Science, Humanity and the Dying Light of Communication.

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This is a blog about science communication.

You may want to read it or you may cringe at the thought, but let’s explore this for a minute, shall we? After that, you can choose to continue on this journey with me or we can part ways. But, for a moment, let’s be curious humans and leave our minds open to some ideas that we can think about together.

Meaning within the Noise: Attention and Interpretation.

What does it mean to communicate? You communicate your ideas. You communicate your feelings. You communicate your annoyances. Every human being breathing on this planet communicates in some way or another. There is the implicit—a blink; a gesture; a flick of the hair; a brief touch – and the explict, a scream or a whisper.

The message only gets through if someone is listening — if someone is paying attention.

The problem, it seems, is that very few people are paying attention to anything beyond themselves and even fewer people are paying attention to science.

The second problem is that even if the message is received it still must be interpreted. The problem with interpretation, with perception itself, is that it is variable, fallible and subjected to bias. Perception is a blog post for another day (seriously, you will see it). It is based on the individual signals of a million neurons working together to generate a congruent picture. But your brain is a funny creature that likes to fill in missing pieces to create such an image. That leaves the gates open for error. What I perceive as reality and what you perceive as reality could be two very different and terrifying things. But I digress.

Beauty in the Breakdown?

Communication is fundamental to humanity. We need it to survive and so does science. This first blog post comes at a funny time. And by funny, I mean an absurd, shit-your-pants terrifying kind of time. It is a time when we are living comfortable, convenient lives completely intertwined with science and technology; yet, there is a smouldering, unsettled suspicion surrounding science and, dare I say it, knowledge itself. It is the age of anti-vaccination, anti-medication, anti-critical thinking, but hold up, let me google that gluten free recipe for those oil of oregano brownies that cured my cousin’s meningitis on my iPhone X.  It’s a little surreal.

Just last week, there was chatter of the alleged banning of words like “Evidence-Based”, “Science-based” and “Fetus” from the Centers of Disease Control’s vernacular. Whether the story is accurate or not, the very fact that it is circulating is a clear indication of the climate of science, communication and the freedom of the pursuit of knowledge.

So, how did we get here? How did we end up with such a break down in communication of ideas, knowledge, and the scientific wonder in discovery?

When did we stop thinking science was beautiful? When did we stop returning her calls?

Communication break down is not unusual. In fact, it’s a very human thing to do and, generally, it ends in disaster. Communication break down is often the death knell for all kinds relationships – not just the one between you and your lover. It happens in corporate settings, on a global scale and, as we are starting to recognize, even between society and ideas. We stop communicating and eventually that relationship erodes away like a shoreline

Cascade of Calamity

Communication is needed for everything. Signals sent, messages received, meanings interpreted. You on a macroscale, communicate every day to secure your needs and desires. On a microscale, the tiny cells that create the ability for you to communicate in the way you do must first communicate with each other.

Cellular communication is a wonderfully complex thing. It is beautiful in it’s intricacy and detail— in the organization of so many moving parts— but it is also terrifying, because when things go wrong, despite all the fail safes, they go incredibly wrong.  In general, several different messages are sent out several different ways and those little messages bind to receptors either on the cell or inside of it. Often times it is a cascade of signals that must coordinate together in order to have a coherent message received and interpreted by your cells. It’s how your skin heals after you tear it open. It’s how you are able to read and interpret the very words in front of you. It’s all about communication.

So what happens when the communication breaks down? The stuff of nightmares, my friend. What was once a happy dividing cell, now receiving an excess of signals, begins to proliferate beyond it’s intent and becomes a monstrous tumour that takes over the organ it once was a part of. A break down in communication between your cells can cause neurons to die, leading to atrophy (the shrinking of brain tissue), memory loss, coordination problems and, eventually, the slow decay of who you once were. Terrifying.

This is why we should be concerned about communication. This is also why we should be concerned about science. These very examples of communication gone wrong are problems we, as a society, are facing every day. And science is struggling very hard to solve, or at least, to explain them.

A New Hope?

No man is an island and science isn’t one either. We all need each other. Luckily, there seems to be an emergence of science communication coming from scientists and students of science. There are numerous blogs run by PhD students writing about their research and about science in general. There are Instagram feeds dedicated to science, hashtags, even memes.

There is an admirable attempt at making science accessible for everyone who is curious enough to dive in and discover.


Image: Erin Matthews

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