Mike The Mad Biologist: 'the gloves are coming off'

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | April 19, 2010 12:49 pm

Last week I posted an invitation that arrived from the Heritage Foundation for an anti-science briefing that was about to take place directed at Capitol Hill staffers. My purpose was simple:

I’ve reposted the text because I don’t think most scientists understand the way policy decisions are influenced. We may have a more scientific Washington than when I worked in DC, but science and its allies must fight harder than ever before. Some groups are already effective. Some of us are trying new initiatives. I’m optimistic and realize that change happens slowly, but I hope those working in policy-related areas will take note and become more involved making sure that sound science moves beyond the lab. Because when we’re not explaining what we do and why it matters, someone else is telling the story for us. And we often won’t like the result.

An interesting dialog followed in comments and around the internet. It also seems to have struck a nerve with Mike The Mad Biologist, although I’m not clear why. He accuses me of ‘blaming the scientists’ as ‘a professional science communicator.’ Thing is, I never signed up to be a ‘professional science communicator.’ Or at least no more so than the rest of the science bloggers (like Mike) and writers who happened upon this trajectory. I’ve never taken a journalism course in my life. Mike writes:

I do research, others do research and teaching, others primarily teach. Regardless, we’re in the game. We’re doing our part. We’re doing science. But carping on other people’s supposed failures is not doing science.

Apparently Mike doesn’t seem to think I’m part of the science community even though I’ve just left one of the most effective conservation groups in the nation. In fact, my incredible mentor and dear colleague Stuart Pimm receives the Tyler Prize this week (Go Stuart!).  Mike continues:

Worse, by blaming generic ‘scientists’, as opposed to specific scientists or science-based groups, Kirshenbaum simutaneously misidentifies the problem, while reinforcing negative stereotypes. Win! FAIL.

Mike, since you addressed me in your post, I’ll respond to you directly here: Science, policy, and our collective future are all connected. It’s critically important that everyone recognizes what’s happening in the legislative realm. So when I get invited to an anti-science event, I’m going to post it publicly to demonstrate what we’re up against. You suggest I:

go fucking forth and do some science.

And stop blaming the victim.

Your anger is misdirected and in-fighting gets us nowhere. So put those gloves back on, we’re sitting at laptops. Furthermore, I’m doing some pretty cool science. (More details on that coming soon…)

Comments (34)

  1. Indie

    I think Mike didn’t understand what the post was about and had a knee jerk reaction. At least I hope so.

  2. ponderingfool

    Heaven forbid you address his actual point about the mass difference in resources.

  3. Seconding ponderingfool. Mike’s point was that it’s unfair to blame scientists for doing a poor job of doing things that there in no position to do well, and that it’s much more reasonable to worry about the failures of environmental advocacy groups and so on. Your original post was kinda in line with this point, insofar as you mentioned scientists working for NGOs, but you spun it as a problem with scientists, not a problem with NGOs.

  4. Pete

    Sheril didn’t blame anyone as far as I can tell. That invitation serves as a wake up call. Mike was hostile to dismiss it and tell her to “go fucking forth and do some science.”

  5. Mike the Mad Biologist seems to have missed the point of your post, and somehow misconstrued it as an ad hominem attack? Odd. Anyway, thanks for pointing out what scientists, whether they “signed on” to champion their work or not, face when the fruits of their efforts are evaluated by policy-makers.

    -Bruce, the non-practicing biologist

  6. V.O.R.

    Huh. When you say “scientists”, Sheril, do you mean “Speaking broadly, of course there are innumerable exceptions” or do you mean “Each and every one: This means YOU.”

    Mike seems to believe it’s the second one. I’d assumed the first, but maybe I was wrong.

    And I agree with #2. Hey, maybe you could write a book about it? Your blog post title could even be a chapter title for the relevant section.

  7. laserboy

    The other thing that annoyed me about the previous post and this post is that it doesn’t acknowledge the full asymmetry of the situation. First, the anti-science dudes don’t actually have to spend their money on science, while the scientists do. Second, scientists who are funded by public money are lambasted for not showing the polish of professional liars, but at the same time they are not allowed to spend money on stuff like entertaining politicians.

    Now it would be nice to see some specific suggestions on how scientists who are not allowed to spend money on talking to politicians can have the same impact as professional liars. With the condition that we don’t get turned into professional liars ourselves, I am prepared to listen to suggestions on how to present myself and my data. But, instead what we get is UR DOIN IT RONG.

    And, yes, Mike has a point. Scientists have been targeted by a rich and very active group who have the single aim of destroying our credibility. That makes us a victim, and you are actually blaming the victim. You are telling us that it wouldn’t happen to us if we were more like professional liars.

