Communicating Science


Dos and don'ts
Communicating Science:

This is a rough translation of a paper in Dutch that I submitted to TORB after a panel session at the FWO's 80th anniversary celebrations on 2008-10-23.


The problems of communicating science stem from the non-human nature of scientific knowledge.  Scientists must take this special nature into account and adapt their explanations to the psychology of a human public.


The world becomes more complex, people have to engage in life-long learning and important decisions should rest on solid knowledge.  A familiarity with technology and the scientific nature of subtle interrelationships is essential.  Ideally the public should have a good grasp of basic science.

Communication of science is highly necessary and needs no defending.  After all, there is something called the "right to knowledge", about which John Adams already wrote in 1765.  It is mentioned as one of the cornerstones of the development of the European Union and the vision of the information society based on knowledge.

More than this:  the right to knowledge is fundamental and laid down in the Declaration of Human Rights:

Article 27.

(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

The general public should at least have the opportunity to learn about science, popularising science is the minimum minimorum to spread scientific knowledge.  There are however good and less good ways of achieving the dissemination of knowledge among the population.  Scientist themselves carry the primary responsibility of the successful transmission of basic knowledge.

The public though confuses the styles of expression as used by the scientist with those used by others in the media.  That applies equally to language and all other communication methods:  explanations of scientists appear on TV alongside political debates and interviews with stars from entertainment.  Which recommendations should be followed by the scientist involved in popularisation?

The un-human nature of scientific knowledge

Scientists use observations, facts and other data.  Those are then collected and classified into structured information.  From this information we then distill constructs of abstract relations that are expressed in formulae, which in turn allow us to make predictions and calculations about what would happen in circumstances that have not yet been observed.

The theories that emerge from this work and can be tested against reality form the scientific knowledge.  The scientists themselves are only instruments in the construction of this knowledge, not creators and certainly not decision makers about the outcome.

The knowledge keeps growing and getting closer to reality so that it describes ever more of the world around us in an ever more precise way.

Science uses measuring apparatus.  A piece of equipment may be extremely simple, such as a piec of paper on which we make marks in order to count something, or a meter to measure a length.  It can also be extremely complex like the particle detectors of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiments at CERN.  The only time a human being intervenes is when the scientist records (in the largest sense of the word) the readings of the instruments.

Observation itself therefore always happens with un-human instruments and even the development of theories uses formal notation, like mathematics, that is not based on human language.

An alien civilisation in a far away galaxy will by necessity arrive at the same scientific theories:  its scientists will find the same interactions and effects between the same particles and use the same mathematics, though undoubtedly they will use a different type of notation.  That notation could very well be unintelligible to us (we may even be unable to observe it!), but it will describe a universe in which there are hydrogen atoms, stars that work on nuclear fusion and in which gravity reigns.

In this sense then the results of scientific research are un-human:  they are the same everywhere and do not depend on the nature of our biological body, which is the result of a long and historically developed evolution on planet Earth.  I know that I exclude here a number of areas of science:  large chunks of medecine, psychology and all branches that have the human being itself as object of study. But that does not diminish the argument.

Differentiation of Science and Technology

The humans that we are will use the results of science.  We make tools to satisfy the needs of our bodies:  homes, clothes, cars, telephones, and we will "improve" these as better knowledge becomes available.

The technologies that we humans use is very closely connected to the structures of our bodies:  we build vehicles with seats of a certain shape and windows that let a specific part of the electromagnetic spectrum pass through.  Those areas of scientific knowledge that we use for our technologies are defined by our human nature.  Some of the applications of knowledge are good for us, some are destructive and bad such as atom bombs.

The knowledge we gathered and organised into formal theories does not at all indicate what is good or bad for us:  there is no value-judgement at all to be found in quantum theory, which describes the transistor as well as the atom bomb.

Science therefore is un-human and without any inherent values; technology on the other hand is very human, political and full of consequences.

Basic Tenet

My basic tenet then is that in popularising science the scientist should make a very careful distiction between the pure knowledge and its applications in a human context.

Unfortunately, science and technology are often mentioned in one breath.  Many newspapers and magazines have a "Science & Technology" section.

The general public makes no clear distinction.  This leads often to wrongly attributing blame to scientists, or worse, science in general, for events that in fact follow from political or commercial decisions to use a certain technology.

This confusion at the source is then aggravated because the scientist sometimes behaves as researcher and sometimes as a human being with technological desires.  Scientists often also want to use effects they discovered.  The word "spin-off" is recent but the phenomenon is old.

Social usefulness of Science

The journalist who interviews a scientist will almost invariably ask for possible applications of a new discovery.  That is obviously the case for medical science, less when the subject is cosmology, but there is often a social pressure on the scientist to expound on technological consequences.

A scientist who is seduced by this demand and talks about applications will evidently be seen as an accomplice in any implementation with bad consequences.

