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Science Without the BS

The public deserves honesty and respect. Scientists need to do a better job delivering, says Frederic Bertley, president of the COSI Science Center.

By Corey S. Powell

Bertley working with kids at the COSI science center. Talk to them the right way, he says, and you can teach logarithms to a four-year-old.

Frederic Bertley is an immunologist and educator who has helped develop DNA vaccines for HIV/AIDS and has worked on global health projects in Haiti, Sudan, and the Canadian Arctic. Since 2017, he has been president and CEO of the Center of Science and Industry (COSI), a 320,000-square-foot science museum and research hub in Columbus, Ohio. He also co-created and hosts the television show QED with Dr. B, in partnership with PBS-WOSU Public Media. Here, Bertley speaks with OpenMind co-editor Corey S. Powell about why so many people distrust scientists — and about what scientists can do in response to reach the public more effectively. (This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

Are we in the middle of a science-denial crisis? A lot of experts say yes, but I also recall similar hand-wringing in the early 2000s, the 1990s, the 1980s...

Prior to the pandemic, there were individuals and programs chipping away at certain science issues. Climate science is a great one. The country went from 40 percent thinking climate science was an issue 20 years ago to 50 percent, 60 percent. Now we're in just over 70 percent. We were moving the needle, with effort, getting people to hear data and process data in a better way. Then the pandemic hit, and it brought us back into the stone ages for science denialism and science confusion. 

The only way to understand the pandemic and get out of it as soon as possible was this thing called science. But scientists and the medical community just didn't do a great job at communicating how science works. From the jump we should have said, look, science is not a book of facts, it's a process. We ask questions, we get answers that get us closer to the truth. So, hey, public, I know you're frustrated. We are working diligently to add data points, and with each data point we add, we refine our conclusions and our thoughts or recommendations. 

So you regard the lack of transparency as a major issue?

If they [scientists and the medical community] did a better job at being a little more humble, maybe it would've been less bad. Instead it became this whole political thing. The numbers haven't gone back to where they were pre-pandemic in terms of who's into science denialism. But through this, we're going to learn.

It's easy to see what doesn't work in pushing back against science misinformation and denialism. But what does work?

What works is really simple. You’ve to respect where a person is with their knowledge base and make them feel comfortable and valued. When people say, Oh maybe bleach will work [against Covid], that sounds like a crazy idea to me as an immunologist, right? But the person clearly thinks it, so you have to meet them where they are: Where did you get that idea? Where is it coming from? And then you explain what bleach is, explain acids and bases, and talk about how our bodies don't deal well with acid—but you respect them. You validate the human being you are talking to, regardless of age, background, or schooling. You take their questions or confusion seriously. 

The second piece is you do have to know what the heck you're talking about. Because if you start giving them wrong information, you can never gain their trust again. 

When you're communicating to a person or an audience, it takes them just a fraction of a second to decide you're patronizing or condescending.

Practically speaking, how do you “meet people where they are” when you're talking about complex scientific issues? 

Meeting them where they’re at is 100 percent inclusive to culture, background, experience, education, colloquialisms, all these things. In the U.S., if you're dealing with kids in low-income urban settings, you have to speak and behave and use vocabulary differently than if you're speaking to trust-fund babies at Exeter, Yale, and Harvard. It takes work. For at least a subset of people in America, you’ve gotta use pronouns. Love it or hate it, that's the era we're in. I'm sending three of my team members to Ghana to do work on science literacy there. The team is learning cultural practices and customs of the Ghanaian population before they go, because there are dos and don'ts that you’ve got to know.

You can't fake it. You’ve got to be genuinely interested in humbling yourself, learning what the cultural values are. It all comes down to this: Know your audience. 

Earlier in your career you worked on HIV vaccines, at a time when there were a lot of myths about AIDS. Are there parallels with today's science misinformation? 

