Photo of Michael Specter.

Image by Kateryna Kon, Shutterstock.

Stanford Medicine Scope - December 2nd, 2016 - by Vivian Lam

As part of Stanford’s Bio-X Seminar Series, Michael Specter, staff writer at The New Yorker, spoke to an audience of over 70 researchers and students recently on the critical need for improved science communication.

“No matter how partisan this country has been, there has always been a space for science,” Specter said. Yet now, science itself is being threatened, he said, which is a bit ironic given its many current successes. “There’s probably more innovation happening in this building than in the U.S. as a whole 50 years ago.”

But in spite of this progress, powerful people continue to make claims not based on evidence that many Americans believe, Specter said:

When a young mother is worried about giving her child a vaccine… she will sometimes get an answer that there is a risk… But what they don’t say is whether it’s a 1 in 11 chance, or 1 in 11 million chance.

The scientific method — where ideas are tested, data is gathered and analyzed, and questions are refined — ultimately improves society, he said. Uncertainty is not the enemy, he said: “We don’t need certainty. Certainty is a luxury humanity doesn’t have.”

In a “post-truth” era, scientists need to speak up more than ever, Specter said. He argued that scientists have the obligation to not only discover new knowledge and challenge our understanding of the world, but also to present “facts” and “truth” in a way that is accessible understandable for all. “Every young scientist in this room should be talking to people about what they do, why it matters, and why they should care,” he said, urging researchers to:

Reach out. Talk to people. And maybe listen to people.

Originally published at Stanford Medicine Scope Blog