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Skepticism With Wonder

Carol Oliver, Australian Centre for Astrobiology, interview in Astrobiology Magazine

original source |  fair use notice

Summary: The challenge to communicate both the breadth and depth of astrobiology is discussed by Carol Oliver, of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology. As a researcher in communicating science, she considers how best to tell a busy public what it means to explore other worlds for signs of life elsewhere.

Interview with Carol Oliver

Among astrobiologists, the past few years have witnessed marvelous findings --and some skepticism: the discovery of planets around other stars, strong circumstantial evidence for a liquid water ocean beneath the surface of Jupiter's moons Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, controversial claims for biological activity in a martian meteorite, the discovery of life in extreme terrestrial environments, and a genuine revolution in our understanding and manipulation of the genetic mechanisms of the living cell. As Dr. Bruce Runnegar, Director of NASA's Astrobiology Institute, summarized, this scientific horizon is challenging: "Where did we come from? How did we originate? ...astrobiology is something that any civilization worth its salt should do, provided it can afford to do so."

Communicating the importance of these results has attracted the interest of a wider academic community, in an attempt to understand how to educate ourselves, while also unifying both our own skepticism and wonder. Astrobiology Magazine had the chance to talk with Carol Oliver, Executive Officer of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology, about the challenges and opportunities for communicating this new science of astrobiology.


Astrobiology Magazine (AM): You did a formative interview with Carl Sagan in late 1980's. When we interviewed his widow, Ann Druyan, about why Dr. Sagan was so effective, she remarked that he 'reunified skepticism with wonder-and never one at the expense of the other, but always in equal parts.' How does that conclusion meet up with your own experience in person, and also with the way you have seen other science communicators go about this difficult problem?

Carol Oliver (CO): My experience has largely been that scientists have interesting things to say, but in a one-dimensional way bereft of the wonder that captures the imagination. Carl Sagan knew how to do both, as Ann Druyan remarks. He did this with a breathtaking technique in driving the interview to convey what he wanted to say and largely whether the reporter asked the right questions or not.

My memory of that interview was of a man brimming over with the desire to share his passion science. In some respects he was way ahead of his time. He talked to me then of his hopes that the superpowers would get together and build a huge space ship in low Earth orbit to take people to Mars - remember this was in Cold War days. Well, we got the International Space Station and maybe Sagan's Mars spaceship will get built too at some point in the future.

I've seen other science communicators use a number of different techniques to connect with the public, for example, using everyday analogies and well constructed easy-to-read prose to explain complex concepts. Paul Davies uses funny little stick men in his Powerpoint presentations that immediately puts the audience at ease. Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute recently captured the undivided attention of a hall full of European students by using humor and analogy.

The common thread is that good science communicators are as passionate about communication as they are the science. It comes through, and audiences are swept up in this passion that carries them across this scary area called science.

AM: Ann Druyan also said that he paid for his efforts at communicating to the general public, with his colleagues. But went on anyway, under the premise that 'if science was a kind of preserve of the privileged few, then even the little democracy that we have would be jeopardized. He saw it as an act of citizenship.' Would you agree first that scientists are reluctant to get into research topics in a public way, and secondly that science communication is part of preserving a democracy since we all depend so much on the results of science and technology, say, even to vote?

CO: Yes indeed he did. Good science communicators still suffer from it. Peers tend view translating science into something public audiences can appreciate somehow trivializes science.

In Australia it is even worse - a scientist who dares to communicate risks being pilloried for 'big-noting' him or herself. It may be the same in the US and elsewhere. Those who become good science communicators are usually in a position that is out of reach of this dinosaur and self-defeating attitude.

Shostak, for example, benefits from being part of an organisation that recognizes his talent as a science communicator and encourages it - that doesn't happen in the academic environment. Scientists usually have no training in public communication. They are sometimes thrust in front of the media by well-meaning press officers - the expectation being they can easily translate their work into common language. I've seen puzzlement on how to do this. One scientist once asked me the best way to convey the process of science in a 30-second sound bite!

