The Science Communication Crisis

By Chris Mooney | August 25, 2008 4:04 pm

Today I am down at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, speaking to a class taught by Jeremy Jackson, along with journalists Ken Weiss from the Los Angeles Times, Rex Dalton from Nature, and Mark Dowie from Mother Jones and many many other outlets.

We’ve all been addressing science communication in its various aspects, and there’s certainly consensus among all four journalists on at least this much–science reporting faces some serious challenges today. I and others spoke about the increasing conglomeration of media, and how that leads to the cutback of substantive coverage in many areas (especially science); the decline of newspapers in the face of challenges posed by the Internet; the continual challenge of finding science popularizers (who is the next Carl Sagan? Nobody, that’s who), and so on.

I argued, as I have many times before with Matt Nisbet, that scientists need to systematically study the media, and how audiences make sense of scientific information conveyed through it, and then devise strategies for communicating in this increasingly baffling Babel. The truth is that there are still incredible science communication opportunities out there–but they’re not what you’d expect. You have to be able to talk about science on the Colbert Report, or through the medium of Hollywood, rather than relying upon traditional science reporting in newspapers (which is clearly dying).

Above all I make the argument that scientists need to be proactive about communication, for very the simple reason that, as Daniel Yankelovich put it (in a different but related context, addressing the dwindling role of science in policy):

These are impressive hurdles, but they can be surmounted if the will to do so is strong enough and if we follow two core principles. The first is that the initiative to bridge the gap must come primarily from the scientists’ side rather than the policymakers’ side, for reasons both of motivation and of substance. Scientists have the stronger motivation to take the initiative, because they know how important their input can be, and they are aware of the dangers posed by their loss of influence.

As for policy, so for media–scientists are going to have to redouble their efforts, or else risk an inevitable loss of influence amid media conglomeration, shrinkage of the science news hole, the continuing transformation of news into entertainment, and much, much else.


Comments (26)

  1. Here, here!

    I’m glad you’re fighting the good fight. At Research!America we’re trying to come up with ways to help scientists become better communicators.

    Our Chair, The Hon. John Edward Porter, gave a few tips and ideas in remarks earlier this year. Scientists’ voices must be heard, especially during this election cycle.

  2. guthrie

    But which scientists should study the media?
    I’d rather we put communication scientists on the job, and they then relayed their findings and instructions to scientists in the specific disciplines, who then implement the plans and instructions.

    Or is that already happening and I havn’t noticed?

  3. Jon Winsor

    …rather than relying upon traditional science reporting in newspapers (which is clearly dying).

    In the state where I grew up, apparently, there is no longer dedicated coverage for its congressional delegation in Washington.

  4. I keep getting the feeling that there’s some private assumption around that I’ve yet to figure out. If there isn’t, then there’s some just plain bizarreness being assumed.

    Science reporting faces some serious challenges. Ok, this is a problem, and one that scientists (me at least) are concerned about.

    Next paragraph, though, is that it is scientists who need to study the media, etc. Come again? If journalists, people skilled and devoted to the realm of media communication, cannot do the job, why should scientists be able to? From your prior writings, it seems clear that you mean the bench scientists in each area (your call for them to get out of their ivory towers at the end of the republican war on science, itself a demo of you propagating a negative frame of scientists).

    Is journalism such a trivial field that people who cannot be assumed to have any talent for it whatever can learn it in a bit of night school study — and then do it better than the originals? That’d be necessary to win the battle against the shrinking news holes.

    The truth is that there are still incredible science communication opportunities out there–but they’re not what you’d expect. You have to be able to talk about science on the Colbert Report, or through the medium of Hollywood, …

    I’m quite willing to appear on the Colbert Report. I even think there’s a shot I could do so constructively. But … my willingness is not exactly the barrier here.

    I also haven’t had Hollywood knocking on my door for advice or for me to come on camera.

    Unless you can give us some relevant phone numbers to TV and film producers, the whole business of talking about how scientists need to be ‘more willing’ and ‘better’ in those venues is truly irrelevant at best.

