Friday, June 6, 2008

Conference, part 2

Well, I've just come back from the final dinner of the conference. I wanted to go because they scheduled David Quammen to speak. He's a scientific journalist who recently had a piece in Harper's on Tasmanian Devils and the cancer that threatens to wipe them out. Here's a link to the Science Daily story about it. It's a transmissible form of cancer that is spread by normal scuffles and physical contact. It's highly aggressive and animals live for about 90 days after they are infected. Up to 50% of populations are infected.

Unfortunately, plans changed and he instead spoke about the importance of the work people were doing who attended the conference and the need for that information to be disseminated to the public. Very true. As an example of the public's scientific illiteracy, he told a story about how he was talking about Ebola virus and at the end of it, someone commented "yeah, and that's found in spinach!" Um, that would be E. coli... There's a lot of work to do.

His point was that one of the ways information gets from scientists to the public is through journalists and the media. He urged the audience to not reject requests for information from the media, saying that it's common for people to fear being misquoted (or just plain getting it wrong), but that they normally have a chance to fact check before the piece goes to press. I think his point is well taken. There is a phenomenal amount of research being conducted on more things than we can imagine, and the basic ideas can be explained in plain english.

I'm all for scientific literacy, and I also believe that Americans in general want to be informed, they just get fed so much stuff, it's hard to discriminate. I don't have an answer for that, but if reputable publications make an effort to at least talk about findings of interest to the public, it would be a big help. I also think science writers might be able to put the information into context (so important) and that could make it more relevant.

For example, I was talking to a dog park friend this afternoon and she was describing work her sister does, looking at depletion of minerals in soil in poor countries. Blah, blah, yawn - until it's put into the context that these minerals are micronutrients that aren't getting to the people who need them, and it becomes a public health issue.

So, I think Quammen has an excellent point. A vast amount of science happens without the world ever knowing about it. I was amazed at all the facets of infectious disease ecology that came up just at this little two day conference. The media can do better at, as Quammen said, "connecting the dots" for the public, who should know more about topics that affect their lives.

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Hi, sorry to make the humans do an extra step.