How Do We Change the Public’s View of Science?

“Can you explain DNA to me?” my aunt asked the other day. “I always hear things like DNA, gene, and sequence being thrown around in the news but I don’t really know what they mean by it. Like how do you look at DNA and see the sequence? With a microscope?”

Source: Nathan Nelson | Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Source: Nathan Nelson | Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

My reaction was twofold.

First, I was glad that she reached out to ask rather than just disregard what she didn’t know. By studying science, terms like these have been integrated into my vocabulary and I’ve found it easy to forget that to many they are still jargon. Unfortunately, my aunt is by no means alone in this sentiment. The number of adults who are science literate – defined as having “knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making” – is a mere 28 percent. This number has nearly tripled over the past 20 years, which is great, but it nonetheless highlights how far we need to go.

Why does this matter? No, it’s not just because I live and breathe science and want others to love it too (which I do). Rather, while many think the answer to the classic high school question, “When will I need to know this?” is never, that is not the case with science. An understanding of science is necessary to take care of your own health (and here’s examples of how things can go wrong.) It can also shape policy decisions. As normal citizens elect these politicians, we are all in a way are responsible for these decisions that can affect all of our lives.

The importance of these decisions is one reason why Neil deGrasse Tyson, the famous astrophysicist, claims we need to change our culture so that innovators such as researchers and clinicians are celebrated and there is an appreciation of “scientific creativity.”

“I’m an acute observer of trends in cultures, because some trends are away from innovation. And if it’s away from innovation and creativity, then problems you already know exist, and especially problems that you don’t know will yet arise, can be the unweaving of your civilization, and I don’t want that world,” he said.

At a time, someone cared enough about science that they put scientists on currency. He hopes to see a time like that again.

Source: Alan | Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Source: Alan | Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

My second reaction to my aunt’s question was having no clue where to begin. How do I explain things like the genetic code, nucleotides, and gel electrophoresis to someone who graduated from high school before the first method of DNA sequencing was even published and hasn’t studied biology since? Or anyone who doesn’t study biology for that matter? How do I help her understand the abstract thought that goes along with studying something we cannot directly observe? How do I tell her enough that she gets the concepts but not too many specifics that she gets confused?

This is a challenge in overcoming the scientific gap to improve science literacy and make scientists the heroes our country needs. Science can seem like a mess of small steps forward in knowledge based on the evidence we have available, which is not necessarily what people want. They want answers that they can understand. For example, they’re not going to wait for scientists to determine what causes autism, they’re going to blame vaccines; they’re going to deny climate change; and they’re going to hold fast in their faith rather than accept the theory of evolution.

Because of this, it can be much easier to gain popularity by avoiding the messy stuff and going straight into conclusions – even if these conclusions are unfounded. Take Dr. Mehmet Oz, for example, whose TV show is so popular that there is what is known as the “Dr. Oz Effect” in which products featured on his show have a dramatic boost in sales afterwards. Yet the products he promotes are not necessarily scientifically proven though he calls them ‘miracles’ and uses other flowery language that can deceive viewers. “A lot of it has to do with his gushing over a product. People seem to believe Dr. Oz. I don’t know why, but they do,” said Dr. David Gorksi, assistant professor of surgery at Wayne State University, in a CNBC article.

The scientific community has long disapproved of his promotions. Now, Congress as well is making a stand. Dr. Oz was recently criticized by a panel led by Senator Claire McCaskill, the chair for the Senate’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance, who was cited in a CNN article as saying to him, “I don’t get why you need to say this stuff when you know it’s not true. When you have this amazing megaphone, why would you cheapen your show? …With power comes a great deal of responsibility.”

Source: Alan | Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Source: Alan | Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

But would he have this power if he had stuck to the scientific evidence? And how can others achieve this power while holding true to our scientific training? According to Tyson, some of the responsibility for reversing the trend away from science is placed on marketers and media influencers that can reach a large audience. It is also on us – scientists, physicians, almost docs, etc. – as I have written about before.

As I contemplated how to answer my aunt’s question with these issues in mind, I quickly thought of real world applications of DNA techniques to use as a context to frame my explanation and metaphors to convey some ideas in a way she could better understand. I then grabbed a pen and paper to begin my explanation knowing any little bit would make a difference.

 

Flickr | NASA HQ PHOTO

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hanna-erickson

Hanna Erickson, "Almost" MD/PhD

Hanna is a MD/PhD student at the University of Illinois and an aspiring physician scientist who aims to specialize in hepatobiliary cancers. She is also passionate about teaching, leadership, and advocacy. The energy she once used to pep up crowds as a college marching band member is now directed toward exciting and educating others about science and medicine, especially through her tweets at @MDPhDToBe and her blog at www.mdphdtobe.com.