    Now if you have suggestions on how to make my blog better, or my visits to Cafe Scientifique, or in talking to school groups … things that I actually have some control over making happen … or can add to my list of venues (with further advice about doing those well), great.

    But I can’t find the merit in complaining about how I’m (me or scientists collectively) not doing more and better in TV and movies. What are those assumptions you’ve made that make your statements work?

  5. Lisa

    I think one of the most interesting points that was brought up in class today was when Chris said that (attempting to summarize here) “we must realize that the media isn’t going to change, we have to learn to work with them”. To say this another way, you could say that scientists have to be willing to adapt to the current media demands.

    We always talk about how animals are adapting, but it seems like one particular species (i.e. scientists) is unwilling to do so. Many scientists would argue that it’s not their job to communicate with or educate the general public, but I would disagree. If scientists don’t like the way that their subject is being portrayed then they should do something about it!

    I can see why some scientists aren’t comfortable with putting themselves, or their work, out there…some just want to do “pure science” or attempt to stay unbiased. Also, let’s be honest here, the reason why we are stereotyped as nerdy, awkward, introverted individuals, is because that is in fact, fairly common. I think many people choose to go into science because they like the idea of going into a lab every day without having to interact too much with the world around them.

    I respect and understand that we are all different. However, I feel that if the scientist isn’t comfortable with presenting their work, then they need to find someone who is. This spokesperson doesn’t have to look like Angelina Jolie or have a voice like Luciano Pavarotti, they just need to be someone that is comfortable with the material and is willing to share the information with a wide range of audiences.

    If the message never makes it past the labs doors then I see this as an incredible waste of time and money. Science is about inquiry. Observing something, asking a question, making an educated guess, and then testing it. If we always keep our results to ourselves, then no good can come of that, no new knowledge is shared, and we’re likely to continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.

    In my humble opinion, I believe that scientific results are meant to be shared. I think they need to be shared in a more universal (and current) way, whether that be through print media (newspapers magazines) or television (Colbert Report). If smoke signals were still an effective form of communication then I would suggest that, but it seems that the Internet and television are the more useful these days.

  6. Emily Kelly

    I enjoyed our discussion in class earlier today, Chris, and am sold on the notion that scientists (collectively) need to pick up some slack in communicating their work and its implications to the broader public. That said, just as is the case for many professions, not everyone in the scientific community is a prime candidate for media appearances. But that should be the beauty of being part of a diverse community of people- various talents within this group can serve different functions. For some, appearances on the Colbert Report are a (successful) reality. For others, sending an email to a university PR person about an upcoming paper may be the more successful route for communication.

    I agree with others who have commented on this post that there are some who may be well-equipped to study the most effective means of communication and hope to learn from these good ideas instead of reinventing the wheel in the future myself. To start, I learned an incredible amount about communicating to a broad audience from teachers during my brief stint as a middle school teacher. Teaching may be one of the greatest crash-courses in stream-lining your message, thinking on your feet, answering out-of-the-box questions, and choosing your words carefully.

    I’m looking forward to further discussion in the morning.

  7. michelle

    While I agree that the role of science in society is the dissemination of new discoveries, I would argue that if it were the charge of scientists to communicate with the public, then they would be reporters. What other profession is asked to publicize and popularize themselves and their work for media attention? Accountants? Dentists? Custodians? Veterinarians? Not even doctors- health news is interpreted and reported by the media, and the public generally pays attention. These are professionals whose work affects the public’s daily life, but it is not they who speak of their work directly to the pubic. News reporters, either printed or televised, are charged with presenting the material.
    One might say that if it is not the role of science to tend to the media, then they do not have a right to criticize the public’s ignorance of the latest scientific discoveries. I would argue that this is true, until we speak of the science as it informs public policy. For various public policy capacities the role of policy makers and reporters might involve interviewing scientists, placing expert scientists on the bench or asking for a scientific opinion. It is their jobs to write well informed policy or portray it to the public. I think one would be hardpressed to find a scientist who wouldn’t be more than willing to share the implications of his/her results. The first thing someone wants to do when s/he discovers something new is share it. That is, after all, one reason among many why scientists strive to publish their findings.