I heard opinions of scientists and science administrators that science should occupy itself with research useful to humankind.  I would like to express this more subtly:

To me it is totally acceptable that we decide collectively to tackle the problems that humankind has today.  Those problems are such that we should indeed put our most intelligent people on the task of finding solutions, and we should especially fund those areas of science that have a high probability to deliver the knowledge and insights that can help.

But we should then be aware that we're not doing real scientific research since we are consciously thinking about applications, with all the consequences such an attitude has.  There will be political choices to finance one area and not another, which might possibly lead to the exclusion of some research that could have lead to a vital piece of knowledge.

In conclusion there is no intrinsic social use of science:  only the applications are useful or harmful.  This is another good reason to distinguish clearly between science and technology when communicating about science.

Communicating Science becomes more difficult

Scientific knowledge accumulates and becomes more detailed.  Communicating it in everyday language becomes ever more difficult and is accessible to a smaller percentage of the general public.  Subjects such as heat transfer or solar eclipses do not demand deep insights from the interested layperson:  they can make their own observations or follow a simple explanation.  But that is not the case for more recently discovered science such as the Zeeman effect or genetics.

We are surrounded by technologies that need a profound knowledge of science, not only to understand how they work, but more importantly to understand how they interact with us as individuals and influence society as a whole.  At the same time the general public does not have the necessary education to use even the units to measure these influences.  When in a restaurant I ask for an extra square meter of wine everyone looks at me in surprise or laughs, but when I talk about an electric current of 5000 volt there is almost no-one who notices.

Popularising science, precisely because of the accumulation and progress, has an ever growing task:  we must explain not only mechanics, which is relatively easy, and electricity, which is already a great challenge, but also quantum mechanics, relativity and genetics.

The difficulty of the task is very noticeable at so-called "Science Centres" such as the Technopolis in Mechelen (Belgium) or the Technorama in Winterthur (Switzerland).  Note that the names of both centres start out emphasising technology instead of science, but the visitor will soon be convinced that the main objective is to communicate science.  The big demos in these centres are about mechanics, there is some electricity and optics.  As soon as it goes beyond that the demo becomes an inexplicable show of magic, where only the effect can be experienced and the workings cannot be inspected, not because they are hidden on purpose, but because they cannot be made visible.  In the Deutsches Museum in München the lower floors house mechanical contraptions.  As one progresses upwards things become more complex and the top floor has a number of live demonstrations of quantum mechanical effects. On that floor there are almost no visitors, and for a good reason:  those experiments, beautiful as they may be, consist of sets of grey boxes enclosed in large showcases where hardly anything moving can be observed.


Human language is old and founded on emotions.  The concepts encoded in its words refer to phenomena that are directly observable by our senses and their relation to already experienced events.  Those concepts are also vague and badly defined like consciousness, mind, force, time, space, …

Scientists often fall into the trap of using everyday words to describe what they are doing in their experiments.  I hear physicists speak about "the new physics" they will "do" with the LHC.  That sounds as if the physicists themselves will generate a "new" physics and by using the LHC will change the laws of nature.  As if the results will be like the choosing of the fashion colours of this spring's new clothes.

I have a page specifically for bad use of language in science communication.

The word "theory" has a very specific meaning in science, but it is now time for scientists to come up with a different term when talking to the public.

The general public uses "theory" in the sense of "supposition" and therefore a priori "not true".  When a journalist writes "in theory" the intention is likely to convey "not corresponding to reality", and there is usually a "but in practice…" following.  Scientists should therefore avoid the use of the word "theory".

And let us not forget that in a heated political debate the word "academic" usually means "unimportant, besides the point, to be neglected." ("his arguments were of academic importance")


A common mistake is the linking of the names of scientists to theories.  I hear science communicators talk about "Einstein's relativity", as if there are several manufacturers and brand names of relativity.  Precisely this linking of names makes it possible for charlatans to sell to the public "alternative" theories and be taken seriously by the public.

It is worse still with "Darwinism" which sounds like "communism" and "capitalism".  The qualification "Darwinian" is exactly what gives creationists the lever to attack ad hominem, to point the finger to a person, rather than having to deny the facts.  The public loves a good fight and is much more interested in emotional effects between people.

By using Darwin's name the creationists present it as an opinion, one among many.  Scientists should therefore avoid the use of the names of the discoverers or protagonists when communicating science.  The use of the term alone, i.e. "evolution" should suffice.  This would remove all possible ad-hominem attacks and force the public (and the scientists) to concentrate on the facts.

Obviously, one can talk about the historic development of a scientific theory and the people involved in it, and the public loves those stories too.  But like clearly distinguishing technology from science, it pays to distinguish clearly the human story from the facts explained by a theory.

Making a distinction between what can be supported by facts and what still needs to be researched is also very important.  Here too the creationists are masters in generating confusion and division.  Evidently there are quite agitated debates about aspects of evolution or in fact any scientific theory.  But all biologists are convinced about the fundamentals of evolution that are supported by facts, just like no physicist doubts that there was a quite violent event about 15 billion years ago, though there is much discussion about what precisely happened or how the Big Bang came about.

