Opinion: Scientists who are great communicators must be recognized and respected
Published Tuesday, May 11, 2021 10:45AM EDT Last Updated Wednesday, May 12, 2021 9:10AM EDT
MONTREAL -- I’ll be a granddad soon. That might be why I’m paying more attention than usual to what I see written about young children.
One thing that caught my eye recently was an item in Le détecteur de rumeurs, the fact-checking section of Montreal’s Agence Science-Presse. Contrary to what many parents think, it seems, toddlers can understand simple prohibitory sentences. Commands like “Don't touch the plant" are clear to babies as young as eight months; serious scientific studies have proven it.
We live in a time when science has percolated into every aspect of our lives. Not a day goes by when we don’t learn about a new piece of research or deal with some kind of scientific concept. Eighteen months ago, most of us had no idea what a coronavirus was; now all we can talk about are public-health strategies and the relative merits of mRNA and traditional vaccines.
One big reason we’ve become scientifically literate is that many scientists talk to the media. Not all are destined to become great communicators, but those who do so provide an invaluable service: they help nurture a common understanding of the problems of our time and, in turn, they strengthen the foundations of our democracy.
This task of mediating between the scientific world and the everyday world can’t be praised enough – and the researchers who do must be recognized, encouraged and treated with respect.
Dr. Caroline Quach Thanh is one of those special people. Since the start of the pandemic she has been front-and-centre in the media, and her talent as a scientist and her generosity as a communicator have captivated audiences across the country. Over the course of some 700 interviews, Dr. Quach Thanh has become one of the most respected faces of scientific discourse on the health crisis affecting us all.
Simply put, without her, we’d know less about what is happening to us.
That is why I have been disturbed by the barrage of insults this esteemed scientist has had to endure over the past few days through her presence in the media – wholly unmerited, as all she’s been doing is providing her usual, serious and highly practical analyses of the situation. She does what’s expected of any good researcher called to speak publicly: give the best answers and offer the most well-rounded views.
Scientific research provides answers, based on measurable facts, to questions raised. The researcher formulates a hypothesis, tests its accuracy using proven experimental methods and communicates the results to the scientific community. Other researchers can then reproduce the experiment to validate or refute the results. This is how science works: through trial and error and success.
The scope of our knowledge grows each time conventional wisdom is put under the microscope, and scientific truth is particularly fragile in this regard. As our powers of analysis get more sophisticated, it’s easier to challenge what we presume to be true. Nobody seriously thinks the Earth is flat anymore, and we’ve finished sequencing the human genome, but the future still holds many surprises: about our brains work, for instance, or how societies endure.
For more than a year now, university experts have been solicited as never before by the media and government, and that's good: it shows people have a thirst for understanding, and that fact bodes well for the future. Our universities provide an extraordinary resource – knowledge – and through their media work, Dr. Quach Thanh and others are the public face of that. Through them, we all benefit, from the very elderly to the very young like my soon-to-be-born grandson.
When scientists in good faith speak the truth – even if it’s a truth that some people don’t want to hear – they need our respect and encouragement. Let’s welcome the insights they so generously provide, day after day.
- Daniel Jutras is the rector of Université de Montréal. Dr. Caroline Quach Thanh is a professor and the university.