  8. Dani

    I agree wholeheartedly with what Lisa has presented, but would like to introduce one additional caveat-the rate of adaptation of the American public. If scientists seem to be stuck in neutral, aren’t US citizens operating in reverse?

    With the increasing display of science illiteracy by the average citizen it is understandably difficult for scientists to effectively communicate their message. How are astronomers going to explain light years when only 50% of Americans can identify that the Earth orbits around the Sun-and not vice versa? Likewise, how can a forensic scientist be called as an expert witness in a criminal case, if some members of the jury think that DNA stands for Drugs and Narcotics Agency?

    While American science literacy may be on the rise it is still at a rate so low that it makes communication between the researchers and the lay public extremely problematic. It is difficult to make scientific breakthroughs relatable to people whose frame of reference is Jerry Springer and Britney Spears.

    Science is meant to shared-and right now there is a breakdown at both ends. Scientists need to be able to make their message more accessible to the public. And the public needs to work on their scientific awareness and education.

  9. Michael Navarro

    I have a vested interest for science to be clearly understood by the public. As a coastal ecologist in southern California, my field of study is impacted every day by the public. These anthropogenic effects are part of every ecological study that occurs in southern California. I study the affects that people have on the ecology that are not well understood (that’s why I study them). For example, I have studied non-point pollution on marine mammal behavior and I have studied the use of non-point pollution to track the movements of marine young (larvae). From my experience, the effects of non-point pollution are large. Therefore if I don’t try to reach out to the public, then I am contributing to the public is illiteracy on the subject. But what is the most effective means to do so?

    As discussed in class and in general, the trends in the news media towards conglomeration are not advantageous for scientific journalism. However, as Chris stated above, there are new communication avenues that we might not expect. I would like to add that these avenues have all diffent levels of accessibility. One new avenue that I highly recommend is that of the local or community newspaper.

    In perhaps a last ditch effort to sell more newspapers (unknown to me why this trend has happened), there has been a trend over the last 10 years for papers like the Los Angeles Times and the Orange County Register to expand their local sections. These expansions are specific to small communities (~20,000 cir.); the subject matter is only about that community. The draw for those living in the community is that they can be updated on their towns events more effectively than other media. These community papers are inserted bi-weekly into the regular (i.e. L.A. Times, O.C Register) paper. The community papers are characterized by high readership and as having editors that are constantly looking for new and intriguing stories.

    Most importantly, while these papers are around, they are an accessible way for scientists (without rock-star status) like myself to reach an audience of interest. Like Chris said, we have to start looking for all avenues of communication and they might not be what we expect.

  10. Amanda

    One idea presented to us in class today was that (to paraphrase) it is laughable to believe that a journalist should let a scientist review an article about his/her work after an interview/before it is published. I disagree, and argue that it is completely reasonable to let a scientist to review an article or news segment after an interview/before press. While I recognize that media timelines are short and deadlines must be met, it is just as important that the science that is communicated be sound. What good is meeting a deadline if the material is erroneous?

    As a researcher, I have worked on a few projects that have gathered media attention. I have witnessed journalists interview a colleague or boss, then get the facts terribly wrong in the newspaper article or six o’clock news segment the next day. While we were thrilled that our work was covered, it was disappointing to see the facts get twisted, omitted, or wrong. If the journalist had allowed the scientists to review the article/story before press, the facts could have been correct.

    While I agree that many scientists may not be the best communicators of their work, I believe that they should be allowed to have a say in the final presentation of their work, such as in newspapers articles or news segments. It’s a courtesy to the scientist who took the time for an interview, and ensures that the science that is communicated is accurate.