  8. GM

    Furthermore, I’m doing some pretty cool science. (More details on that coming soon…)

    Kissing may look cool but it’s hardly serious science

  9. GM

    2. ponderingfool Says:
    April 19th, 2010 at 1:16 pm
    Heaven forbid you address his actual point about the mass difference in resources.

    It’s not just resources, see below

    3. Chris Hallquist Says:
    April 19th, 2010 at 1:48 pm
    Seconding ponderingfool. Mike’s point was that it’s unfair to blame scientists for doing a poor job of doing things that there in no position to do well, and that it’s much more reasonable to worry about the failures of environmental advocacy groups and so on

    I have yet to hear Mooney and Kirschenbaum, who so much like to tell us how we should be better communicators suggest how you can communicate to people who will not listen at all. How exactly are we going to teach science to the kids that will start shouting and yelling the moment evolution us mentioned in class (especially if we in the same time try to protect their “constitutional rights” of religion and not being offended). How are we going to get science on TV if this same population does not want to watch it? Even if you convince TV to put some science on, ratings will be low and it will be dropped very soon. It is nice and very easy to talk about effective communication, but if you are going to do that you need to also show how exactly you are going to achieve it in the conditions of a free market democracy where the rules are such that the very existence of a majority of poorly educated semi-literate scientifically ignorant anti-science mass will block any effort to turn things around.

  10. Gaythia

    I agree with laserboy that Mike has a point here, albeit also a bit buried in gratuitous attacks.

    I also agree with ponderingfool that the focus ought to be on dealing with the mass difference in resources. Scientists are constrained by time and available resources as are science journalists.

    Sheril and Mike both need to remember that ultimately they are on the same side here. In my opinion, in the calmer parts of both of their posts, they do demonstrate this.

    It needs to be possible to use blogging as a means of communicating ideas and not stoking controversies.

  11. Wayne Shields

    Science is essential–that’s the bottom line. But if we don’t help non-scientists understand why, then scientists might as well be slaving in the dark because our ideological friends’ flat-world messaging will win the day with the average citizen. We need to encourage everyone to become better critical thinkers. And NO ONE is a better messenger for science than those who conduct or apply research in their professional lives.

    Sheril and Chris are doing the right thing by focusing on messaging and communications about the important role of science in our lives. But scientists themselves are the ones who have the best credibility for winning the minds of questioning people. It won’t happen without you, so it is time to step up and stop the quibbling while the battle is being lost.

  12. GM

    Once again – there is not going to be any kind of bottom-up solution to this problem as long as the population is too ignorant for communication to be successful, which is the case now. It will have to be a top-down approach

  13. Gaythia

    I agree with Wayne, but also think that it is important to note the major hurdles involved in conveying a genuine scientific outlook to the general public.

    For example, at this moment, one of the lead stories on the front page of Fox news online is: “UN Climate Panel Gets an ‘F’ An audit of the United Nations’ landmark climate change report gave 21 of the 44 chapters a failing grade.”

    In my opinion, this story was written with great care as to it’s appearance of unbiased credibility. One has to follow the link and drill down into the story before one gets to the part where it turns out that this “audit” was done by a team recruited by a climate skeptics group. See: http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2010/04/19/united-nations-climate-global-warming-ipcc/

    The involvement of scientists is needed, but scientists can’t be expected to just step outside their lab for a moment and somehow counter these sorts of attacks.

  14. What do Jerry McNerney, Rush Holt and Vern Ehlers have in common besides all being Congressmen?

    They all have PhD’s in Mathematics or Science. It might be interesting to compare their votes on key issues to see just how much political party power influences those votes. Sheril is right. The foundations have the money to pay people to do things every day that the rest of us have to slip in sometime after 9:00 P.M. The deck is stacked and the citizens are the losers.

    We all should spend more time writing to our congress critters, then writing in the local papers as to whether they “get it” or not. Fortunately, mind (McNerney) basically does. But I can’t say the same for my senators and they need to be taken to task publicly. Once they believe that there are voters who care about how we think on scientific issues, they will listen. But, if they believe that the public does not care, then they will ignore everyone.

  15. Kristina

    I think that Mike missed the point. This is a call for organization. The scientific community’s prolific degree of communication is not politically effective when it’s not focused by a cohesive movement. Maybe we should look closer at the pro-science movements that presently exist. Who is making the most progress politically and how do we support them?

  16. ponderingfool

    Maybe we should look closer at the pro-science movements that presently exist. Who is making the most progress politically and how do we support them?
    ***********
    Or maybe it is the fact that the forces aligned against say dealing with climate change have much deeper pockets and resources, and the way our society is set-up they get a significant advantage in shaping the debate. Why aren’t scientists better organized? Maybe because the money and time just isn’t there. Movements that have succeeded in this country organized and hit the bottom line of companies, threatened the economic status quo. Communicating wasn’t why they succeeded, they had a strategy to hit economic interests in this country and align those economic interests with their movements (or at the very least, have the economic interests be apathetic to either side).

