Scientific communication “of the people,
by the people and for the people“
Wolfgang C. Goede, Munich / Germany
Abraham Lincoln’s famous statement about government in 1863 can be fittingly applied to science in the 21st century. According to a recent survey conducted in Germany, many people think that science and technology have become more powerful than national governments and that key decisions for our well-being are made in the laboratories of this world. Ivory towers have become castles in which experts ensconce themselves and nurture a language which normal citizens cannot comprehend. It is the duty of science journalists not only to bring the results of research projects to the people but to arouse interest, to make jargon transparent and to investigate the quality of research – which is to say: the science journalist has to name the backers of a project as well as the beneficiaries. As communication professionals we have to find creative ways to make science reporting in the mass media as important as the political page and the sports section. It is our responsibility to invent new feedback channels and platforms where ordinary people can meet scientists and make their concerns known. This paper will present the theory and practice of a new and more democratic culture of science communication. This civil (or public) journalism is based on citizen participation and civil society principles. It juxtaposes the “Deficit Model” with the “Galileo Model”, defines the role of lay experts and the benefits of non-expert knowledge, looks into community-based research and consensus conferences, and evaluates biochemist Rupert Sheldrake’s recent demand that one percent of all research funds should be administered by non-government organizations (NGOs). “No innovation without representation!” Could this be the battle cry of future activists?
What makes you so sure that you know anything?
Although we are all part of the so-called knowledge society and are buried under an ever increasing avalanche of facts and insights, I myself keep observing how little I know. With every new discovery it gets to be even less, so it seems.
Let me give you a few examples:
Last summer we in Central Europe were ravaged by heavy rains. Rivers were transformed into raging torrents, destroying cities and turning vast areas into seemingly endless lakes. Imagine, the German Elb rose from its usual depth of around two meters to almost ten meters leaving destruction in its wake amounting to about 50 billion dollars or euros. Similar floods struck and devastated the Czech Republic and Austria, not to mention Vietnam and China.
This deluge of almost biblical proportions has been matched in the past years by an alarming increase of natural disasters throughout the world: tornados in Florida and Central America, super-cyclones in India and mudslides in Venezuela have caused approximately 50 000 fatalities and displaced millions of people. Worse, many South Pacific Islands will have disappeared beneath the ocean by the end of the century due to a global rise in sea levels all of which is considered a part of the greenhouse effect.
Despite the record floods last summer, many scientists continue to maintain that there is no evidence for a climate change – this although many Alpine glaciers have nearly disappeared during the past one hundred years. The German geologist Peter Neumann-Mahlkau has studied mineral deposits from a period of three billion years and flatly denies that carbon dioxide levels play an essential role in climate. According to him, this gas comprises a mere 0,03 percent of the atmosphere today, whereas 225 million years ago, a time when the world was in the grip of a fierce ice age, it was 50 times higher.
Don‘t worry about carbon dioxide, says Bjoern Lomborg, director of the Danish Institute of Environmental Assessment in his book „Apocalypse no“. Based on World Bank statistics he tries to prove that in general the world is in a better state than at any previous time: less hunger, higher incomes, less disease, higher life expectancy, less pollution. If we invest in clean water and better health, the developing world will reach the level of the industrialized world by 2100, Lomborg predicts.
Can science be as arbitrary as this little comedy of ideas suggests: turning graphs upside down whenever it is opportune? It seems as if all one has to do is manipulate the facts according to the specific goals of one’s research! My fellow countryman Jan Hendrik Schoen did just this. His research on nano technology at Bell laboratories enabled him to produce an incredible 90 papers in a period of three years in which he managed to demonstrate how molecules can be used as tiny transistors. That was a sensation – except for the fact that nobody ever stopped to check his figures – not even our colleagues at „Science“ or „Nature“. Finally, someone noticed that the shooting star and Nobel Prize candidate was using the same graphs for different experiments. He was fired. That is the good news, the bad news is: Most experiments, especially those in particle physics, can‘t be verified by other scientists because they don’t have the hightech facilities to do so.
I could give you plenty of other examples to confirm Socrates‘ humble observation: „I know that I don‘t know“. Scientific truth has always been wafer thin. And let‘s not forget: knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, is always based on hypotheses that can easily be toppled tomorrow by new ones based on more convincing data. The only truthful principle we should be living up to is this: For the modest knowledge we do possess we need much more communication, not only among scientists, politicians and economic leaders but on all levels of society and most essentially it has to include all those people who finance research with their tax money and are likely to become the beneficiaries or victims of scientific progress: the people themselves.
The ordinary people in any civil society constitute the third major pillar of national interest – next to its political and economic system. Recent social research has shown that lay people are unique experts who can contribute valuable facts and know-how to the scientific process. African farmers applying nearly forgotten traditional knowledge have improved crop yield significantly and could thus reject the genetically modified seeds advised by visiting agronomists; medical doctors who let their patients participate in the selection of an appropriate therapy for high blood pressure or even mental disorders have commented on excellent results from this cooperation. Civil journalism has recognized professionals and informed lay people as supplemental partners and has integrated both into scientific communication.
