Monday, July 13, 2009

Maybe Something Is Broken

In “Survey Shows Gap Between Scientists and the Public,” published in the new York Times, July 9, 2009, Cornelia Dean describes a recent Pew Research Center study showing a wide gap between what scientists and the public believe about global warming and evolution.

For example, although nearly all scientific evidence supports the role of humans in global warming, a large part of the public is still skeptical of that, and some members of the public don’t even believe a global warming problem exists. The study reports similar differences on evolution.

This gap between the research community and the general public isn’t news to anyone who has been following it. For example, Rynes, Colbert, and Brown report a similar gap between the evidence unearthed by researchers and the beliefs of practicing professionals in their 2002 article in the journal, Human Resource Management, HR Professionals' Beliefs about Effective Human Resource Practices: Correspondence between Research and Practice.

In that article, they also raise the concern that editors of professional magazines in the field are similarly uninformed of the research, and have gone on to publish articles whose central theses are contradicted by the research evidence.

Part of the problem might come from differing interests. For example, in their 2007 article in Human Resource Management Review, An Examination of the Research–Practice Gap in HR: Comparing Topics of Interest to HR Academics and HR Professionals, Deadrick and Gibson compared the topics covered in academic journals and professional magazines on human resource management and found little overlap among the two.

But their conclusion, paraphrased, simply suggested that practicing professionals should pay more attention to research.

Perhaps the research community is ignoring the problem that’s staring us in the face; that our models of communication are broken. Advance online publication, like that described in a Scientific American editorial in 2006 (and reported by Geoff Hart in the newsletter of the Special Interest Group on Scientific Communication of the Society for Technical Communication) is a start, but we need to find a way to (a) help the public better understand the role of evidence in scientific communication, (b) distinguish strong from weak evidence, (c) take an interest in keeping informed about developments in science, and (d) bring along the popular and professional press for the ride.

No small order.

Read the complete New York Times article at

(And by the way, watch for an upcoming article of research that I led that explores the extent to which training and development professionals read research literature in the Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology. The article is ready for publication; just waiting for it to appear on the website. (

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