Janet Stemwedel's Great Posts on Unscientific America

By Chris Mooney | July 14, 2009 8:23 am

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.


Comments (21)

  1. Peter Beattie

    I’m wondering, Chris, if Janet’s review is so good, why don’t you address her serious criticisms? I listed them in a comment to your first post on her review. She even makes a couple of points that PZ made, and for which you took him to task. Yet not a word from you on that. Why is that?

  2. Peter Beattie

    Oh, and you will have noticed that Janet’s conclusion in this new piece echoes more than one of Ophelia Benson’s questions to you:

    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.

    Many round here, I suspect, would still like to know about those “evidence-based reasons”.

  3. MyaR

    I think, Peter, that your second comment has been pre-answered: “I guess we take it to be obvious that there will be empirical work undertaken”. As in, there is currently no evidence, but we’re sure there will be in the future. ‘Trust me! If we just do all this stuff, retraining scientists and retooling how new scientists are trained, plus just funding lots more scientists, then we’ll be able to produce some evidence.’ Which doesn’t seem such a good idea to me. I took this to be a part of what Janet was saying.

  4. Peter Beattie

    Oh good, there’s another quite thoughtful and may I say comprehensive review out: Jerry Coyne over at WEIT. Any bets as to whether it will get a “rebuttal” or the “great posts by X” treatment?

  5. J.J.E.

    @ Peter Beattie

    I say give them some time. There are still quite a few reviews outstanding, and if the reviews that they’ve linked to here are at all representative of what’s to come, then we will see some very serious reservations as well as a few high-flying recommendations before the book’s one month old. All in all, one unifying theme I sense emerging so far is an overall sense of vagueness in the book. But then again, what can you do with limited space and a complex problem?

    I’ll check my local bookstore this weekend to see if I can camp out for a few hours and read it, but I don’t think we’ll have this one.

    Chris & Sheril, how international is this distribution?

  6. gillt

    As Chad Orzel mentions, if you’ve read The Intersection for any length of time, you’ll be familiar with all the arguments in the book.

    I agree MyaR: We’ve suspected as much, but I think this marks the first time Mooney has said there is little to no evidence in support of his and SK’s solution.

    And still, I think it is totally legitimate to make that argument without the evidence, but you’ve gone beyond bold assertion to baseless opinion when you claim that accommodationism is the only method that will work (i.e., confrontational atheism is detrimental).

  7. Erasmussimo

    I can offer one bit of evidence in favor of greater public outreach: NASA. Here’s a scientific operation that depends entirely and directly on the public purse. And it spends a LOT of time marketing itself. They have summer camps for kids, the NASA video channel, NASA stores selling NASA junk (move over, Mickey Mouse!), outreach programs for getting people involved in NASA events, and on and on. These folks know marketing! And it works — they get funded.

    Now if scientists just want to do science and are willing to fund their efforts out of their own pockets, then they’ll do fine ignoring the public. But if you want other people to give you their money, you have to sell your product. I go even further: I claim that public understanding of science grows ever more important with each passing year. We can point to the teaching of evolution as an example of public ignorance of science, but the negative effects of that imbroglio are indirect. To see direct effects, look at the climate change. Here we have a major political issue dominated by towering public ignorance of science.

  8. Walker

    As Erasmussimo points out, public outreach can be successful if it is sustained and a lot of effort is put into marketing. However, as everyone in academia knows, this is largely incompatible with the American tenure system. R1s will not take into consideration as part of your review, and if it takes time away from real research, it may hurt. And while the NSF is putting a lot of money behind outreach, much of it goes to the teaching schools — people who are not the actual leaders in the field.

  9. Marc

    It would be nice if the tiresome religious/anti-religious advocacy could be contained within the relevant threads.

    There is a separate question – namely, are there strategies in the training of scientists which would improve the understanding of science in the broader public.

    One comment from me: it’s not at all obvious that public education and outreach on science is necessary done best by research scientists. The skills and craft of research need not align with those involved in communicating results to the public.

  10. Marc : fully agreed that the skill and craft of research need not align with communication. Indeed, I think that Universities do themselves harm by requiring that science faculty by the One Size Fits All combination of teacher and researcher.

    However, scientists need to be able to communicate to *somebody*. It’s part of doing science. If you’re working by yourself, you need to be able to do it. If you’re in a group, somebody in your group needs to be able to do it. On the broader view, we *need* scientists who are real and trained scientists who communicate. It doesn’t have to be everybody, but it has to be somebody. And, that means that we need to afford respect to people who primarily do that instead of producing research papers and research grants. Right now, the rewards system in science is set up entirely for prestige. Yes, you can work to that end with communication, and indeed must do some of it, but racking up a high publication list (and whatever flavor of the month of “impact metric” people are using) and a high list of grants is the primary thing that scientists need to acquire in order to gain rewards nowadays. That is not enough. We need to respect the diversity of roles just as much as we respect the diversity of fields.

  11. John Kwok

    @ Eramussimo –

    In a similar vein this is what physicist Brian Greene and journalist Tracy Day (his wife) are trying to accomplish with their World Science Festival, by demonstrating how science is relevant to their daily lives in a thoughtful, but often also amusing and entertaining, way.

    Would have to say that while Janet Stemwedel is asking similar questions of Chris and Sheril that certain Militant Atheists have, hers have been far more thoughtful, even nuanced, than what i have read from them. Stemwedel’s review of “Unscientific America” is unquestionably the best I have read so far.

