The Babel Fish Dilemma: Talking Science with Non-Scientists

Last night I gave a public lecture in Dublin for the Irish Skeptics Society, entitled “The Babel Fish Dilemma: Talking Science with Non-Scientists“. The Irish Skeptics, under the leadership of psychologists Paul O’Donoghue and Nóirín Buckley, have been organizing a public lecture series on science engagement, critical thinking, and skepticism that has run continuously since 2002. Many of their previous speakers have been extremely illustrious — included figures like James Randi, Matt Ridley, Ben Goldacre, Chris French, Richard Wiseman, and Simon Singh — so I was glad that my talk appeared to be well received by such an astute audience. While proceedings were not recorded, you can view the full slideshow above. The abstract for the talk was as follows:

In the novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, author and skeptic Douglas Adams described the fictitious Babel Fish as “the oddest thing in the universe”. If you inserted a Babel Fish into your ear, you could instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. When listening to modern scientists, it is easy to form the impression than most audiences would benefit from the availability of such a fish.

Most scientists are poorly skilled at communicating their findings to audiences outside of their discipline. The main dilemma faced is that conveying science in technical terms can exceed the scientific literacy of a general audience, while attempting to simplify scientific explanations can often alter their meanings. As such, when scientists talk to non-scientists, the risk of confusion is high.

As well as exposing scientists to problems such as litigation, this confusion can leave the general public susceptible to anyone who wishes to exploit their misunderstandings. This can include scam artists, hoaxers, conspiracy theorists, quacks, and other pseudoscientists. This talk will highlight a number of prominent abuses of public confusion around science, discuss examples of how people in public life (who should know better) can often struggle with scientific concepts, and look at some catastrophic events that have as their root scientific misunderstandings. The talk will also attempt to recommend ways in which scientific miscommunication can be minimised.

Many of the case studies I used refer to media stories that have been covered elsewhere on this blog. You should be able to access the relevant pages by clicking on the hyperlinks on the relevant slides [Tip: You will need to view the slideshow in fullscreen mode in order to access these hyperlinks].

Next year sees the Irish Skeptics Society’s 10th Birthday, and to mark the occasion the Society are planning to hold an anniversary conference. No doubt this will be a major event in the history of the Skeptics movement in Ireland and will certainly be one for the diary. Details will be announced later in 2011.

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