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Why do many scientists always sound so definite?

Why do many scientists always sound so definite and not explain the uncertainties and sensitivities of the ‘facts’ or data?
Mike Etkind from Buckinghamshire (Age 45-54)

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3 Responses

  1. Yes you are correct. Scientists who work for and with the media are very confident people. Actually they are specially selected for their communication skills, in just the same way that actors and TV presenters are selected for the very same skills. When you are presenting science to people it is best to present a very positive attitude – this applies in all areas of life. A person who presented all the side effects, uncertainties and limitations would be very negative and not inspire confidence in others. The scientists who succeed in life are confident, carry out tasks with charismatic optimism and are very enthusiastic about their science projects.

  2. Hi Mike,

    The media picture of science and technology as presented is indeed distorted by an apparent confidence. I believe this occurs because the media has not developed the skill of educating the public on risk and risk interpretation. A significant part of scientists and technologists role has risk assessment and communcation as a core part of their education and training. One group who does very well at this are biologists and bioscientists. They frequently have to present outcomes as percentage certainties or percentage uncertainties. This doesn’t make for a good “news story” so it is usually discouraged within the media and they frequently turn to a more upbeat communicator.

    A lot of technologists working in business frequently have to describe this risk in real terms for business investors. Also, their predictions are frequently tested by real markets and their career can suffer or rise by the accuracy of their predictions.

    Working with uncertainties successfully is very important. An obvious area is “safety” predictions. While the media is part of communication we scientists and technologists shouldn’t be allowed to not to own the education process for the public.

    A good example of communication is the BBC website “more or less” where risk and number interpretation is discussed and reviewed. But there are many examples where the media, companies and governements will avoid the process of dealing with unknowns and uncertainties.

  3. So what you are in fact saying is that some scientists, for so-called clear communication, intentionally avoid communicating the actual realities, and thereby both mislead the public and fail to begin the uphill task of getting the public used to the idea of risk and uncertainty. Perhaps understandable, but also dangerous?

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