  12. Peter

    Good Science communication is more than telling people about what Scientists do. It’s about understanding the Science itself more clearly and inventing simpler, more tractable, and more transparent models and, ultimately, engineering tools, which is real research. Real understanding is a long-term process, requiring contemplation beyond the scope of most projects, which is an issue in Science and Engineering research funding.

    Equally an issue for journalists is the underfunding of investigative journalism, which cannot be paid for by its targets. Sadly little investigative journalism takes Science and Scientists as its targets. It perennially amazes me that no-one investigates the Science Conference in an Exotic Location Junket, for example, and there are other aspects of the system that might bring a focus onto the possibility of self-interested complacency in Science. Not what The Intersection wants to sell, I guess.

  13. gillt

    Yes, it’s not like there aren’t programs out there where actual researchers in the field are teaching a new generation about science.

    Right, and the NIH has summer and year-long programs for hundreds of highschool, college and post-bach positions in actual labs doing science, and presenting their results at a poster fair, and in many instances, getting their name on publications. It’s the job of every post-doc to teach these youngsters how to design experiments and trouble-shoot like a scientist, a one-on-one mentoring for the duration of the program. Like NASA, the infrastructure is in place.

    Now I agree; more should be done, but what exactly and how? Simply saying we need to train scientists to be effective communicators doesn’t seem to acknowledge what’s currently going on, and certainly isn’t a new or bold solution to the problem. I’ve been reading this blog since it was over at SEED, and I haven’t seen a viable solution here or in any review of the book. If it is laid out in the book, as promised, fine, I’ll shut up.

  14. Marc

    Scientists are certainly aware of the importance of communicating their results to other scientists. That is definitely a major component of graduate training in our program. However, outreach is a much more difficult thing to formalize. Teaching to undergraduates is an important form of public outreach. Other things – presentations in public schools, public talks, and so on – are really volunteer activities. Collaborations with science museums would be logical, but they’re not common for whatever reason.

    It seems to me that you’d benefit by stressing science for journalists, or teaching K-12 science teachers.

  15. John Kwok

    @ Peter –

    It’s exactly why I agree with Carl Zimmer that science education has to start in secondary schools (and preferably, even lower, in middle schools if not before). This is really the only time when potential adults have the opportunity of being exposed substantially to science, since most won’t enroll in science course as undergraduates, unless it’s to satisfy distribution requirements for their degrees.

  16. Heraclides

    @12 (): It perennially amazes me that no-one investigates the Science Conference in an Exotic Location Junket

    They’re hardly free junkets. The money comes out of people’s grants which are already thinly spread and conferences are expensive. Perhaps if you understood first-hand what working off research grants is like, you’d understand that. (To be fair, the fees for the speakers are often waived or reduced and the travel & accommodation of keynote speakers can be paid for, but participants pay.) You might not recognise that conferences are essential for forming collaborations and are hard work, not just extended parties!

    @7 (Erasmussimo): A number of universities already have similar programs, including science camps, etc., at least outside of the USA.

    @ Chris: While this one point (sci. comm.) is worthwhile and interesting, I believe the criticism of the book is more other issues.

    @ All:

    I don’t think it makes sense to obligate all scientists to communicate with the public more. I’m for better recognising a diversity of roles (as Rob refers to @10). Some won’t have the skills and more practically few research scientists, esp. group leaders, will have the time. I sometimes think that people who bring this up “more communication” idea simply have no idea how busy working scientists already are and how many “hats” they are already wearing.

    One thing that does need to change is academia’s view on “alternative” science careers, including that of science communicators (see for example http://scienceblogs.com/bioephemera/2009/07/mixed_messages.php) and perhaps for active support from within the universities, etc., beyond their current PR people (no offence, but many of these seem to lack the skills to communicate science well).

  17. Heraclides

    From Janet’s first commentary on the book:

    None of this is to say that it would be a bad idea to recognize communication with and outreach to those beyond the tribe of science as a meaningful activity for a scientist. But if is to have a chance of being so recognized in any official way, someone needs to frame a clear argument identifying the benefits of doing it (and the costs of failing to) so as to make it a no-brainer for deans, provosts, presidents, chancellors, legislatures, governors, and unions. I believe such an argument could be made, but I couldn’t find it in this book.

  18. José

    The one criticism of Janet’s reviews I have is that she either doesn’t realize, or at least doesn’t acknowledge, that the view that it would be beneficial for scientists to be better communicators with the public is not new or controversial. She is critical of your book for being short on specifics and solutions, just as other negative reviews are.

    Since you believe her reviews are “thoughtful engagement”, what’s stopping you from addressing her main points of criticism. How do Janet’s reviews qualify as “thoughtful engagement”, while other negative reviews don’t?

  19. Paul

    How do Janet’s reviews qualify as “thoughtful engagement”, while other negative reviews don’t?

    Alienating Janet by misrepresenting her like he did with PZ wouldn’t increase blog hits. And all he’s done with any serious criticism is misrepresent it. PZ’s an acceptable target because he’s known to be harsh and critical. Trying to pull the same thing with Janet would be a crossing moral event horizon that would kill the blog, and they know it. So he just picks the nice parts of the review, call it a positive thoughtful engagement with his material, and leaves it at that.

  20. Marc

    #19: or, perhaps, the tone of a critique influences the reponse to it. I certainly found Janet’s review to be critical and thoughtful, and to their credit they linked to it. Meyers? Not so much.

  21. Gina Mel

    I certainly found Janet’s review to be critical and thoughtful, and to their credit they linked to it. Meyers? Not so much.
    Of course they also left out the heart of her critique skewing the review, knowing most people who happen this site will not go read the review.


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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 Salon.com 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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