  11. Mario

    I can’t help but think of my grandfather’s premonition in giving me Dale Carnegie’s book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People” when was flying off to boarding school, my first time away from home at 14. He stuck the book into my suitcase before I headed off to the airport, with a typed note folded inside instructing me to just read the book and use it to get the girls. Having read the book, I’m convinced he’s a genius…
    The pious grandson I was, and despite this book having obviously been published in the 1930’s, I dutifully read it and, let me just give you a run down of chapter 4, “Win People to Your Way of Thinking”:

    1. The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.
    2. Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say, “You’re wrong.”
    3. If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
    4. Begin in a friendly way.
    5. Get the other person saying “yes, yes” immediately.
    6. Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.
    7. Let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers.
    8. Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.
    9. Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires.
    10. Appeal to the nobler motives.
    11. Dramatize your ideas.
    12. Throw down a challenge.

    To be a master of these tactics ought to be a requirement of Ph.D. and Masters degrees, just as I imagine, by necessity, these tactics are ingrained into journalistic training (or trial and error, whatever). By contrast, countless professors and mentors all over the world advocate scientific pigeonholing, allowing the mountains of work done by grad students to stay locked in academic limbo, far from the thirsty eye of the mass media where it might have an impact.
    How on earth would a journalist conduct a candid or even mildly interesting interview if he wasn’t able to engage the subject and make them WANT to talk to them? Likewise, I argue, how can a scientist expect his work to be relevant, let alone well received, if he can’t relate it to daily life (or even a dramatization of it – see #11), and thus make people WANT to know his opinions? Boring self-centered journalists get fired, boring self-centered scientists slip into obscurity.
    Lets get back to basics, lets look at the scientists of the renaissance, the Leonardos and the Leon Battista Alberti’s. Oh how we wish Dr. Jackson could paint like that… I jest – Dr. Jackson has been an example – eager to express his opinions far from academic circles. But I feel he is an island in a sea of shy, self-absorbed specialists that are, dare I say, AFRAID to get noticed and thus subjected to the scrutiny of the “mass media”. Leonardo never had to deal with Chris Matthews or Steven Colbert, but I feel sure he would have wowed them somehow…
    So, I’m #12’vn this mo’fo – lets up the ante on modern science and expect a little more from a Ph.D. from Wherever or a Masters in Whatever from Someplace. It’s no longer enough just to know the science and revel in the praise of peers, real science is setting an example; make sure people see you on Steven Colbert looking and sounding like a enviable maverick.

  12. Hi Guthrie,
    It has happened…Matt Nisbet has been doing it. And he has gotten slammed for it.

    Robert–I want (and have always wanted) the institutions of science to step it up, not each individual bench scientist. The idea is to have a division of labor, so that people can follow their interests, but to better *reward* those interested in communication–and to teach more about it in graduate level science education and beyond.

    Or to quote Emily Kelly: “That said, just as is the case for many professions, not everyone in the scientific community is a prime candidate for media appearances. But that should be the beauty of being part of a diverse community of people- various talents within this group can serve different functions. For some, appearances on the Colbert Report are a (successful) reality. For others, sending an email to a university PR person about an upcoming paper may be the more successful route for communication.”


    More replies shortly….

  13. Hi Michelle,
    I think we both agree on the need for the media to do its job better. But what if it isn’t, and won’t, and there are no signs of immediate change or media reform? If you still care about science in that context, don’t you have to look to other options?

    Scientific literacy is problematic to measure…do these true-false questions about things people were supposed to learn in high school really capture what they understand about science?

    But leave that aside–science education and science communication ought to be complementary endeavors…one supporting the other, both to educate and to create a more scientifically literate culture on the grand scale.

    But again, and as with the media, I question whether a significant part of the public will take the initiative to “do a better job” on its/their own. That’s why I quoted Yankelovich in the original post, who points out that at least scientists know what the public, what the policymakers, and what the media are missing…and know how dangerous it is to have these sectors of society so uninformed.

    Doesn’t such knowledge, practically speaking, put the scientists in the better position to conduct outreach?

  14. *with apologies for posting three successive comments, but I want to address as much as I can*

    Your point about local newspaper sections is a good one and dovetails closely with my emphasis on the need to think systematically about media, so as to know where all the opportunities lie. Local television news is also a very important science communication forum, and one very accessible to those scientists who reach out and establish relationships with their local TV reporters.

