is toward more accessibility, not less. Pre-prints (drafts of research papers, if you will) are often available at online archives or on researchers’ own websites.

While I’m happy, I know there are some dangers waiting along this road.

We do not, at the moment, live in a scientifically literate culture. Sure, we know about gravity and genetics: We know scientific facts. But our culture doesn’t correctly process and understand the way science works.

For one example, the media and blogs tend to overreact to the slightest hint of a major scientific accomplishment. If a paper suggests a possible cure for cancer, the world goes wild.

But that’s not how science works. Science takes time.

A single study doesn’t prove a point. It takes many studies over many months, confirming and refining the original result, for an idea to become accepted in the scientific community.

Scientific language can be another barrier, subject to — sometimes willful — misinterpretation. Scientists talk in correlations, while most people want to talk about causation. Scientists talk in very precisely defined terms, while most people gloss over specifics with ease.

Just take any study relating to homosexuality. In everyday language, we can talk about homosexuality and “know” exactly what we mean. But a scientist isn’t satisfied by that. A scientist will talk about “a person who self-identifies as homosexual,” or “a person who has sex only with the same sex,” or “a person who is attracted only to people of the same sex — regardless of how they act on that attraction.” These are all very different things to a scientist studying these groups, but to the average person, they get lumped together as “gay,” which makes the results harder to interpret properly.

This is not to say that anyone is at fault or that people are stupid. Scientific language evolved for scientific purposes, and for a long time, scientists wrote mainly for each other. We never expected anyone else to plunge down into the depths of the library and dredge up our articles, but now that’s unnecessary, as anyone with a web connection can browse the abstracts of our papers at their leisure.

Already on the blogosphere and media, scientific literature is referenced directly and — depending on the location — incorrectly. To prevent misunderstandings, both sides, scientists and the public, will need to make some changes. It’s all the more important that we emphasize general science skills in education, so that people know how to interpret the science being presented to them.

We scientists will need to find better ways of presenting our results. It may mean better relations with the media or more spokespeople of our own, or it may mean writing our papers in a new way, since other scientists are not the only readers anymore.

It sure beats needing to constantly re-explain our results.

_Joseph is a graduate student._