If it is good to separate science from technology, it is also good to keep the human aspects of scientists separate from the knowledge they gather.  It is now a must to present the scientist as a normal human with very human sides.  This is not only allowed, I think it is very good.

The classic stereotype of the man (never a woman) with glasses in a white lab coat who stumbles about absent-mindedly in a laboratory gives the impression that we are looking at a rare animal in a zoo.

That caricature should disappear, but let us emphasise that the personality of the scientists, their outward appearance, their emotional states and family life have nothing whatever to do with the new knowledge they discover nor with the quality or truth of the theories connected to it.

The play "Copenhagen" of Michael Frayn is a good example of the problems of technological applications of science and the role that the scientists have as human beings in society.  The play clearly distinguishes the science from the human factors.

Distinctions that should not be made

The scientific method is not only important for the scientist.   Diana Issidorides is very clear about this.  When we need to make more or less important decisions most of us will make some hypotheses and test them against reality before acting.

This method of collecting knowledge can therefore be used in all subjects of the education curricula and should be taught as such.  It should not have the aura that it is restricted to the hard sciences.  The adjective "scientific" should be removed.

On the website of the Mechelen Technopolis one can read:  "…encounter all kinds of scientific phenomena."  Do they mean that these phenomena are super natural somehow?  Or that they are irrelevant to daily life?  Or that it is only entertainment?  Would it not be better to write "…encounter the amazing science that is involved in everyday phenomena."  I'm not criticising the Technopolis but making a general remark about how science popularisation is approached.

Thomas Huxley already pointed out:

Science is simply common sense at its best, that is, rigidly accurate in observation, and merciless to fallacy in logic.

Using Analogies

In a working group of visiting schoolteachers at CERN I saw a project to explain to secondary school pupils how a particle accelerator works.  They were using a transparent plastic tube in which a steel ball represented a particle and was accelerated by means of magnetic fields from coils wound around the tube and activated in turn to attract the steel ball.

This was an easy to make and cheap didactic object, but I was shocked by it.  In a real accelerator the accelerating field is electric, and it was not the replacement of the electric field by a magnetic field I found objectionable,  It was that in a real accelerator magnetic fields are used to bend the path of the particle in circular accelerators and colliders.  If the demonstration had been targeting a general public that does not know much about electric and magnetic fields, then it was certainly confusing to use magnets for acceleration because magnets are very visible and impressive in real accelerators but they do not accelerate.  If the demo was targeting students who can distinguish what these two different fields do, then it would not be necessary at all to show the effect with the wrong field in a dumbed-down gizmo.

Analogies are often misunderstood because the first impression they give can be false.  The effect of the analogy can be lost because of some impressive detail, like the colour or material of an object, or the words used, whereby the attention of the public is turned away from the the intended effect.

It's probably best to "serve the whisky straight" and avoid analogies wherever possible when communicating about science.

Watch out with statistics and probability

It is already difficult for scientists to wield the concepts of statistics and probability with precision.  Let us be extremely careful when using them in public communication.

After years of hesitating the physicists have now more or less agreed no longer to talk in terms of probabilities when explaining the formation of black holes.  One can say "there is a probability of 1 in 1080" but to the general public it just means "it is possible".  Therefore they conclude that scientist cannot really be trusted.  If as a scientist you feel uncomfortable saying "it will not happen" then you better don't mention probabilities either, or should just not attempt public communication.

The case of black holes in the LHC attracted enormous attention.  The way to communicate what will happen in the LHC is to say that (1) the type of matter used is just the same as what we see around us, nothing special, and (2) that the energies used to collide the particles are vastly inferior to what nature uses in cosmic particles that bombard our atmosphere continually and where no black holes have formed.  Not only is that true, it involves no probabilities.

Who likes it

Many times I have seen scientists congratulate fellow scientists on the quality of their science communication.  Obviously this is allowed and good, but the real proof of success has to come from the target audience.  Have they learned something, and if they have, did they learn what was intended?  Or did they go home with a wrong idea, believing for example that magnets accelerate particles?

Measuring the impact of science communication is very difficult and expensive.  Yet this measuring cannot be ignored and feedback from the public must be used to prepare later actions.

To estimate public communication budgets it is not just important to know how much a certain action will cost, but also how many people it reaches and which parts of the population.  The European action "Science on Stage" finances 500 teachers to come to its conferences.  Every participant is enthusiastic and the organisers are praised.  It looks like a large conference but compared to the total number of high school teachers in the European Union it is a meager number.  But then it all depends again on whether or not the teachers spread their new knowledge among their peers once they have returned to their schools.  Is this effect measured?

Ultimately the result of science popularisation should be gauged by the number of students that choose a scientific discipline and by the trust and confidence the public has in a rational, science-based approach of the big problems that our society faces.

R. Cailliau
With thanks to B. Cattoor, K.U.Leuven, for constructive criticism and discussions.

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