The need for experts in science communication

Ask A Biologist aims to provide accurate information from experts to the general public. Since some subjects are complex and biology covers a staggering raft of variation in terms of the organisms (living and extinct) and all the cornucopia of different patters of evolution, development, ecology, behaviour, extinction etc. this seems understandable. Not everyone can know everything about everything (not, not even Darren). Relying on non-expert sources, for even simple things, can lead to very inaccurate answers turning up.

When AAB started up I was largely unaware of the various Q&A sources on the internet. The concept of asking the whole of the internet for an answer is great in theory, but of course it has problems. It can lead to accuracy through popularity with incorrect answers being assumed to be right because they are common knowledge, appear plausible or whatever. Since many of these systems have votes attached then what people perceive to be the right answer will get voted up or in other cases, only one answer is given.

I was searching for some pterosaur stuff online earlier and this came across this and this. The answers are profoundly inaccurate and misleading and give no indication at all of what they are based on, plus they completely contradict each other and one makes no attempt to correct the obvious problem that pterosaurs are not dinosaurs. I appreciate that people won’t necessarily realise they are asking questions that may not yield reliable answers, and certainly won’t necessarily gravitate to AAB or something like it for biological questions but this is a problem. I assume the the people providing these answers assumed that they were right, but their profound ignorance of what they are saying is quite worrying. I can only assume that they simply have no clue about pterosaurs and far to much confidence in their lack of knowledge.

All it really does of course is add yet more fallicies to the misinformation on pterosaurs and spreads ignorance. Not really the point of a Q&A set-up really.

10 Responses to “The need for experts in science communication”


  1. 1 Jura 20/05/2010 at 11:23 am

    Yeah, I don’t think that places like that wiki are ever really looked at as being that accurate. Most of the people I talk to (admittedly a biased sampling) consider sites like Yahoo answers to be jokes. I honestly suspect that many of the contributors think this too. So answers like the ones you found are less likely to be due to ignorance, and more likely a result of someone thinking they were being funny.

    Plus this is a wiki page. The self-correcting ability of wikis only works when they have reached a critical mass of people. Most wikis suffer from a lack of contributors, making it easy for crap like that to stay around.

    • 2 David Hone 20/05/2010 at 11:43 am

      Well I don’t necessarily disagree with any of that. But people will still use them as reference sources (or to have their questions answered) so the point is fundamentally sound. Regardless of what is intended, what is achieved is inaccurate. Even thinks like Wikipedia carry significant inaccuracies in places where it’s clear that a lack of expertise is the issue (like this example http://dinobase.gly.bris.ac.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?id=676) rather than any ill-will / attempted humour.

      Some inaccuracy is inevitable with things like this, but at a low level is not much of an issue (does the UK have a population of 60 or 61 or 62 million?). Minor discrepancies or simplifications are understandable, flat wrong answers less so.

      Having looked beyond those two examples, I’m not really sure they were jokes either and if they are, there’s no reason to think whoever asked (likely young kids) would realise.

  2. 3 Kilian Hekhuis 20/05/2010 at 6:27 pm

    On the other hand, they have this: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Are_pterosaurs_dinosaurs fairly correct.

  3. 5 mattvr 20/05/2010 at 7:29 pm

    This kind of misinformation allows the true fudgers,the ‘Pterosaurs are still alive which proves Evolution a lie!!!!!’ crowd for example, to provide dodgy information with little challenge from accurate alternative sources.

    Had to avoid banging my head against the screen when I read that scientists had no ‘evolutionary explanation’ for mega fauna mammals and so they weren’t studied or mentioned that much compared to Dinosaurs.

    Oooer, this turned into a bit of a rant then, sorry Dave.

    Short point, poor information helps misleading information thrive.

    • 6 David Hone 20/05/2010 at 10:02 pm

      Agreed.

      And no need to wory about the rant. It means I don’t feel so bad that I do it a lot and am not wrong to do so. Or if I am still wrong, at least I’m not the only one…

  4. 7 mattvr 22/05/2010 at 8:57 am

    The media really doesn’t know what to to do with Science stories.
    The announcement of scientists building artificial life made it to TV news here.
    It almost got stuck where they put the novelty stories, so the producer gave it just a little more weight than the story claiming there wasn’t enough meat in our meat pies.

  5. 8 Matthew Brown 24/05/2010 at 11:43 pm

    Matt- To be perfectly fair to the media, a large part of this problem is due to the fact that we don’t typically provide them with much of an explanation of why science stories are important, so they have no clue in which context to present it. Many paleo press releases ARE novelty stories, because we don’t adequately explain how or why new discoveries are important, or how they are relevant to the average news consumer or to the world around us.

    • 9 David Hone 25/05/2010 at 8:17 am

      I’d agree that’s true when the mainstream get hold of it but when you see catastrophic errors being perpetrated by science editors and science journalists the sympathy evaporates quickly.

  6. 10 Maria 18/11/2010 at 5:48 pm

    To whom it may concern,

    I am a final year student studying Environmental Science and Health in Dublin City University, Ireland. I have to conduct a literature survey on ‘Seismometry in Schools and Science Communication’. I was hoping that maybe someone here could help me with this. I don’t have specific questions as of yet but would it be ok if I contacted you with specific questions on science communication later? I would greatly appreciate it if you could help.

    I was also greatly appreciate if you could direct me to some other sources which you think may be relevant to my task. I will be discussing science in the media and the reasons it has grown so much in recent years and so on.
    If you have any ideas for me to work on it from a particular angle, please let me know.

    Thanks and Kind Regards,
    Maria


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