    The point I sought to make in class is that in general, you will never get journalists to agree to any sort of compulsory review of their stories by scientists. Many journalists will take the initiative and ask scientists for such review, especially of specific technical passages–I certainly do that. However, making this practice a demand or requirement is a bad move because it flies in the face of the norms and assumptions of journalistic culture, one of which is that the journalist has to maintain independence and not be unduly influenced by their sources…and any compulsory review (or veto power) over content would undermine that that.

    I know that scientists worry about inaccurate reports (and encounter plenty of them). But what I’m saying is, the way to fix it is through helpfulness and give-and-take without making demands that journalists won’t accept.

    Amen. Leonardo would have been very mediagenic. He would have shown the TV crews all of his wonderful toys, providing great footage…and scientists today have this great advantage still. They have lots of props, not to mention the ability to take journalists out in nature where they can capture dramatic scenes–whether of wildlife or something else–that can create compelling television. It’s a big advantage.

    I want to especially thank all the students from Jeremy Jackson’s class for commenting….and I’ll have more to say when they do….

  15. mlf

    Chris, in reference to your response to Amanda: Making it mandatory that a scientist reviews a reports’ work for accuracy is a bad idea? How can making sure that the facts are correct and accurately represented undermine a journalists’ independence? So you are literally saying that a journalist should have the independence to get the facts wrong or misrepresent them. If that kind of independence is normal and part of the culture then the culture needs to be changed.

  16. Jon Winsor

    There’s an interesting point I’ve seen made again and again by people on the politics side of things (Scienceblogs, not so much). Simply ridiculing people who disagree with you is not a very effective way of getting people to see your point. (I think it’s also risky to place all your bets on everyone getting an education some day.)

    Rick Perlstein, a Journalist/Historian who recently wrote the book Nixonland, had an interesting post responding to one of his commenters:

    I have a really hard time understanding how the U.S. could possibly be so poor at listening…. Then I remember that I learned how to research at home from my Mum, a librarian. My Dad has a Ph.d., and tells me that she taught him how to research as well… So it sounds like a lot of our problems can be traced back to our fundamental education. So why is it o unimportant to the majority of the people in the country?

    How to summarize a sentiment like that? Like this: “I’m smart. If only everyone were as smart as I was, they would see the world as I do, and my political adversaries could never prevail.”

    This is not, to put it mildly, a notably effective political appeal–as Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and ’56, famously quipped when one of his supporters, overflowing with exuberance after one of his speeches, cried, “Governor Stevenson, you’ll have the vote of every thinking American!” Stevenson replied: “But I need a majority.”

    Techically, a true thing to say. But politically, so very, very wrong. In wryly congratuling himself and his audience for comprising some sort of superior intellectual elect, he was calling everyone who didn’t like Adlai Stevenson an idiot. And no one likes to hear that they are an idiot. Especially if they are, in fact, an idiot.

    …There is a genre of movie that reached a peak in mid-century America, around the time Adlai Stevenson was acknowledging his political difficulties in a nation where not every American was “thinking,” that I like to call “liberal narcissist.” The gold standard is Twelve Angry Men. A jury is about to convict a Hispanic kid of murder because their every instinct, and a relatively thorough consideration of the evidence as presented, clearly suggests his guilt. A single juror, played by Henry Fonda, insists on slowing down the train, re-examining the evidence piece by piece. Slowly, he’s able to persuade more and more of his fellows that reasonable doubt does, in fact, exist. All, that is, except for one juror: a brutish conservative who ends up admitting that the reason he’s sure the kid is guilty is that that was just the way “those people” are. Then something extraordinary is depicted, as the picture ends: the conservative, realizing he has just revealed himself as an irrationalist and a bigot, slinks into the corner in shame. The film proposes, just like Dostoevsky’s accused pure, innocent child, that thus “enlightened,” “man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble.” Wickedness shrinks away, humiliated. “Thinking Americans” triumph, as they ever must.

    Movies like this, TV shows, books, feel really, really good for liberals watch; that is why liberals keep on making and watching so many of them–the entire run of West Wing; the Joan Allen film The Contender from a couple of years ago, which has been running frequently on HBO these days.

