What is a science topic and what it not?

I have been learning about Science and the Media in my science communication units.

I have learnt about blogging, scripting, podcasting, filming, interviewing, making documentaries and media releases.

From the lectures, I can see how important it is for science communicators to know how to use media for science.

In general, you really have to know about the topic before you can tell the stories to someone in an understandable way,

So, to tell the science in an understandable way, I have to know about science before I talk.

However, the question came to my mind:

What is Science?

According to the Oxford dictionary, “science is knowledge about the structure and behavior of the natural and physical world, based on facts that you can prove, for example by experiments.”

In this case, if you cannot prove it by experiments, it is NOT science.

So, even though people believe in something if it cannot be proven by experiments, it is not science. Therefore, God is not science (I am not saying that God does not exist.  Many of my great friends believe in God and people actually say “Oh my god” even though they do not believe God.)

However, is this why I do not see many science magazines which talk about God?

There are varieties of subjects related to science, and whatpeople are interested in is different depending in the individual.  For example, I am more interested in biology, while my sister is more interested in the stars.  I think this is why there are so many types of magazines.  Although, are they really talking about science?  Isn’t it they just what they claim it to be science so that people pay attention?

Knowing about the audience is also important before you talk about the topic so that you can explain it to them without any jargon, but do I have to tell the audience about topics which grab attention even though I
don’t think they are scientific?

How can I pick the right science topic without worrying too much about my audiences?

Please give me any ideas about what topic count as science and what don’t. 

Acknowledge: great thanks to Nancy LongneckerMiriam Sullivan , Jean, and everyone involved in science communication at UWA.

Image: God vs science. The situationist (2008) http://thesituationist.wordpress.com/2008/12/17/the-situation-of-faith-in-god-or-science/god-versus-science-time-magazine-cover/


16 comments on “What is a science topic and what it not?

  1. What an important topic to bring up Keiko. Myself being an anthropologist major find I am always having to justify that it is in fact a science. I’d like to think Science is anything that contributes to society in a tangible way, but I agree it does need to be testable. I like what this website http://www.aps.org/policy/statements/99_6.cfm has to say about the definition of science too.

    • I like the way of your thinking too. We are living in science but this means that science could be anything.
      Good website you found. As the website says; “science requires the open exchange of data, procedures and materials”, do you think science always have to be opened to evryone?

  2. I agree with Rosanna that you have brought up an interesting topic as well as a significant issue which science communicators face, when bringing theory into practice.

    You are right, I believe, that as a science communicator you should be familiar with the science that you try to communicate to others. This requirement will almost automatically distinguish science communicators with differences in expertise and background from each other. Most likely, these different science communicators all have different interests and urges to address specific issues in society that the wider public would/could be interested in. And with their expertise and background they are justified to communicate these issues.

    But I would think that these issues may not always have to represent core science topic, they may be issues that can be looked at from a different perspective if science is brought into the communication of the topic. We, as science communicators, could contribute significantly to a better overall understanding of issues in society by emphasising the underlying science or its implications. This angle will avoid the dilemma of deciding whether a topic is science or not, it will brings science into many contemporary issues to enhance their broader significance.

  3. Hi Keiko,
    What an interesting topic. I also find it hard to communicate science, I feel like I have to ‘know’ everything about the topic to even have a right to bring it up. That’s why I don’t like to express my opinion very often, or I simply don’t make an opinion very easily on science matters. It is impossible to know everything, before communicating, but I guess we just have to give fair merit to the science / scientist, and explain it in a logical way.

    • I agree wiht you polc01. It can be said to any topic. When I have make presentaion, I feel like I have to know everything about ithe topic other wise I wouldn’t be able to answere the questions.
      Well, as you say we still need to research on the topic before we talk so that we can talk with confident. However, since there are so much information these days, research goes forever.
      This is why I think we need science communicators. I want scientists to research about their topic deeply while we can research about how to make it understandable.