This is the basis for „scientific citizenship“ – the title of this session – which is to say, the obligation to accept the public as a major stakeholder in the scientific process: ordinary people receiving a voice and being granted power. It’s an absolute novelty! For many centuries it was the Catholic Church which – at least in Europe – dominated science and forced researchers like Galileo to abjure the knowledge that the earth revolves around the sun. During the last century science fell prey to political ideologies and dictators. In Nazi Germany leading scientists and renowned institutions were misused to promote racism and euthanasia. Because Mendelian genetics stood in contradiction to fundamentalistic Marxism, it was prohibited by Stalin – the result being a major catastrophe for Russian agriculture. After World War II the military complex became the chief motor for science and technology, and since the end of the Cold War scientific research is increasingly dominated by industry. „Money has replaced curiosity as the driving force of science,“ Nobel prize winner Kary Mullis has said with regret.
The consequences of this domination have been described by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber in their recently published book: „Trust us, We‘re Experts! How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future“. In the early 1990s US tobacco companies secretly paid 13 scientists a total of 156 000 dollars to send favorable letters drafted by industry law firms to influential medical journals. Today, cancer patients are fighting back and sueing the industry for billions of dollars. Pharmaceutical products are another field of conflict: Many pharmaceutical companies sponsor investigations about the safety of their products. 98 percent of their studies reach positive conclusions, compared to 76 percent of studies funded by independent sources. Can one take medical journals seriously? The „New England Journal of Medicine“ has had to admit that 19 out of 40 articles on new drugs had been written by industry researchers.
These examples show that research has always been embedded in power systems and that these have always attempted to exercise their influence. How to stop this? By implanting more checks and balances and democratizing the knowledge production system. For centuries it has been working as a monopoly filtering information from top to bottom, a practice dubbed by the British social scientist Brian Wynne as the „Deficit Model“ because it assumes that ordinary people can‘t comprehend complex information. But: this one-way process is in the long term self-defeating because it erodes public confidence. 63 percent of Europeans believe that scientists have too much power, a fact that is considered dangerous. The solution to the problem is to impose a two-way democratic or multipolar system in which information and communication circulate freely from the top down and from the bottom up. This free flow allows knowledge to reach all niches of society and provide everyone with useful feedback channels. I call this the Galileo Model because it places average people at the center like the sun in our planetary system and sets institutions in orbit around them (http://www.casa-luz.de/co/galileo_1.htm).
Indeed, citizens have been gaining more self confidence than ever before, establishing community movements and self-help groups and demanding political input. They form a large array of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of which several hundred thousand exist worldwide. According to a proposal by the British biologist Ruppert Sheldrake, these independant groups should adminster one percent of the national research budgets. He criticizes the fact that most invested money doesn‘t serve the the public interest, that half of all research papers are never read, that the medical profession only promotes conventional methods although millions of people have benefited from acupuncture and herbal treatments which in fact are less expensive than standard treatments.
The spirit of the Galileo Model generated the concept of the consensus conference. This useful event originated in Denmark, a country with a very active civic culture, in 1989. A consensus conference is a dialogue between citizens and experts on selected issues about technology politics. 14 citizens, people who normally never get a chance to speak up in public, are chosen at random. They form a jury which questions a panel of experts on an issue. After conferring among themselves this jury presents its conclusions and recommendations to the press and to members of Parliament. 20 consensus conferences have already taken place in Denmark, one on genetically modified food, one on electronic surveillance. At a hearing about the future of the automotive society, the jury voted quite surprisingly to double fuel prices. Germany‘s first consensus conference a year ago dealt with genetic diagnosis. The conclusion of the jury: a clear affirmation of genetic research if it serves preventative medicine, a resounding no if its purpose is to study stem cells. A federal law will comply with this judgement.
With all this grassroots scientific communication under way, no wonder the scientific establishment has been perking its ears. Berlin‘s universities and laboratories opened their doors on a Saturday last June until 1 a.m. in order to make science transparent and „to get people on our side“, as the rector explained. 80 000 participants indulged in the capital city’s scientific „Saturday night fever“. They got to experience a laser impulse of one billionth of a millionth second, they were able to extract genes from fruit salads and went on a virtual journey as willing „terranauts“ to the center of our earth. The University of Tuebingen has taken another course in getting its message out. Representatives invite kindergardens and elementary schools and lecture children on a weekly basis about economics.
This new knowledge culture has reached museums as well and given rise to science centers. The latest and most modern one in Germany is the „Universum“ in the city of Bremen. It resembles a cross between a whale and space ship and takes you on a discovery tour around the earth, the cosmos and your own body. Did you know that your brain has as many neurons as Brazil‘s rainforest has trees? That‘s a lot, but only a trifling part of your brain’s entire power: The total number of connections to these neurons is equivilant to the number of leaves in Brazil‘s rainforest!
