January 27, 2014

science labIn mid-December, Mike Hughes, a leader with The Martin Agency based in Richmond, VA, passed away. In the last year of his illness, he penned a blog, Unfinished Thinking, a string of beautiful and comedic musings that intrigued and inspired his readers.

Because my ear is tuned in to requests for candor, this posting struck me:

“I want to help society address its big problems. I want to help righteous journalism maintain its integrity and its robustness,” Hughes wrote. “I want to figure out how to stop governments and politicians from getting in the way of progress. I want our schools to be better. I want scientists to learn how to talk to the rest of us so that all of us can get a firmer handle on the truth.” (italics added)

That last part – scientists learning how to talk to the rest of us so we can really understand – stood out. If there was more clarity in the fields of science and medicine and the way their knowledge was communicated to the general public, our ability to understand and cope would be so much more effective. The result would enable all of us to make clear judgments and decisions about health, our choices and our world. I think scientists know the truth about a lot of things – but they are so intent on being precise and giving us all the qualifiers, it becomes difficult to process and actually hear what they know. Maybe scientists and doctors think we can’t understand, or maybe they assume we already do, but I agree with Mike in wishing they would tell it in a way that would help us grasp what we need to know.

Hughes recognized there was an obligation not just to truth, but also to clarity and when combined, the impact was profound. Whether it is climate change, the definition of “brain-dead”, the value of the space program, or the facts about food safety, I am eager to hear the real deal.

Candor in science and medicine is not so much about needing to be more truthful – science is generally proven through research and experts. It’s about clarity. Here, candor is the experts making it clearly understandable to rest of us, the nonscientists, so we can use that knowledge to work our way through hard conversations. Uninformed lay people debating loudly in social and traditional media is no substitute for the facts from the scientists among us.