There was so much misinformation at the time. First, it was “Haitians brought it here.” Then it was, “Oh, it's a gay disease.” Then it was, “Oh, you had sex with monkeys.” It's a recurring cycle. The same risk-denial stuff with HIV, we see it again today with measles. 

How can we break out of this cycle and do a better job sharing scientific insights with the public? 

One big thing is, when you're communicating to a person or an audience, it takes just a fraction of a second for them to decide you're patronizing or condescending. This is not about science communication, it's communication in general. My dad used to say, “Hey, son, humans aren't logical. They're psychological.” The bag of emotion that we are — that's real, and it governs so much of what we do. So I think the biggest thing is that if you're trying to reach an audience as a scientist, you’ve gotta be authentic. There's some folks you just won't move. But even if you didn't move them, they’ll still respect you. I've had people who said, “My African American grandmother has been anti-vaccine because of the Tuskegee experiments, she won't trust the medical community. But she watched your five minute video and she went and took the vaccine.” 

Scientists are uncomfortable saying, “We don't know.” Our whole careers are based on “we don't know”!

That's what you mean when you say scientists need to be more humble?

Yes, and a second big thing is that scientists are uncomfortable saying, “We don't know.” Our whole careers are based on “we don't know”! That's why we're doing the experiments for years in the lab, collecting data, writing papers. We wanna try to find out how the universe works. But if we’re in front of John and Jane Public, we end up faking it to make it or ad-libbing. That has done a lot of damage, especially during the pandemic. People were hearing answers that changed weekly and sometimes even daily. It’s not the scientist's fault that the data were changing, but it is the scientist's fault for not saying, “Hey, we don't know, but we’re learning more and more.” 

At the COSI Science Center, a lot of your programs are aimed at kids. How do you spark scientific interest and establish trust with a young audience? 

I’m going to show you exactly how to do it. You remember the logarithmic expression [describing exponential growth]. It's F(x)=log10x. You show this to adults and some of them are like, “Ugh, logs.” Most say, “I know nothing about that.” How do you get somebody excited about it in a minute? Very simple. You can try this with a group of four-year-olds, and I guarantee you it'll work. 

Next time you're around a group of kids, offer them a dollar. They’re gonna say, “Yeah, I’d love a free dollar.” Then offer them $10: “You’re gonna gimme $10?!” No, you tell them, I changed my mind. I'm gonna give you $100. That kid's gonna be like, “Oh my God.” And then if you offer them $1,000, they will lose their minds. They implicitly know what this means. 10 is bigger than 1, 100 is bigger than 10, 1,000 is bigger than 100. It's orders of magnitude. 

You broke down something complex into a vocabulary that means something to kids. All of a sudden you got these kids that are like, “Oh my gosh, I know a college-level equation.” Then, hopefully, they go back into the classroom Monday morning, thrilled that they like a little math.

That's a very cool way to talk about exponential growth.

You broke down something complex into a vocabulary that means something to kids. All of a sudden you got these kids that are like, “Oh my gosh, I know a college-level equation.” Then, hopefully, they go back into the classroom Monday morning, thrilled that they like a little math.

July 5, 2024

Corey S. Powell

is co-editor and co-founder of OpenMind.

Editor’s Note

From climate change to the pandemic, scientists have had a hard time communicating effectively with a people caught in the crosshairs of cultural cataclysm, disease and global change. Part of the problem has been a public uneducated about science, but a bigger impediment might sit with the scientists themselves. For, while scientists are in the business of exploring the unknown through the scientific method and experiment in their day jobs, they often emerge from the ivory tower to speak to the public from a perch of certainty and high-minded expertise. 

By giving short shrift to uncertainty in their statements and explanations, scientists often undermine their credibility and the public's trust in science overall. In the accompanying Q&A, OpenMind co-editor Corey S. Powell discusses these and other pitfalls scientists fall into as they communicate with the public and what they can do to right the ship with Frederic Bertley, president of the COSI Science Center in Ohio.

Pamela Weintraub, co-Editor, OpenMind 

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