    Fairy tales feel good, too. And for the same reason: because they stage scenarios that aren’t true–that are better than brute truth.

    …But no one hustles onto comment threads of blogs and says, “If only we can make things work like fairy tales work, by gum, progressives can win every election!” We recognize this is childish. But liberals don’t, to their detriment, tend to recognize that wishing everyone were purely rational is just as childish. I reacquainted myself with that Dostoevsky quote by stumbling upon the blog of “a low-level academic who likes to vent his spleen a little to much.” He or she does a pretty good job of it, I’d say. The post in question is called “The Problem With Liberalism,” and, using Carl Schorske’s account of defeat of liberalism in Fin-de-Siecle Vienna, and my own account of the defeat of liberalism in Nixonland, notes that, “In both Austria and America, liberals held to core principles that betrayed them. Liberalism has its roots in the Enlightenment, and like good Enlightenment thinkers, liberals in both cases thought that being on the side of reason would win them a political victory.”

    It’s worth reading Perlstein’s whole post (which includes the Dostoevsky quote he mentions). The point here is that communication that persuades people about the truth isn’t as straightforward as just laying out the facts and having everybody see them as reasonable. And you’re certainly not going to win by being openly contemptuous if they don’t get the message.

  17. Hi mlf,
    How could one make it mandatory? There is no possibility of controlling the media in this way.

    I’m saying that scientists ought to work constructively with journalists to ensure good coverage–and that might include the voluntary checking of journalistic text sometimes, for purposes of accuracy. But making demands of journalists, or trying to impose constraints upon them, especially constraints that fly in the face of journalistic norms and that aren’t practical–and that would of course meet with cold rejection from virtually all reporters–doesn’t serve any purpose except to perpetuate the scientist-journalist divide.

    Note–this point was a small part of my talk, where I talked about the unrealistic expectations that some scientists have of journalists, and how this springs from not understanding media culture. I also noted that many journalists don’t understand scientific culture either and have unjustifiably negative, caricatured views of scientists.

  18. Eréndira

    I agree that scientists should be the ones that communicate their work, not just because they are the ones who have the motivation to do it, but because they know the subject better. The problem is that to do this we have to change the idea of what it means to be scientists, because right now many of them are just interested on doing their research and do not want to be part of the media, they don’t see it as part of their work. The reality is that communicating is becoming part of the job and scientists have to do it hand in hand with journalists.

  19. CC

    For others, sending an email to a university PR person about an upcoming paper may be the more successful route for communication.

    Those university PR people contribute at least as much to the nonsense in science reporting as any other party. One avenue for improvement would be to hold scientists responsible for puffery and dishonesty in press releases about their work.

    Incidentally, am I alone in thinking the Colbert Report is aimed at convincing dullards that they’re smarter than some hypothetical even duller dullards who don’t catch on to the furious mugging and smirking? How did this exercise in pompous, sneering idiocy become the watchword for intelligent discussion? Stewart I get, but Colbert?

  20. yogi-one

    Just a few thoughts from a sympathetic layman/non-scientist.

    I like the idea of having some communications people who make a career of advancing the communication of scientific knowledge through the media.

    A huge problem to solve is the changing technology and the changing “face” (for lack of a better term) of media. Back when there were three TV networks plus public TV, and one local newspaper everyone read, if you got something in one of those venues of communication, you got widely read and noticed.

    Now we have hundreds of channels, and lots of local papers. Not to mention more people period. Getting something on TV doesn’t guarantee a large percentage of people will watch it. The face of big TV networks has changed, and the way they present news has changed.

    Then there’s the internet – possible audience of hundreds of millions – BUT, the internet is fragmented into a million little pieces, with users choosing their favorite blogs, newsites and entertainment channels. Unless what you have headlines on Google news or Yahoo news, the chances are most people online won’t see it.

    And the problem of the anti-science/anti-intellectual bias is there. If something is deemed as too nerdy, to intellectually deep, or requires viewers/readers to have some kind of background in science, then those factors weigh against it getting published outside of known scientific venues. That’s part of a larger problem we have in the USA of glorifying stupidity, where you have Presidents and Presidential candidates bragging about not doing well in school and such.

