The First of Four (!) Books on Science Communication

By Chris Mooney | July 25, 2009 2:16 pm

Out in La Jolla a week or so ago, Jeremy Jackson of Scripps pointed out something to me. Our book, Unscientific America, is really only the first of four that are coming out over the next half year or so that focus on the critical importance of science communication–and of figuring out ways of doing it very differently and much more effectively than has been done before.

In other words, this may be the start of a wave. And it’s likely to be a productive wave, as all of the books are different and thus, in a sense, complementary. Here are two of the others, along with Amazon links as I encourage you to pre-order them:

Randy Olson, Don’t Be Such A Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. The celebrated scientist-turned-filmmaker explains how scientists can “stay true to the facts while tapping into something more primordial, more irrational, and ultimately more human.” Pub date Sept 7, Island Press, book website here. I’ll have much more to say about this one soon–but clearly, it brings the valuable Hollywood and entertainment perspective to the table.

Cornelia Dean, Am I Making Myself Clear? A Scientists’ Guide to Talking to the Public. The New York Times science writer and editor argues that “to convey the facts…scientists must take a more active role in making their work accessible to the media, and thus to the public.” Pub date Oct 15, Harvard University Press. It sounds like Dean’s book will provide much more of a “how to” guide for scientists on speaking with the media–something that we didn’t really include in our book, although I have taught on this and will do so again (with Sheril) at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography this August.

In any case, Dean’s sounds like another important read–and don’t you get the sense that there’s a trend here?

The fourth book….well, I can’t find any info online about it easily, so I will avoid mentioning for now. But I know it’s out there as well.

In sum: Quite a lot of people are thinking about science communication, quite a lot of people are writing about it, quite a lot of people are realizing that there’s something about the way it has been done in the past that isn’t satisfactory.

Is it too optimistic to hope that the ultimate impact of all of these books, together, will be a new awareness within the science world of just how important it is to actively and strategically communicate about research, rather than merely publishing it and hoping the message gets out somehow?

Comments (18)

  1. John Kwok

    I have some brief thoughts on at least two of these books. Before he became a Hollywood filmmaker, Randy Olson was an up-and-coming marine invertebrate biologist noted for his work on larval dispersal in marine invertebrates, and his work helped inspire some important thinking with regards to how marine inverebrates with different reproductive strategies may have “weathered” mass extinctions. I would expect Randy to pay considerable attention to his prior work in marine biology, as well as his current affiliation with the Hollywood entertainment industry.

    Cornelia Dean is actually someone I could name as more than a mere acquaintance since we were both once active in our local college alumni book club. She has written extensively on the relationship between religion and science (Of course writing too about fellow Brunonian Ken Miller on many oocasions), on some aspects of evolutionary biology, but also, on coastal geology and land use issues (which is how she – not a scientist by training, but, if my memory is correct, an American Civilization (Studies) concentrator as an undergraduate – got into science writing and where she made a name for herself initially. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if she does devote some space towards the ongoing “accomodationist” debate that has been raging here and elsewhere online for months.

  2. Linda

    WOW, this is really hopeful, with you and Sheril leading the way.

  3. It’s an important issue, so I hope they have more success than your effort has.

  4. Anna K.

    @Benjamin Nelson, #3

    Oh, I wouldn’t count out the success of this effort just yet.

  5. TB

    I wonder how much public science museums could take part in this initiative. I imagine it would be problematic for them to take part in the political arm (maybe not), but as far as communicating science they’re halfway there.
    I guess what they’d be missing is the mechanism to find out the latest research, which would require coordination with research institutions.
    In that way, that mechanism would somewhat replace the journalist side of things that have been disappearing.
    The other prong that’s missing (or is at least not as developed) is outreach beyond the walls of the institution. I can imagine a number of ways to acheive this: lecture series that go to other places like public libraries, media specialists that focus on ways to package science stories in ways interesting to local media, Internet outreach that includes free email newsletters, a
    blog similar to Scientific America’s 60-second science blog and distant learning that can be viewed by students in a classroom or by the general public.
    All this takes funding, of course, but these institutions certainly have the fundraising and grant-writing chops to make it happen.
    The question of course is should it be part of their mission?

  6. Anna K.

    Should it be part of their mission?

    I think any enterprise that wants support from the public is going to have to engage in outreach, whether it likes it or not. If it’s a for-profit business, outreach is called ‘marketing.’

    If it’s nonprofit but wants public dollars and public support, it gets called — well — ‘outreach’ or ‘education.’

    In any case, if part of your mission is to get funding for your projects and broad-based public or political support of your goals, you’re going to have to do some kind of outreach, because those that oppose you have no qualms about spending those dollars.

