Scientists, mathematicians, engineers, doctors, and fellow friends of STEM have been pushing the boundaries of STEM since the beginning of civilization, so I am under no impression that scientists will stop pushing discovery forward. We see it every day at the University through our professors who are pioneering their fields and the busy labs; STEM is crawling a little bit further every day. History shows us that our scientists and mathematicians have pushed forward through the most daunting times and cajoling of their peers. The progress of discovery won’t stop.
But STEM has a historically documented road block — people don’t always believe science. The lack of trust has reached its tipping point, and we have seen the damage of this critical absence of trust play out during the COVID-19 pandemic. So how do we fix this growing crack in trust in science?
The first step is to realize that it’s actually not fair to put down people who don’t trust science; they have a good reason to not trust STEM. STEM has not, historically, been the hero. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment had scientists and doctors intentionally mislead African Americans to believe that they were receiving treatment for syphilis, when really the researchers wanted to study the progression of the disease, leading to inhumane suffering. A medical Pearson textbook in 2017 had racist and potentially dangerous “information” about different cultures, such as how Hispanics might believe that pain is religious punishment they must endure to reach heaven, and that African Americans report higher pain intensity than other cultures. And who hasn’t heard the story of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were taken without her knowledge or consent?
Some distrust of science comes from political ideologies, and yes, people do follow the party line. But how many politicians actually have a background in science? In 2019, the 116th US Congress set a record with 47 members having some background in STEM. But that’s out of 541 members, meaning 8% of Congress had a background in science. When it comes to debates over legislation on climate change and health, it can help if someone in the room knows what needs to be done from a scientific perspective and translates it into policy on the spot. There’s a wall between policy and STEM, and the problems that need solutions get lost in the translation between research papers, evidence, and policy goals.
The boundary between STEM and policy-makers clues us into the source of the problem — scientists are bad at communicating and haven’t always wanted to communicate with the people the science affects. STEM has historically treated itself like an exclusive club that speaks in its own secret code. An editorial cartoon from 1925 in The Los Angeles Times calls out gate-keeping as a reason for the Scopes Trial. It’s easy to get wrapped up in what the Greek letter means and the fancy technical words, and those are important in STEM, but when you throw them around in public, they don’t really mean anything, and there shouldn’t be a strong expectation for them to.
STEM researchers communicate in their fields in technical language, and then when they come to a conclusion that might just flip how we see the world on its head, isn’t it an acceptable response for the public to be a bit behind and question how we got here? The technical language is fine, but when it’s time to flip the switch and deliver the message to the public, there’s some struggle.
We have to get better at talking about science and build this in education and practice. STEM majors should move away from the trope of saying they aren’t good at writing and that’s why they’re a STEM major. If anything, being an effective communicator to any audience is one of the most important things you should be able to do when you graduate. If you want people to listen to the science, you need to make the science coherent. Challenge yourself to not rely on technical jargon.
But what STEM really needs is the next generation of political scientists, entrepreneurs, lawyers, journalists, and more. You don’t have to be a STEM major to build and grow the STEM field. What’s needed is people who can take the research and translate it into law and policy, people who can effectively communicate and present new developments to the public, someone who can explain why there should be an investment into a technology, because ironically, you have the understanding of systems and practices that the scientific community doesn’t.