She’s on her second of three, and clearly, the book is prompting a lot of worthy consideration. The second post asks the question: Okay, let’s say we realign academic and other resources to focus on making scientists better communicators. What exactly are we going to get for it?
What does all this have to do with Unscientific America? The book rests pretty solidly on the premise that scientists could do a better job of communicating with the public, and that such improved communication would do much to improve the odds that scientists could persuade the public that the pursuit of science is a societal good, that scientific information ought to play an important role in informing policy decisions, and so forth. I’m willing to accept the premise that scientists could communicate with the public more frequently, more clearly, and in a way that addresses the public’s interests more directly. But I think it’s reasonable to ask how much movement we can expect in what the public values in response to such improvements in communication.
Maybe the movement would be significant, but maybe it would be relatively small. If the latter, I can imagine the gnashing at teeth, especially if significant efforts have been devoted to retooling the scientific job description and scaring up resources to train a cadre of science communicators.
Maybe we shouldn’t worry to hard about the outcomes. Maybe a better informed and engaged public is always preferable to a less informed and engaged public. But I reckon if the arguments for making broad communication, public outreach, and political lobbying part of the scientist’s professional responsibilities are framed in terms of how it will improve the public’s response to policy initiatives or requests for funding, you’d better have very good, evidence-based reasons to expect those outcomes.
This is totally fair and we would say–of course you’d better. Science itself should guide us in knowing what to expect–the science of public opinion, for instance. These things can be studied.
How much people can be moved, and how to move them, depends very much on the issue. But I guess we take it to be obvious that there will be empirical work undertaken (such as the work Pew recently performed) to determine how much various public-oriented intiatives are succeeding, and that those initiatives would be retooled or done away with if proven unsuccessful.
In any case, I just want to thank Janet for her thoughtful engagement with the book.