Scientists Talking to the Public

By Sean Carroll | April 9, 2007 12:44 pm

There’s a sprawling blog conversation going on at ScienceBlogs and elsewhere, sparked by an article by Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney in Science magazine. Ironically, as I’m not the first to point out, it’s only available to subscribers (although there is a press release). The origin of the irony is that the subject of the article is how scientists should talk to the general public. In particular, Nisbet and Mooney focus on “framing” — putting whatever you want to talk about into a context that strikes an appropriate chord in your audience.

Much back-and-forth — see long posts by coturnix, Orac, and Nisbet to get some of the flavor — without reaching a simple consensus. Shocking, I know. But, despite the noise along the way, these conversations really to help make progress.

My view on these issues is incredibly complex and well-thought-out, but sadly the margin of this blog post is too narrow to contain it. Instead I’ll just highlight something that is probably obvious: a big reason for the disagreements is the attempt to find a set of blanket principles governing a widely diverse and highly idiosyncratic set of circumstances. Talking to the public involves a tremendous array of competing pressures, and how best to balance them will certainly depend on the specifics of the situation. Are scientists bad communicators, when they are talking to the public? Very often, yes. Is it important to be better? Absolutely, both for altruistic and self-interested reasons. Should they compromise telling the truth in order to win people over? No. Does making an effort to engage people on their own level necessarily mean that the truth must be compromised? No. Should they expect the same kind of arguments to work with the public as work with their colleagues? No. Are the standards of acceptable levels of precision and detail different when talking to specialists and non-specialists? Of course. Is connecting to people’s pre-conceived notions, and using them to your advantage as a communicator, somehow unsavory? No. Should we pander to beliefs that we think are false? Certainly not. Etc., etc.; every situation is going to be different.

But, in the absence of any actually helpful suggestions, I will take the opportunity to point to this recent post by Charlie Petit in the (awesome in its own right) Knight Science Journalism Tracker. The punchline: science journalism in the United States is in the midst of a catastrophic downsizing. In the wake of the news that Mike Lafferty of the Columbus Dispatch has accepted a buyout, Petit mentions other periodicals that have recently decimated their science coverage, including Time, Newsday, and the Dallas Morning News (I’ll add the LA Times to that list). Science sections have dropped from 95 less than twenty years ago to around 40 today.

I’m just saying.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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