You learn this and many other amazing things through hands-on experiments. They alert all your senses. What you learn becomes unforgettable. „Say it and I‘ll forget it; demonstrate it and I‘ll remember it; let me participate and I‘ll understand it“, observed the Chinese philosopher Confucius. The „Godfather“ of Bremen’s „Universum“ is Alexander von Humboldt, one of the first major disseminators of the science and beauties of your continent for us in the Old World. Humbold firmly believed that all citizens must have free access to knowledge. It was this philosophy which paved the way to the construction of Berlin‘s Urania Center in 1888, the first science center ever. Today there are worldwide around 1200.
We science journalists must be more than just scientifically literate. We are scouts who bring readers, listeners and watchers in contact with the wonders of life. I myself am science news editor at Germany‘s leading popular science magazine P.M., founded almost 25 years ago, and still an important source in the revelation of science as an adventure. We make an especial effort to shed light on the human and emotional aspects of science and explain complicated issues in understandable terms. This concept has also been a success story in the Latin American world. P.M. has served as the prototype for the Spanish „Muy Interesante“ which, in turn, is now published by Latin American publishers from Mexico to Chile. Here in Brazil it‘s called „Super Interessante“.
Traditional science magazines continue of course to make their own tremendous contributions. The online publication SciDev selects articles from „Science“ and „Nature“ which deal with development themes and offers them without cost to the countries of the developing world. Last September the first regional edition could be downloaded. SciDev.Net/Africa will be devoted specifically to science and technology in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. „Only science and technology communication and informed public debate will put our planet on the path to a sustainable future“, wrote SciDev.Net-Director David Dickson about the World Summit in Johannesburg.
Last but not least our colleagues in television have opened new innovative paths in the electronic media. In the British series „Rough Science“, also called „Professor Robinson“, scientists are left on an island and have to apply science under the most primitive conditions in order to survive, for example transforming bottles into electric lamps.
Unconventional thinking is our greatest asset in launching bigger and better science products and, of course, convincing management that money can be made from them. The challenges ahead of us are plenty. Francis Fukuyama, author of the bestselling book „The End of History“ has revised his prophecy. „We‘re at the beginning of a revolution,“ he says and points to designer babies. Biotechnology might cause us to lose our humanity, fears Fukuyama in his new book „The End of Mankind“. Sergio Prenafeta Jenkin, professor of scientific communication at the University of Santiago in Chile, is a well known disseminator of scientific communication in the Western hemisphere. In his latest work „Theory and Practise of Scientific Journalism“ he detects an explosive mixture created by the accumulating power of science on one side, and a proportionately increasing scientific illiteracy on the other side, particularly in Latin America. In order to bridge this gulf we must take science out to the streets and democratize knowledge, he suggests.
Based on these deficits the newly founded World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) will work on making “major scientific questions and technical issues transparent and addressing the scientific illiteracy of much of the world‘s citizenry”, as the preamble of the constitution states (http://internationalsciencewriters.org/wfsj/adoptedwfsjcons.htm). This means that science journalists must link “the world of science and technology to the daily life of ordinary persons, clarifying the processes of research and discovery, and making the public aware of the social, economic, and political context of science and technology, and its impact on society”. Thus the WFSJ will promote a new culture of science journalism which can “live up to the principles of civil society and democracy. Only well-informed and educated people can understand the consequences of scientific issues, or the applications of research, and ultimately support or reject them”.
The author is a communication’s scientist and political scientist as well as science news editor for Germany’s leading popular science magazine P.M. – Knowledge matters.
I would like to thank my colleague and P.M. author P.J. Blumenthal for his help in reviewing this manuscript.
Sources & References
Michael Edwards / John Gaventa (ed.)
Global Citizen Action
Lynne Rienner Publishers
Sergio Prenafeta Jenkin
Teoria y Practica del Periodismo Cientifico
Para desacralizar y democratizar el conocimiento acumulado
Editorial Andres Bello
Sheldon Rampton / John Stauber
Trust us, we‘re experts!
How Industry Manipulates Science And Gambles With Your Future
Penguin Putnam Inc.
Richard E. Sclove
Democracy and Technology
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Hingehen Staunen Entdecken
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A practical application of scientists and interest groups working together in a positive way is promoted by Ida-Elisabeth Andersen and Birgit Jaeger. In Danish Participatory Models they describe a method of opening lines of communication between policy-makers, experts and ordinary citizens, which has been successfully applied in many countries around the world.
Sub-Saharan African Regional Network
Democracy & civil society
c/o Franco Zotta
Project leader „Scientific Journalism“
Tel. 05241/81 81 285
Fax 05241/81 81 981
Budapest Declaration: Declaration of the Second World Conference of Science Journalists, Budapest 1999
World Alliance for Citizen Participation and Citizen Action
International Science Writers Association
Adopted constitution & rationale for the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ)
Loka Alert Newsletter on the democratic politics of research, science and technology
Public Understanding of Science and Humanities in Germany