Monday, 31 August 2015

Science Communication in China

On this blog you'll often see me harking on about the lack of health literacy among otherwise well educated Chinese people. The media in the west are always looking enviously at China's education system for the high marks in subjects such as maths and science. How is it, then, that Chinese people have such backward views on scientific matters such as antibiotic overuse and resistance? Is there no equivalent of Mythbusters in China?

One factor in the lack of scientific literacy in China is the poor level of science communication. There is little real popularisation of science in China, and few science communicators in the public eye. The reasons for this are well illustrated in an excellent - if somewhat academic - article in the journal Public Understanding of Science this week. Written by Zhang Yueyue (currently at the University of Kent, UK), the article entitled "The Credibility Paradox" explores why China's scientists don't connect with the public - and why the public don't listen to them.

The basic answer is that like many things in China, science is heavily politicised and a no-go area for individuals who are not officially approved. Zhang says that what little science communication there is in China is a "top down" process and is mostly concerned with policy. Science has long been seen as an instrument of Party policy in China, and its role is to serve politics. There is no popular participation in science debate, and no debate or discussion about science beyond the most basic principles.

In the west, we are used to seeing science communicators in the media who are independent and who express their own views and theories about scientific matters. Science communicators are often sceptics and are ready to challenge the official line - whether it be government, business interests or popular misconceptions and quackery. In China, it is a very different situation. Commentary on scientific matters is the preserve of a few "Big Experts" who have official blessing. There is little or no role for grassroots or frontline workers in science fields such as the biomedical sphere. There is no tradition of independent or dissenting thought in science, and there is little willingness among scientists to come forward and engage the public to popularise science.

And because science is seen by the public as being part of the political process, there is little trust or interest in what science commentators say. The top-down official model of science communication has little credibility with the ordinary Chinese citizen - they are alienated from science and there is no engagement.

This lack of interaction is a two-way process. Zhang's journal review describes the feedback she got from nine biomedical scientists who were interviewed abut their views on science communication. Most said they had little interest or willingness to get involved in public discourse or engagement around science. They did not see it as their role and would not want to take on the role.

When asked why, the scientists said they did not want to get involved in politics or become labelled as "stirring up trouble" by starting a public debate. Most scientists also said they were not qualified or entitled to talk about science in any official capacity as they were not "Big Experts" only "frontline workers". They would not comment about science in online forums or by writing articles because this would bring pressure from their institutions and have an adverse effect on their careers, they said.

Another reason that scientists cited for not getting involved in science communication was that experience showed them that nobody paid attention to what they had to say. They remarked that there were few good outlets or forums for science communication, and they were kept "out of the loop" by leaders and managers on science policy, so there was little point in discussing it anyway.

Interestingly, many scientists said they did not want to be associated with official science communication because they believed that science spokespeople had little credibility: "Nobody would listen to you or believe you" was one comment made.

However, the scientists said they did love talking about their work and explaining their scientific methods on an individual basis in informal situations. In other words, they were happy to be science communicators so long as they did not have their official hat on.

Ultimately, the lack of science communication means there is little understanding of science and thus poor science literacy in China, the scientists concluded.

In practical terms, this means that when biomedical scientists in China comment publicly about health and medical matters they are seen as having little credibility, and are viewed as simply spouting the "official line" or propaganda - and not to be trusted. And even when they are believed, their views and outlook are often not understood or given much attention.

This may explain why China's healthcare system is often dominated by unscientific practices - and why China's "medical experts" have little credibility in the public eye.

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