    Those involved in the Civil Rights Movement who expanded it to include issues of class were far more successful dealing with segregation than they were with poverty. We tend to ignore the SCLC’s “Poor People’s Campaign” which was undercut by the media. Dealing with class in the US threatened the economic interests of far more companies than ending segregation. Should we call the SCLC a failure? Or realize the economic interests involved and work together to deal with that reality. Reading Mooney and Kirshenbaum I come away with scientists are the problem but never really an analysis of the underlying system. They focus on a symptom and not the actual disease. That can be demoralizing. Scientists are the victim. Mike is right.

    You want scientific organizations capable of organizing lunches and having staff ready to appear on TV, and to appear before congress? The money is not going to come from scientists. We don’t have that kind of disposable income. You need to align economic interests such that they would be willing to put up the money. If you truly believe scientists need to be organized, don’t hammer the scientists to communicate. Put your efforts into getting the resources necessary to have such an effective organization possible.

  17. Gaythia

    I don’t think that we are even dealing with forces that are aligned against climate change, per se. Some of this is about discrediting the opposition by any means possible. Scapegoating.

    After all, a number of large corporations do accept climate change and are factoring this into their own future projections.

    A headline in my local newspaper this morning says that traders are relieved to see that the decision to press the case against Goldman Sachs was not unanimous. These people are not going to pour money into a campaign that advertises: “Let’s ensure that Goldman Sachs can make another 3 Billion dollars next year”. But they know how to access the best of Madison Avenue to run a campaign on surrogate issues that are designed to appeal to average Americans and elect the people who will support them.

    People distrust what they don’t understand. Conservatives who are themselves economic elites have historically found success in pointing fingers at intellectuals while giving the impression that they are the ones who are just plain folks.

    I think that the Civil Rights movement succeeded when it was able to defy the economically powerful forces and present itself as a moral cause that resonated with people because they could see that it was right.

  18. ponderingfool

    I think that the Civil Rights movement succeeded when it was able to defy the economically powerful forces and present itself as a moral cause that resonated with people because they could see that it was right.
    **************
    And the SCLC suddenly lost the ability to present “a moral cause that resonated with people” with regards to dealing with issues of class? I think you do a disservice to the leaders of the Civil Rights movement to limit their intellectual contribution to presenting a moral cause that resonated with people. Study the details of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. How it was run, how decisions were made, how people were included, the organization, the targeting, the protection, etc.

  19. Absurdist

    Furthermore, I’m doing some pretty cool science. (More details on that coming soon…)

    Great, we will all look forward to those peer-reviewed publications.

    Mike’s comments may sound gratuitous, but he is simply echoing a sentiment I have often seen here. The point is, you and CM often appear like you are sitting there high-handedly on the mountaintop, scolding scientists to be better communicators and preaching to them to stop being so preoccupied with their research, when the fact is that neither of you are scientists. Neither of you are currently sweating it out in the mud, writing grant after grant and trying to get decent publishable results. You may have done some research in the past but a master’s degree or even if a PhD by itself does not make one a research scientist.

    Naturally people get pissed off by what they see as high-handed self-righteousness coming from two people who are themselves not down in the trenches. But the difference is that CM never calls himself a scientist while you do. You are not. Just acknowledge it, there’s nothing wrong with it; Carl Zimmer is a superb science writer but I would never call him a scientist and it would be ok. You may be a good science writer or communicator or whatever, but you are not a bona fide scientist. Bona fide scientists have at least a decent publication record to their credit and are usually actually doing research in universities.

    Maybe it’s your desire to straddle two worlds, maybe it’s your wish to somehow fulfill that ambition you had of becoming a real working scientists which did not quite pan out, but stop portraying yourself as a scientist. I think that’s what gets people’s goat, that’s what makes people say “Hey, she doesn’t have to face all the hurdles that I as a scientist have to, and yet she somehow thinks she knows what I am going through, and thinks she can scold me for not being an effective communicator when it’s me and not her who is working his/her ass off at the bench”. It obviously sounds quite presumptuous on your part.

    My advice is this; stop behaving like you are doing some cool science (no, kissing may be interesting to a lot of people but writing a book on it is not remotely the same as doing cool current science) and follow your co-blogger’s example who simply calls himself a science journalist. Stop saying that you are a scientist, portray yourself as a science writer or journalist, and real scientists will accept you for what you are and will start taking you seriously. Until then you will continue to face resentment. Trust me, real scientists appreciate people like CM who do science journalism much more than people who are actually science journalists or writers but who also keep calling themselves scientists.