Is science communication part of preserving democracy? Perhaps - but the real issue is whether public audiences have the critical thinking necessary to participate in either science communication or democracy. Sagan said in the last book before his death in 1996 'The Demon-Haunted World' that both were impossible without understanding the scientific method and the critical thinking that comes with that. It's clear that is in woefully short supply with more than half the US public believing we're being regularly visited by beings from other worlds.

AM: From your experience, in retrospect, what is your opinion of the communication strategy that surrounded the Martian meteorite finding, the Allen Hills meteor result?

CO: I actually think this was a good strategy. NASA brought in the skeptics and called the press conference as soon as it was clear there was a leak of the news. The fact that the media was speculating the night before the press conference only added to the focus.

I don't think there was anything the strategists could have done about the caveats being left out - particularly with the Presidential announcement, which perhaps added to the public perception that past life on Mars had been discovered.

I don't think subsequent criticisms have done any damage at all - in fact perhaps it has helped generate public opinion that supports further studies of Mars. It's not a done deal and I believe the public understands that and why there is the need to continue the search for the answer to questions on whether life exists on Mars today or existed at some point deep in its archean history.

Together with the discovery of extrasolar planets ten months earlier, the Allen Hills meteorite probably laid the ground for astrobiology as we see it today.

AM: Similarly, what is your opinion of the way SETI@home is able to communicate and put science in the hands of millions of people directly?

CO: I think SETI@home is a fun thing to do, with the potential for some good science. Some researchers are doubtful about the value of the project and worry if nothing is detected using this technique in, say, ten years. I think these critics miss the point. It's okay to have some fun, especially when there is some good science being done at the same time. It definitely is better than flying toasters. SETI@home also assists in raising the profile of SETI - and offers the potential to make SETI a household name.

AM: Many of our essayists, such as Oliver Sacks, have talked about early formative experiences with science fiction like HG Wells as informing their interest in astrobiology. Can you comment from your research if you believe science fiction has any role in shaping interest, and what its limits or strengths might be?

CO: I've no evidence that science fiction shapes our thinking about science - but it seems obvious that it must. Mars in particular has fired the imaginations of science fiction authors - Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, and Kim Stanley Robinson. Oliver Morton says in his book "Mapping Mars" that the arrival of humans on Mars will not be the dawn of a new era, but a chapter in an ongoing novel. I think that is right. We've already been there, many times, in our literature.

So the key strength is in the ability to envision a vista of red rocks, valleys and craters through our culture, without even stepping onto the red planet - virtual visits of the imagination.

On the other hand the Hollywood depiction of aliens is often banal and improbable, as in Independence Day. Perhaps that doesn't do any favors for astrobiology.

Star Trek is an interesting kettle of fish - it has been predictive of many things. Compare cell phones with the Enterprise communicators from 1966, for example, and witness the books that delve into the 'science of Star Trek'. On the downside it has shrunk the cosmos to something our minds can manage instead of underscoring the reality of the gaping chasm between the Sun and even the nearest stars, and encouraged the belief that if communicating extraterrestrial civilizations are out there they look approximately like us and speak perfect English. Overall though, I believe science fiction fires the imagination and partly drives our curiosity.

We want to go there and know what it is really like rather than rely entirely on the limitations of robot probes.

AM: You completed a thesis entitled "SETI and the Media: Improving Science Communication"--what are its general findings regarding the good and bad ways this field has been shaped in popular media?

CO: Governments and institutions promote the concept that more and better science news will address a serious problem - the very high science illiteracy rate among adult populations. This approach is flawed for several reasons. But the bottom line is that to expect the media to provide lessons on science literacy is like expecting a newspaper to contain instructions on how to read it.

(The latest National Science Foundation's Science and Engineering Indicators suggests that in the US that is running at 75% of the adult population - that means three out of every four citizens are probably unable to either fully understand a news piece on astrobiology or any other science. More than half the US public, for example, absolutely believes the universe is teeming with intelligent life - and they are visiting us on a regular basis. In Europe it is not that much better. According to the Eurobarometer 55.2 survey around 50% of the adult population suffer from science illiteracy. The survey found, for example, that more than 25% of the public believes the Sun goes around the Earth - where does that leave attempts to convey astrobiology to adult audiences?