    Then there’s the politics. Any serious show on anthropology, for example, is going to deal with time lines longer than 5000 years and take for granted basic principles of evolution. You have to fight the fundie crowd, who, while being wrong and ignorant, also kick a lot of money into media companies to get their views aired.

    In short, I think it takes specialists working full time to deal with all these obstacles.

    I think a person who has a full plate of basic research and the job of publishing complete scientific summaries of their work in professional journals is not going to have the time, the skills, or even the professional contacts to handle the issues that media communication brings with it.

    I support the idea of the creation of a profession of science communicators, or hell, let’s call it what it is – science promotion. In the same way that artists need promoters to get out there and do the legwork, I think scientists need to have people who are dedicated to promoting science.

    This is where you constantly get creamed by the fundie crowd – one of their first realizations is that they had to promote their viewpoint, an idea that seemed lost on scientists, and even today is just slowly gaining acceptance.

    You need people to sell -yes, there’s that horrible word – the idea that science is a good thing for society, and that understanding principles of science will benefit individuals and society as a whole.

    Without that, you are going to continue to get creamed in the media, even while making continued breakthroughs for humanity in the lab.

    Science journalism, and science promotion – an idea whose time has come.

  21. mlf

    CM: “How could one make it mandatory? There is no possibility of controlling the media in this way.”

    Could not the editors or newspaper owners make it a requirement?

    Why not convince the editors or owners of newspapers/news shows/etc. why it would be beneficial for their reporters to report on science the way a Chris Mooney or Carl Zimmer reports on science?

  22. Chris Knight

    I really enjoyed having Chris come in yesterday but I think a lot of the discussion here really shows why scientists have such a hard time communicating their ideas to the public. I think it’s pretty clear when I see the back and forth over scientists wanting final review of a reporters story for accuracy is that many scientists don’t understand what reporters do. The reporter generally is trying to create a story that can be understood by their target audience, which most times aren’t scientists. The scientist can offer to check for accuracy but it’s that reporters story. If you want to communicate your science, you need to accept that and make sure that you do the best job possible in communicating your information to the reporter and helping them understand your points. Mistakes happen from time to time but journalist take this seriously and will correct it if you let them know. You just need to remember that when you put information in the public, you can’t micromanage it.

  23. J. J. Ramsey

    Mooney: “It has happened…Matt Nisbet has been doing it. And he has gotten slammed for it.”

    I’d say that he’s gotten slammed for being perceived–sometimes rightfully so–as someone who kept telling Myers and Dawkins and company to shut up, and also for doing a botched job of the media analysis that we need. Heck, he even got Orac mad at him, which is a pretty good hint that something is genuinely wrong. Let’s not be too quick to make Nisbet a martyr here.

  24. I have to echo the sentiment that it shouldn’t fall entirely on the shoulders of scientists to bridge this gap. I left journalism after 12 years to enter a Ph.D. program in interdisciplinary ecology. I wanted to switch beats and I wanted to do science, not just report about it.

    What I’m finding out is that the fundamental roles of scientist and journalist are at odds. The scientist must take a focused approach to testing hypotheses and carefully laying the groundwork for the advancement of theory and knowledge. The journalist gets paid to ask questions, to think about the big picture, to put things into a context beyond the theoretical.

    Ultimately it might boil down to personality in terms of determining who is best suited to take on the two roles. And I’m not sure how it will play out for me. But given that research problems are increasingly interdisciplinary in nature, I would agree that there’s fertile ground for those who can find a way to be productive working within both fields at the same time.

  25. Cali

    I entered this emerging field of interdisciplinary science here at Scripps’ CMBC because science discovers too much that is too important to be left on the sidelines and out of day to day discussion.

    The media plays a vital role in assisting with the dissemination of important information – but as we’ve discussed – there are so many media forums available these days that to assume the general public, policy makers and private industry will know all the facts correctly, truly is to make an ass out of you and me.