    The Discovery Institute and other pseudoscience and creationist groups totally see communicating with the public and with legislators as part of their mission. And they’re good at it, too.

    Real scientists doing real science need to counter those pseudoscientific groups that definitely put a priority on outreach. It’s just political reality.

  7. Chris Mooney

    Hi Anna K,
    All I can say is, you *get it*–and you seem to fully grasp the motivations behind our writing of Unscientific America–and also, I would imagine, the motivations driving these other authors of science communication books. The point is to make scientists more aware of the political and media realities that are making them less influential than they ought to be. Given how smart scientists are, we have full confidence they can adapt to these realities and thrive–so long as they set their minds to it. It’s not rocket science….

  8. John Kwok

    @ Chris -

    We need to do what Carl Zimmer is doing, holding workshops on how to communicate effectively – in this case via writing – science and why it is important in modern society. Just last night I got into an argument with someone over at Facebook who doesn’t understand how ingrained science and technology is in modern American – and indeed global – civilization. This kind of ignorance is exactly what you and Sheril are hoping will be addressed by raising it – and offering some positive solutions – in Unscientific America.

  9. The problem is not communication so much as it is congenital predisposition. It is my experience that it is quite imposssible to communicate with the atheist Darwinians just as it is with all other religious fanatics. They all suffer from the same defect. Albert Einstein identified this basis for this syndrome long ago -

    “Then there are the fanatical atheists whose intolerance is the same as that of the religious fanatics, and it springs from the same source…They are creatures who can’t hear the music of the spheres.”

    Like most pure white cats, they are stone deaf and apparently for the same genetic reason. Worse, they are also blind as the proverbial bat to the living world around them, a world in which chance could not possibly have played a major role in its creation. There is nothing that can be done for these poor souls except to laugh at them and dispense with them with -

    “Don’t let this happen to you.”

    It doesn’t get any better than this.

    jadavison.wordpress.com

  10. Marc

    John Davison: “Darwinist” has no causal connection at all with “atheist”. We don’t call people who accept the theory of gravity “Einsteinists’, so Darwinist is a silly turn of phrase. Evolution is the central concept in modern biology. It doesn’t rely on chance (chemistry is not random), and so on. The how/why distinction on answering questions is a very important one, and I’m afraid you’re confusing the two.

  11. Marc, whoever that is. and I expect that we will never know.

    Do you really expect anyone to believe that there is no connection between “atheist” and Darwinist?

    There is no place for “isms” of any sort in science. Darwinists, or if you prefer, Darwinians, are those who believe that it is intrinsic in the nature of nonliving matter to self assemble into living evolving entities. That is the essence of Darwinism and I reject it completely. How any thinking person can embrace the Darwinian model is beyond my comprehension.

    “It is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatsoever for believing it to be true”
    Bertrand Russell

    “An hypothesis does not cease being an hypothesis when a lot of people believe it.”
    Boris Ephrussi

    jadavison.wordpress.com

  12. TB

    Anna K

    I probably wasn’t clear: I wasn’t asking whether public science museums should do outreach. I was noting that, since they already engage in public outreach, would it be a good idea if they became a kind of nexus for the kinds of things that Chris and Sheril are proposing – essentially coordinating and focusing the efforts of various institutions.

  13. Especially looking forward to Cornelia Dean’s book. Thanks for mentioning these!

  14. Screechy Monkey

    “I encourage you to pre-order them”

    Interesting. It’s ok for you to recommend books you haven’t read as long as they seem to agree with your view, but not for anyone to criticize you without having read the full book.

    John Kwok writes: “Randy Olson was an up-and-coming marine invertebrate biologist”

    But was he an eminent biologist? I only pay attention to eminent scientists. And what high school did he attend?

  15. Davo

    Invertebrate anatomist, physiologist, taxonomist or paleontologist? Could you be more specific?

  16. Marion Delgado

    Every venue is a chance to communicate, hence:

    The origin of species comes not from chance (which, from a fairly limited palette of random mutations, will occur) alone, but from natural selection.

    Anything else is not in fact the position of evolutionary biologists since Darwin and Wallace. Anyone claiming it is either attempting to deceive others, or is themself deceived.

  17. John Kwok

    @ Screechy Monkey and Davo -

    Olson grew up in Kansas, so he never had the chance to study at my high school or undergraduate alma maters. As for his speciality, I think he was a marine invertebrate biologist specializing in reproductive biology (He was “eminent” enough to be cited by a lot of people back in the late 1980s and early 1990s.).

  18. As usual I am wasting my time here. Enjoy yourselves, whoever you are.

    jdavison.wordpress.com

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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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