Friday, January 13, 2012

Understanding as a barrier to openness

One of the things that holds people back from having understanding is not necessarily a lack of information... It's a lack of understanding the information. There are people who have plenty of access to the information located in scientific journals and in websites that record about processes and procedures, however that access means nothing because they do not have enough understanding of the topic to use the information that they receive.

The same thing happened before the Renaissance... imagine all the knowledge locked up in the libraries of the Arabs... but with no access there was no growth, no understanding no progression. But once knowledge is disseminated throughout the world, the next step to openness is to enable people to understand what is being shared. Open forums and talks about new discoveries enabled people to understand and question ideas. Forward thinkers didn't always fare well on these forums though. Semmelweis (who encouraged aseptic or clean environments to decrease disease spreading in hospitals) If only the people who had turned him down would have taken time to learn the basic facts. Or imagine if the scientific community had read anything about Gregor Mendel's research on pea plants and genetic transmission of traits... it would have helped Darwin immensely to have that background... but because his superiors in Austria didn't understand, it never got anywhere.

However this problem is not only the problem of the public... Sometimes we scientists forget that it is not enough to do the research and explain it to our fellow scientists... it is just as important to enable the public to realize that just because collagen increases the skin's elasticity dosen't mean that rubbing it on your face does you any good. And while vaccinnations for most diseases can be good, vaccinnations for HIV would be a decidedly bad move for the continued success of the human race. Minor details, but major effects.

How do we try and resolve this problem of scientific illiteracy? Some encourage programming from places like NOVA or Discover... some have myriads of public outreach programs that enable people to learn the basics of their research. Another project that excites me as a biologist is the Bio Visions program that Harvard is running where professors and graphic imagers have worked together to help improve the visualization of complex biological processes in a series of little movies. My favorite is: Inner Life of a Cell. Being able to visualize things enables the openness of scientific data to mean something... means that people can be literate in more things than just your average novel or news article. Openness of data is only as good as the people who internalize and consume it. Without the educated public, it will never become a force that can cause good change instead of people who misrepresent facts and throw out a decent article because they don't fully understand what it means.

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