By Freya Masters
Albert Einstein said ‘The important thing is to never stop questioning.’
Indeed, the very essence of any good science is the preliminary experiment of questioning. Questioning itself is founded on the principle of uncertainty and at the core of uncertainty is curiosity.
Newton’s curiosity as to why an apple fell straight down led him to develop the law of gravity. The curiosity of Doudna and Charpentier in their study of the bacterial defence system CRISPR-Cas9 resulted in a revolutionary molecular scissor. Strikingly, it was also the first time a Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to women! Without the initial lean into the chasm of scientific uncertainty, progress cannot be made.
In the modern world, scientific research is conducted in an ever-changing landscape of rapid progression, termed ‘post-normal’ science. Genetic modification, nanotechnology, AI…these facets of research may be fascinating to say the least, but they are each great unknowns – pinnacles of uncertainty, you might say.
Effectively communicating the scientific potential of such technologies and what they might mean for society is fundamental. Of principle importance in this post-normal world is a movement away from the deficit model of science communication, in which the public are considered to have a deficit of knowledge on these matters. Instead, the public should be informed and involved in sculpting the policies on establishing the boundaries of gene editing, for example. This approach represents the dialogue model of science communication.
In a scientific experiment, you can only disprove something – until you have, you cannot say with any certainty that a concept is. I believe that the vast majority of flawed science communication can be attributed to one simple sentence. Science is an inherently uncertain process. Only two words need to be extracted from this sentence to truly sum up miscommunication – the first being (you guessed it) ‘uncertain’ and the second ‘process’. During the scientific process, a hypothesis is tested in order for one to hopefully become more certain as to the result; the concept of uncertainty is applicable to any scientific development or crisis, not least a global pandemic. Of course, uncertainty is a scary prospect to those who may not understand that it is the starting point of science.
Viruses mutate. That is a scientific fact. However, when a virus will mutate is the uncertain bit. The recent novel UK strain of SARS-CoV-2 will generate a brand-new wave of uncertainty (and cases). The scientific community and politicians alike need to nurture an awareness in the public that science is a process in which we gradually unravel the answers – if such emerging challenges are to be met.
About the author:
Freya Masters is a final-year undergraduate student at the University of St Andrews where she studies biochemistry. She has a strong interest in science communication and is passionate about science writing; hoping to pursue these career avenues after graduating. In her spare time, she enjoys creative writing and composing songs to sing with her guitar.
If you want to find out more, visit Freya Masters LinkedIn profile here.