There are three clear reasons why more and better science news won't fix this: 1. There is no survey data in the past 50 years of science communication on how public audiences make sense of science stories in the media. 2. The measure used for science illiteracy is questionable. 3. The mass media does not educate, it informs - the subtle difference means understanding only happens serendipitously.)

Astrobiology is a fast emerging science in an age where the Internet is rapidly changing the face of science communication across formal and informal education, media, scientific publications and public opinion in a dynamic two-way communication multi-media environment. Globally, more than half a billion people are now connected. In the US, 9% of the NSF survey respondents said the Internet served as their primary source of science information and the Eurobarometer survey, 16%.

It appears a major paradigm shift is required in order to make any significant improvement in science communication. We need to understand more clearly how to engage public audiences and across multiple communication platforms - astrobiology has all the elements already and the potential to lead the change in approach for science communication in general.

The SETI Institute made a very interesting case study because of the cultural nature of its SETI experiment - it forced the Institute to think about public communication and education as an integral part of the research at an early stage rather than an 'add-on', which is the way I think it should be. The science teachers I've spoken with largely feel totally disconnected from cutting edge research - how then can they inspire our children with limited and often out of date resources?

(I'm currently putting together a proposal for a new NASA Astrobiology Institute Science Communication Focus Group - these are groups of experts inside and outside the NAI, focused on a particular element of astrobiology such as Mars. A band of experts experienced in communicating astrobiology is being brought together to tackle the issues I've mentioned. They are science journalists, science communicators, science educators, science museum experts, science web specialists, science TV producers and other related experts. I'm not sure such a multi-communication group has been brought together before. They are mostly US based, but some from the UK, Europe and Australia. Science communication is a global thing. I expect good outcomes.)

AM: Some have argued that a detectable SETI event would be the greatest challenge to media communication ever. And numerous organizations like the Planetary Society have outlined strategies for how to communicate such news. Can you comment on what you believe might be an effective strategy there?

CO: People resources are SETI's greatest weakness in the event of a detection. A SETI colleague aptly points out that a single large supermarket could barely get full staffing using the entire global community of professional SETI researchers. Media is not going to be their priority in a potential detection - confirming the signal will be.

A close second is that SETI researchers are scattered around the world mostly in small independent groups that have no effective communication system between the groups that would work in the media demands of a potential detection. The challenge for SETI is in marshalling these people resources to enable a credible, timely response to the media - which almost certainly won't happen in a nice ordered press conference type of way because there is no secrecy attached to SETI.

A third problem in thinking about how to manage this is that with researchers expecting it to be a long-haul project, how do you encourage planning now? This is also a challenge, and one I've been aware of at an international level for some years. Most of my science journalist friends are incredulous when I tell them there is no international SETI media plan to respond to a promising detection. I'm hopeful that will change.

AM: Working from Australia now, but having spent time in the US and UK, do you believe that at least English-speaking media has much commonality in how they handle science and how new findings trickle into the public consciousness?

CO: There is some commonality, but the reception environment is culturally and socially very different. For example, in the UK there is a high level of public mistrust in government and science. This is a country crippled by both Mad Cow Disease (BSE) and public suspicion of genetically modified crops.

In the US you have Roswell, Area 51 and extraterrestrials buzzing the countryside after their long-haul flights from the stars--remember half the US public believes this.

In the UK, Britons are demanding a voice in science research.

Astrobiology researchers should not think they are immune to such a backlash, as remote a possibility as that seems. Missions that bring back samples from comets, asteroids and eventually Mars are not that far away. Organics means life in the public mind, and that raises the spectre of a War of the Worlds in reverse. Remember it was an Earthly bug that got the Martians in the end, not the bombs. Risk communication planning isn't taken as nearly as seriously in science as it is in the corporate world. The Cassini mission [a 1997 nuclear-fueled probe to Saturn] proved that stance is an error of judgement. Of course the public are concerned, even when scientists view the risk as virtually zero to none.

Read more articles on this topic:

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