Educate or communicate?
It is a frequent experience. Once you make contact with the public to try and explain what you are doing in your laboratory or to discuss the interactions between scientists and non‐scientists, someone inevitably wags a verbal finger at you saying that “communication is needed, not education”. This assertion has turned into a truism over the years. I do not accept it. What are needed are both: education and communication.
Behind the statement that it is inappropriate for scientists to behave as if they are educating the public lie many assumptions and an implicit control of information. It is true that any layperson can become completely conversant in a medical problem that affects his or her life. In this sense, the internet has democratized knowledge to the extent that today it is indeed inappropriate for scientists or physicians to regard themselves as the only custodians and sources of information. But the motivation to unearth this knowledge must be there in the first place—if you do not approach the oracle of Google then you will remain uninformed.
Prior to the Internet and the mass media, it was clearly not an issue that only a few people had a grasp of science and how it affects our everyday life. Today, however, the citizens in our modern societies are increasingly proximal to science and technology, which gives rise to dependence as well as fear. But these technologies present us with new challenges. The debates about genetically modified organisms, human cloning or stem cell research in part result from the public's wanting to have a say about how to use these technologies that may very well affect their lives and those of their children.
In an abstract world, the opinion of the expert should carry a lot of weight in such debates. If the vast majority of experts quantify the risks from genetically modified crops as being infinitesimally small, this should be a good guide to legislators. But if one accepts that point, the importance of emotional arguments as opposed to factual ones is decreased—hence the admonition to scientists to communicate, that is, treat the other as equal, rather than educate where there is a presumed gradient of knowledge. And there are topics, such as the use of stem cells, where science plays only a small part in the debate, whereas moral values and ethical standards take prominence. Clearly, the decision‐making process is different here, but even in this case the public should know what are the potential benefits, best defined by scientists, before it makes a choice. Again, communication is very important, but is not sufficient, and transfer of knowledge is also needed.
There is every reason to warn scientists that they should not ‘talk down’ to the public (as if scientists were not also part of that group). There is nothing worse than a pompous expert who feels that he is above questioning or the need to be simple and clear in his presentation. All of us scientists need to do better on that score. But equally, there is nothing more frustrating than trying to communicate with somebody who does not know the basis of what you are discussing. It is like trying to get somebody who has no idea about cricket or American football excited about a match. The public must have information about the decisions that they wish their politicians to make, and having transferred this information, the debate between expert and non‐expert can be fruitfully engaged. Obviously the best way to achieve this is to ensure that everybody gets a good scientific education from the first day in school, and that the educator is viewed as a neutral source of knowledge. But this depends on curricula choices and the availability of trained teachers, and neither of these can be taken for granted. And so we approach a circular argument where education is needed to ensure that education will be delivered. One way or the other, in my opinion, we cannot escape from the need for education and from our responsibility as scientists to engage in such outreach, even if some find it politically incorrect to accept that not all are equally well informed.
Ring out the old, ring in the new
As a new year and a new issue of EMBO reports arrives, we would like to thank all of you who have ensured that the reputation of this journal is growing. In addition to the visible contributors, a wide community is engaged in delivering the best material and articles to you. In particular, we are grateful to the approximately 1,000 referees from all over the world—30% of them, for instance, come from the USA—who have helped EMBO reports establish its high standards since it was launched 30 months ago. Our advisory scientific board—you can see them listed on the masthead—also plays a major role in maintaining these scientific standards.
You might also notice that the appearance of this issue is slightly different. This is due to our change of publisher to Nature Publishing Group. They bring to us a professionalism of delivery, both in print and electronic form, that we are sure you will appreciate. The way in which we at EMBO select the material is unchanged, as is our non‐profit ethos; the benefits generated through the success of our publications are immediately reinvested in the source of that income, the scientific community. We wish that you all have a great and successful 2003 and that all your experiments work!
- Copyright © 2003 European Molecular Biology Organization