Presenting the controversy: communication

28Oct10

A difficulty with presenting dark energy, and indeed cosmology in general, to the public is that it’s so complex and long winded. Does this add to the controversy?

Reading reader comments on popular magazine articles, as I do, I sometimes find that there is a large amount of misunderstanding over dark energy, specifically which parts are confirmed and which are up in the air and why scientists have taken the route they have in trying to solve the puzzle.

However, at least in the early days of the controversy, the experts themselves have been writing most of the popular magazine articles, with dedicated science writers writing the others. This ensures the science is correct—that the public aren’t being fed rubbish like in other controversies, e.g. climate change—but it does open other possible issues, such as only certain opinions that the scientist believes in are given (I say again, it’s still a relatively subjective discipline), or the writing isn’t entirely suitable for the non-educated public.

Generally, though, in this controversy we don’t see information or scientists’ views being presented incorrectly in such a way as to influence people’s opinions a certain way or to attempt a balance of opinion. Balances of opinion are still given in popular dark energy articles—maybe not all of the different opinions, but a selection—but that’s because there are definite, strong differences of opinion, not, I’d say, because of journalistic tendencies.

While public opinion can affect this type of controversy through channels such as the NASA budget, I don’t believe that the dark energy controversy has been impacted in any significant way by the way it has been communicated.

As I said in my previous post, this controversy is stoked pretty much entirely by the information—the observations—and by the uncertainties inherent in the observations. 

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