Most scientists are not taught how best to communicate about science with non-scientists. This is a critical problem for our country, indeed our species, because we need to work together to solve serious problems that can and are doing real damage to us. It is important to learn about where scientific knowledge comes from and how people respond to it, and what can be done to involve most people in the use of science for our benefit.
The amount of knowledge that humans have discovered is huge and often overwhelming. Science today uses a method of experimenting and explaining our world in published articles. But other cultures have historically used storytelling and behavioral observations to pass on the results of their experiments. For example, the indigenous people of northern Canada knew for centuries that the leaders of caribou herds were critical for the rest of the herd to know where to go when they are migrating. Science magazine recently published an article called “Two-eyed seeing” that supports wildlife health. This article draws attention to the information that the rule of the indigenous people was “Don’t shoot the leaders” of caribou herds. A much more recent (2018) paper in Science found that hoofed animals learn from members of their species when and where to migrate. These scientists argue that combining indigenous people’s knowledge of natural species with our scientifically published data will help us to make more timely and effective decisions about natural wildlife populations. It is encouraging to note that the Wildlife Department at Humboldt State University has a Native American Research Associate and National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow in Biology, Dr. Seafha Ramos, who uses traditional ecological knowledge in her research on elk on Yurok tribal lands. This may also be a way to help non-scientists to understand how science works and how to use it to our advantage.
We are not using a lot of science to our advantage in part because we scientists have not learned the best way to communicate important scientific knowledge to non-scientists. One of the issues in our community is the strong opposition to the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). These foods can be and are beneficial to our species. Indeed, all of the food we eat has been genetically modified through time by natural evolutionary processes, and breeding patterns used by farmers and others. Genetically modified food can be designed to have more nutritional content, produce more food per acre of farm land, be more resistant to diseases and have longer shelf lives. The people of Humboldt are not unusual in their opposition to GMOs. Other people around the world are opposed as well.
A recent study published in the journal, Nature Human Behavior, examined the perspectives of 500 Americans about GMOs and also determined what they understood about the science in general and about GMOs. A poll by the Pew Research Center found that almost 90% of scientists believed that GM foods were safe and have few unjustifiable impacts on the ecosystem. However, only 37% of laypeople agreed. These people were asked what their political preferences were, and some of us would expect that the more liberal folks would be more supportive of GMO technology. However, there were no significant differences among liberals, moderates and conservatives in their opposition to GMOs. Similar studies of people in France and Germany found similar results.
What is most interesting about the laypeople investigated is a measure of what they know about GMOs and the relationship between their knowledge of GMOs and their opposition to GM food. The people studied were asked to answer true or false questions about basic science knowledge. For people studied in the three countries (France, Germany and the U.S.), there is a clear inverse relationship between how strongly people feel about GM food and their basic knowledge of science. People who got fewer questions right on the true-false test about basic science were those most strongly opposed to GM food. People were also asked how strong their own understanding of basic science and GMO technology was, and this was compared to their level of objection to GM food. People who were most opposed to the use of GMOs were the same folks who knew less about science, but were certain that they knew more.
Scientists need to realize that just telling non-scientists that they don’t understand the science that is critical for their lives is not a good way to influence the decisions of non-scientists about choices they make. What do you think we should do in our community to help laypeople to believe in and incorporate scientific results to benefit them and their families?
Rollin Richmond is an emeritus professor of biology and emeritus president at Humboldt State University. He has worked as an evolutionary geneticist at several universities during his career. Questions or comments about this column can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.