  4. Keiko, good on you for bringing up an important but potentially contentious topic of science and god/religion.

    If you’re interested, there are plenty of websites on the relationship between religion and science (for both sides of the argument), and some scientists like Richard Dawkins are famous for emphatically expressing their views: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Dawkins#Criticism_of_creationism

    I think that you should never “dumb down” your science just to grab audience attention –but that you DO need to make sure the science is at an understandable level for the audience you’ll reach. You can discuss the same science in a prime time television segment and in a rigorous journal article, but you’d write to a different level of background knowledge.

    I also think that while it’s important to consider audience if you have a specific message you want to get across, the internet allows the right audience to find us a lot of the time. With narrowcasting, you can talk about any science that inspires YOU and let google bring you the audience. 🙂 Especially since enthusiasm and expertise are important marks of good science communication, chose whatever topics interest you the most!

    • Thanks for your good comment.
      Richard Dawkins is famous as god critic as well as the genetic scientist. Since my major was animal development, I learned him in the textbook! His book “The God Delusion” is recomended book by my teacher…

      I agree that the best way to choose the topic is to pick whatever interest myself the firest because I am the comunicator as well as the audience. Even talking about the same topic, if the audience is different, we have to use different expressions to get attention.
      However, when you are hired by company, it is hard to chose the topic by yourself. You sometimes have to write about the topic chosen by your boss or someone else. In this case, you still have to write even though you are not interested in. This should be really hard…

  5. Keiko, I really like this post. Knowing what counts as science is a fundamental part of being a science communicator but it’s not as simple as it sounds. Does science have to be testable or can it just be logical? Does everyone have to be able to follow the logic or only an elite or selected few? If it does have to be testable does that mean that String Theory isn’t science but just superstition?

    What I find especially interesting about this post is the comments in the discussion and how everyone has a different idea about what counts as science. I realize that this might freak out some scientists because science is all about rigid definitions, facts and irrespirable evidence so everyone should be able to agree on what science is. Except science is really all about pushing boundaries, challenging dogmas and trying to determine something no one else knows using evidence. Evidence is always being challenged,and science is always challenging itself. As science communicators it is our job to apply and spread this knowledge to to others and I think you would be surprised how easily science sneaks into other fields.

    I agree with Anke that science isn’t as isolated a discipline as some people think. A lot of times it can be used in conjunction with arts or humanities to give context to what is occurring. For example while an artist explains the emotional connections you feel when looking at a painting, a science communicator could explain the neurochemistry behind why certain colours attract attention more than others.

    This being said, I don’t count everything as science so there must be specific characteristics I require when determining what is and is not science. To me evidence is important (be it physical or mathematical) as well as acceptance by others. But marketers run experiments and collect evidence, does this mean they’re scientists? If not, why not? Because they work with numbers? But so do physicists. So how effective a communicator can I be if I cannot even articulate who is a scientist and what is science?

    • Thanks Jean, you made really good point.
      First, I also enjoy the variety of comments posted by my friends. I agree most of them and this is why it is hard to determind the definition of “Scince”. What we want to believe is not always same as what is proved. Science could be anything in our life as you say it could be in other fields easily. Good example is from our friends’ post about science and art http://exhibitsdisplays.wordpress.com/.

      Second, as you say, it is so hard to distinguish between scientist and “fake scientist”. For instance, marketers in consumer behaviour area do lots of research and require mathematics to create the evidence to sell more products.
      As you say, they are not called as a scientist but a marketer. However, I think “Marketer” and “Scientist” are just the name with the image that people want to be.
      As there are so many ideas about what science is, there are so many ideas about what marketer is. People always think what they want to be in the future. When they think about this topic, there are the name such as: scientist, marketer, teacher…which they think what they are. From their own idea, they chose what they want to be and introduce themselves as what they are.
      In this case, it might be our own choice to define what a effective science communicator is…

  6. While I agree with most of your post Keiko, I have to say that I remember being told over the course of my education that science can never ‘prove’ facts it can only disprove them. This is why we have theories of evolution and laws of thermodynamics etc. While lots and lots of experiments may add to the mountainous evidence for a theory, it can never actually prove it. While I find it a hard concept to swallow myself I do see some merit in the idea of it!
    In regards to picking topics without worrying about your audience – I don’t think you can ever do that! As science communicators we have be drilled about the importance of understanding our audience so that we can deliver our message effectively. I like to think that I would have a topic that I wanted to share and I would think about my audience and how best to share it with them!

