Scott L. Montgomery on the Importance of Communicating Science Today
Scott L. Montgomery, author of The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science, is widely known for his writings on energy matters, intellectual history, language and translation, and history of science. In light of the disparate messaging surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, we invited him to share his thoughts with us.
Communicating science is more essential today than it has ever been. This means not only among scientists themselves but a range of non-scientific audiences. Such may sound like an opinion donning the mask of fact (forgive the simile). But I wager almost every scientist and a great many others agree with it.
There are several reasons for me to say this. One, of course, is the Covid-19 pandemic. In this case, communicating the science and doing so accurately counts as both an ethical and moral act, as well as a political necessity, due to the near-bacterial spread of misinformation, conspiracy ideas, and outright denials of the disease. Internet technology provides pathways for anti-science to mobilize and proliferate, and it is this same technology (social media) that needs to be employed as a counter such intellectual toxins. Thankfully, a good bit of this is happening. It needs to continue and expand in both relentless and eloquent fashion to counter and contain the appeals it opposes. Honestly said, America has never been fully comfortable and accepting of modern science at the local level. Today, however, the rejection is especially multifaceted, confident, and active at the highest levels of government itself. The communicating of science, done well, therefore counts as a deed done for the public, the country, and, in a certain respect, the world.
I also recognize there are ambiguities. Biomedical understanding has had to evolve on stage and under a spotlight during the pandemic. Media exposure of competing claims and debate among different sources has helped create confusion for the public about what exact measures to take, what to expect in the coming weeks, or later in the year or in 2021 and beyond. To some degree, this represents public exposure of normal scientific debate and competition during the early stages of research on a new phenomenon. But by itself, that is only part of the story. The stakes here are enormous, the motives of researchers are a mix of personal, institutional, political, economic, and more. There are also the competing pressures to be accurate, which means admitting uncertainty, and to be right, which in this highly charged case means standing for the credibility of science.
On top of all this has been the chaos and incompetence of political leaders in the U.S. Some of these people, including President Trump, have used their communicational status and authority to contradict and derail information from their own medical spokespeople, therefore to cast serious and ugly doubt on medical professionals in general. Mr. Trump’s communicational pattern has been to deny or downplay aspects of the pandemic, then to momentarily reverse course, seeming to embrace the advice of professionals, only to revert back to denial. To the millions who remain loyal to Mr. Trump, this pattern suggests he is playing a game, agreeing with his medical advisors when necessary to get them off his back, but actually saying the pandemic isn’t so serious and the country needs to open up.
Is this, too, an element in the science communication surrounding Covid-19? If only I could say no. But I can’t, because it is. Anti-science or fake science is linked to real science in the same basic way that disease is related to health. Even before it began, the pandemic was destined to be a political, cultural, and communicational reality as much as a medical one, due to the broken and rifted nature of U.S. society and routine denial of scientific understanding by one political party and many millions of its followers. This represents, for a country which has been a key leader in the scientific enterprise since WWII, an extraordinary form of loss, as well as a major reason why America has been so unable to mount an effective response to Covid-19.
It is also why science communicators—scientists, science writers, film makers, and a great many others who read, watch, and share related material—are extremely valuable, indeed more valuable than often recognized. I began the first edition of Chicago Guide to Communicating Science two decades ago with the words “science exists because scientists are writers and speakers.” This is certainly true (not an opinion). But science also exists because non-scientists see its worth, are willing to support its advance, want to hear and learn about it, and, though they may be made uncomfortable by some of its findings and hope in private that these will be altered, do not turn away and fall prey to efforts that would censor, defund, ignore, or delegitimize the work and words of scientific labor.
This returns us to the opening of this brief essay. Because of such efforts to deny the value of scientific labor and knowledge today, communicators of science are engaged in what can be viewed as an ethical and even moral cause. For evidence of why society needs them, we need look no further than America’s widespread refusal, even at the highest levels of government, to understand what the word “pandemic” actually means.
Scott L. Montgomery is an author and affiliate faculty member in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. A consulting geologist for more than 25 years, he has written many technical papers and monographs on energy-related subjects and is the author or coauthor of numerous books, most recently The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World and Does Science Need a Global Language? English and the Future of Research, the latter published by the University of Chicago Press. He lives in Seattle.