For over a decade now, Chinese scientists and experts have been trying and failing to convince the public that genetically modified foods are safe to consume. Seemingly no matter how often they debunk rumors about the supposed risks, however, audiences remain impervious. As far as Chinese biologists and agronomists are concerned, the public simply doesn’t want to hear it.
They’re not the only ones frustrated. Scientists in almost every field, from vaccine development to physics, struggle to be heard above the din of misinformation. The advent of digital media and social networking platforms was supposed to usher in a golden age of science communications, creating opportunities for dialogue and greater interactivity between scientists and the broader public. Instead, the two sides continue to talk past each other, to growing frustration and disillusionment.
Few platforms capture the promise and shortcomings of contemporary popular science better than China’s largest online knowledge-sharing site, Zhihu. Similar to Quora, Zhihu was founded in 2011 and now boasts more than 100 million monthly active users, ranging from academics and experts to hobbyists and the merely curious, making it one of China’s leading knowledge-sharing sites.
In a study of GM-related questions and answers on the site, I found that, despite the public-facing nature of the platform, scientists are still more inclined to interact with other scientists, while the general public’s interactions similarly are still limited to other members of the public.
In part this is because scientists often adopt a highly academic writing style on the platform, dropping technical terminology with little to no explanation. “The papaya we eat are all genetically engineered PRSV-resistant papaya originally cultivated by a team in the United States,” wrote one, giving their qualifications as simply, “I work in synbio.” (Synbio is an abbreviation of synthetic biology.)
This approach makes it difficult to convince members of the public who lack the relevant professional knowledge, and in the end tends to limit readership of their posts to other scientists. Yet many scientists continue to emphasize their professional identity and experience on social media. Some even take pains to place themselves above the public by using terms like “we,” meaning scientists, and “you,” meaning everyone else, during their interactions.
Ultimately, I found that, even in digital media environments with greater possibilities for interactivity, there remains a long way to go to achieve full dialogue and interaction between scientists and the public. Even when the technology and methods we now use to communicate promise to empower and engage audiences, the dissemination of knowledge continues to be top-down and patronizing.
Scientists have long occupied a kind of deified status in China. We learn from childhood Deng Xiaoping’s adages that “science and technology constitute the primary productive forces” and “scientists are the leading figures of our times.” It’s only natural, then, that scientists would see themselves, not as members of society, but as its teachers, while the public views science as something fundamentally mysterious and impenetrable done by others.
These attitudes color Chinese works of popular science, which stretch the term’s definition almost beyond recognition. Many popular science influencers with a background in science turn their noses up at any attempt by media or non-scientists to popularize scientific research, preferring instead to gatekeep. Meanwhile, even scientists who want to spread knowledge are highly skeptical of non-scientists engaging in science education, and worry that popular science will lead to the “pollution” of true science.
Instead, they prefer to focus on the hard science, rather than the public, believing that their only responsibility is to communicate scientific knowledge, rather than secure public acceptance or buy-in. This is compounded by the fact that science popularization work has little impact on Chinese scientists’ own careers, their professional evaluations, or possibility of promotion. At present, Chinese universities and research institutes focus almost solely on the publication of scientific research when assessing and hiring scientists, while support and training for science popularization and writing remain very limited.
There is a cost to all this. If scientists aren’t willing to make their work more accessible, people will find the information they need wherever they can. All too often, that means misinformation or pseudoscience spread online. As little as scientists may care to admit it, the knowledge they offer is often only as appealing as the packaging it comes in. If experts cannot present their research in an accessible, easy-to-understand way, audiences will go to someone who can — even if that means turning to less reputable sources.
Digital media and social networking may have helped democratize some aspects of knowledge, but my research suggests they cannot revolutionize society on their own. Even if the technology and media we use to communicate have changed, the dissemination of knowledge continues to be top-down and hostile to public participation. Digital media and social platforms are not a shortcut to mass scientific literacy. They are tools, and like all tools, they need to be used properly. Educating the public will only be possible when scientists are motivated and supported to engage with mass audiences on equal footing.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Stuart Kinlough/Ikon Images/VCG)