    • Ashfonty I completely agree. Science can’t be proven, we are only ever reinforcing what we think we know or disproving theories. Seeing as God (or a ‘creator’ so as to not ostracise any religions) hasn’t been proven or disproven does this mean science and religion aren’t actually that different?

  7. Good post, Keiko! I think you brought up a very fundamental question that we should address.

    As “scientists” who study the more traditional sciences, sometimes I think we are a little arrogant in believing that we are studying REAL science – and things like social sciences, humanities, and arts fall into the same category as “not science”. Even I have caught myself feeling this way when searching for scholarly literature for science communication studies and being frustrated over how most things were published in arts, communications, social science, and even marketing type journals and books. My hard-core science self has been asking, “Where is the real SCIENCE behind all this science communication stuff? Why are there no experiments?”

    Slowly, however, I am beginning to open up to the idea that subject areas are actually more interconnected than we’d sometimes like to believe. I think now that anything that requires investigation, trying things out to see what happens, and then finding out whether an hypothesis (explicitly stated or not) is supported or rejected, is science. I’m not saying all of it is good science. But as long as you are asking questions and doing something to find out about it – it is a scientific thought process. I think this is important to understand if we are to encourage people to see the relevance of science in their own lives. Ashfonty – I agree with you that the audience plays a huge role in determining what science we communicate, and how we do it.

  8. Thank you Keiko for challenging us on what we perceive as science. I am in agreement with Yvette and tend to relate the relevance of science as being interconnected. I had the idea science communication was to spread the science amongst a general audience. In which case, it should be put into a context which the public can relate to.

    God has a place in our society, most of us believe in something even if it is the will to live. I remember reading science papers about how people survived through difficult times, and the conclusion was that they had a hope or a belief. How do you measure it or test no one can really say, but it was important to them.

    Science is not always black or white which makes it interesting and open to discussion. Putting the facts into a context which the general public can understand and contribute to their own understanding and discussion, must be a great achievement for all science communicators.

  9. Hi Keiko,
    I think you have brought to the table a very important and interesting issue. It is no doubt that there are different aspects in science that different people might have different interests in. So I think when you raise a science question/topic, you don’t expect everyone to understand or pay attention at first. However, it’s the skill of the person delivering that science story to grab people’s attention and make them paying interest in that particular topic. Additionally, it is worth to notice that, when we present a science topic to a general public, we should try to limit the use of jargon, and maximize the use of lay language. The point is that we don’t have to show how smart we are with all the terminology, but what important is how we successfully deliver the key message and how people can easily learn from your science topic.

    • I think that this subject is definitely an interesting and important one – and I think that the question that you raise at the end is a very valid one. In truth, I don’t think it’s possible to pick a science subject and not worry about the audience. Looking around the COMM3321 classroom, you already get a sense of the different interests people have and also the different understanding levels. I’m a massive Chemistry person, where others love Agricultural Science and Biology, or Physics.

      Presenting a science topic to the general public requires a sense of sensitivity to the understanding that other people will have. Ladening our presentations (for want of a better word) with jargon or even with too simplistic language will cause the audience to not care. We don’t need to show how smart we are – merely how well we understand a topic.

      All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them. – Galileo Galilei

  10. The boundaries of what is and isn’t science have a fairly sizable grey area which has long ago been settled by a number of disreputable and arguably reputable areas of study, and I guess you need to consider the two conflicting factors in whether or not to include that area:

    a) Reaching a wider audience through inclusion.

    b) Losing credibility with the existing audience through a lack of exclusion.

    Now of course, what most publications arrive at, as you have said, is that it’s far easier to simply avoid dealing with this issue entirely, making no judgement upon it either way.

    And I think that unless there is some specific need to address one of these topics that lies on the borderline, that is a fairly decent guideline to stick to as a science communicator. Certainly, its arguably an unsustainable practice in that it allows terrible ideas to propagate unharried, but as an individual, if you don’t want to endanger your ability to communicate your other ideas successfully, its far safer to stick to the status quo on this.

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