    Scientists must continue to provide truthful facts, and those of us capable of and willing to speak both languages “science-jargon” and “public information sharing” must also step up to the challenge to bridge these divides.

    Reaching the voting public is vital. Sharing the wonder of science with our youth is essential. Providing relevant information to entrepreneurs and investors is key to actively addressing current and future problems. And employing the process of science, once again, in the act of policy making must be reinvigorated.

    As Chris wrote in one of my all-time favorite Seed articles, Dr. President, “For science doesn’t merely provide a way of expanding knowledge of the world. It doesn’t just provide answers to pressing questions; it changes the conversation itself. Science–and the broader way of thinking that comes with it–trains its adherents and practitioners to relish the very act of questioning for its own sake, of figuring out what’s true and false, of determining what works and what fails.”

    And as our nation at last enters the final months of the presidential campaign, I feel compelled to ask (and possibly beg) of our elected officials – and the scientists who are essential to the process – to remember the value of critical thought when making decisions and to act in any way you can to bring critical thought and problem-solving to the forefront of policy and decision making.

    Once again from Chris’ Dr. President article: “No one party has a monopoly on science or reason, to be sure. But if there is indeed an “assault on reason” right now, and if science and reason matter more than ever before when it comes to setting the right policies in an increasingly complex and challenging world–which seems scarcely disputable–then one thing alone can rescue us. The next US president must use his or her office to restore a reasoned national dialogue–a dialogue that will embrace science as both a means and an end, one that will inevitably influence the national conversation, and subsequently spill over into all other walks of American life and its institutions.”

    So to the next US president, I offer, as I’m sure many of us here at Scripps’ CMBC would, to be of assistance, in any way possible, to restore our reasoned national dialogue.

  26. Chris, I think I now see the hidden assumption that you’ve made which makes you so baffling to scientists (me, erv, …). That is, you are assuming that there’s a difference between the scientific institutions and the scientists. There isn’t. I am the AGU. Me, and 40,000 or so people like me.

    You look at the AGU’s position statement on climate change, for instance, and see something other than the work of the 8 (or whatever) people who wrote it. So do I, but only in the limited sense that the statement had to garner support from a larger group. But mostly it is a statement written by Tamara (one of the authors I know) and some others. The writing of the statement itself is largely a matter of a small group pushing politically that there should be a statement on the topic. (n.b. I don’t think all politics are evil.) Then setting about writing it and doing well enough that it could be accepted by the collection of individuals.

    In that same way, if I don’t have Colbert’s producer’s number, neither does AGU. Nothing special about me in that, of course.

    Let us say that I am both very interested (well, that one’s not arguable) and very good (debatable, but I’ll invite folks over to my blog, maybe start with my institutions vs. individuals note) at public communication. The problem you (and Nisbett) have is not one of telling the AGU that they should … well, even that’s not clear to me. Rather, you (all) have to get the ‘how to communicate’ information into my hands, and then the ‘how to be on a platform where it’ll do some good’ information as well.

    Aside from telling us scientists that we’re communicating wrong, and that we’re not doing it from the right platforms, the more direct comments have not addressed either question.

    A different matter is that it seems you think that there are a lot more scientists than there are, that, or that the few are amazingly skilled at it. My seat of the pants guess is that there are something like 10,000 scientists working on climate in the US. That’s with a liberal definition of both parts. Of that, probably only, say, 10% are capable (or already are) better journalists than the journalists (communicators of science to general audiences). Also of that, only about 10% are interested in doing so. If they really wanted to be journalists, they’d already be journalists.

    Between the two factors, however, you’re now down to maybe 100. (Maybe somewhat more as the talent and interest may not be independent.) This is a problem for you to address — that there aren’t many scientists ready, willing, and able to make use of whatever ideas you have on how and where to communicate.

    A problem with your viewing institutions, rather than scientists: The ‘authorities’ in institutions probably (that 99:1 proportion) are not the ones who’d most be interested in doing anything with your advice. To move the AGU (et al.), you’d be more effective if you found some of those 100 and got the information into their hands, for them to agitate the organization with.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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