  20. Great, we will all look forward to those peer-reviewed publications.

    I’ve had some already, but yes, keep an eye out for upcoming articles…

  21. GM

    Maybe it’s your desire to straddle two worlds, maybe it’s your wish to somehow fulfill that ambition you had of becoming a real working scientists which did not quite pan out, but stop portraying yourself as a scientist. I think that’s what gets people’s goat, that’s what makes people say “Hey, she doesn’t have to face all the hurdles that I as a scientist have to, and yet she somehow thinks she knows what I am going through, and thinks she can scold me for not being an effective communicator when it’s me and not her who is working his/her ass off at the bench”. It obviously sounds quite presumptuous on your part.

    There may be people who feel this way, and there probably are many of them, but I think most substantial criticism directed at them is based on the fact that most scientists who have been thinking about the same issues find their understanding of the problems lacking, and their proposed solution totally inadequate

  22. Absurdist

    keep an eye out for upcoming articles…

    Sure, as long as you call yourself a science journalist and not a scientist in them. If it’s original research, then articles in popular science magazines cannot set the standard for peer-reviewed acceptance. And pubmed thinks you have had one actual research article until now.

  23. Indie

    Absurdist does sound absurd. Ms. Kirshenbaum’s done a lot of original research. She’s more in science than journalism.

  24. ponderingfool

    Absurdist does sound absurd. Ms. Kirshenbaum’s done a lot of original research. She’s more in science than journalism.
    *********************
    For Mike the Mad Biologist, it should be noted Sheril does advertise on her website more as a science journalist than scientist.
    http://sherilkirshenbaum.com/bio.html
    “Sheril Kirshenbaum is co-author of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government and works to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public.”

    “Now a science journalist, Sheril contributes to publications including New Scientist, Newsweek, The Huffington Post, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods.”

  25. Pete

    Or there’s the next paragraph:

    “her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a Research Associate at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects.”

  26. Absurdist

    -Absurdist does sound absurd. Ms. Kirshenbaum’s done a lot of original research. She’s more in science than journalism.

    Proof please. You are the one sounding absurd. Maybe your definition of “a lot” is ultra liberal. The “work published in Science” was a write up on science policy, not an original research paper, which is vastly different and much more hard work. And you mean to say she is more in science writing and policy than science journalism. CM is much more of a bona fide science journalist and has two solid books to his credit (The Republican War and Storm World) which prove this. SK needs to do the same to be called a science journalist. At this point she is a wannabe science journalist/writer with a promising future ahead of her, if she takes the right steps. But a scientist she is not.

  27. ponderingfool

    Sheril is a scientist I don’t doubt Pete but her website promotes her as a science journalist (her words). Her article in Science is: “Science and government. Science and the candidates”, in line with her part in founding Science Debate. The science part of the website reads as past tense. The science journalism comes across as now. When you frame yourself a certain way don’t be surprised if people associate you in that way. Is it the full reality? No, but framing isn’t about the full reality.

  28. Absurdist

    And *that’s* the problem with framing IMO

  29. ponderingfool

    Of course the main problem is we have been spending time debating whether Sheril is a scientist or not and not the full merits of Mike’s analysis. Sheril framed the debate that way, so not the surprising.

    The question is can scientists as things stand now really compete with the deep pockets aligned against global warming when it comes to lobbying Congress & their staff? Appearing on news channels? I would say the answer is no, even with a wonderful organization and singular focus. Why? The money just is not there at this point. You want professional level communication on behalf of science, you have to pay for professional level service. The message right now should not be about blaming scientists for not being more professional in communicating and kissing the rear of Congress & their staff, but about if you think that is important how can we achieve that; how can we align moneyed interests to support dealing with global warming to provide that level of professionalism? Mike is challenging Sheril and Chris to provide a deeper analysis of the situation.

    Of course you could also argue that maybe we should be thinking of other ways of pushing things forward.

  30. V.O.R.

    Based on recent hopefully-non-representational reading, I’d add “Scientists are often overly defensive.” to the list of problems in science communication. Or, more specifically, to the problem of discussing problems in science communication.

  31. gillt

    Let’s clear some things up with a tautology: if you’re not doing science then you’re not a scientist.

  32. gillt

    Of course my definition just eliminated most senior investigators.

  33. TB

    Poor Mike – the guy barely has time to blog several times a day. About stuff, sometimes scientific stuff.
    WAAAA!

    Of course, the shorter MYMB is “I want to do what I want to do so stop pointing out something important to do that I don’t want to do.”
    Because, you know, Sheril is ALL POWERFUL and can make people, you know, do stuff.

  34. Two blog posts of mine about the whole issue of communication in science, including one on Mike The Mad Biologist’s remarks:

    Science needs to do better in Public Relations? Some scientists react badly to the need instead
    and
    Shooting the messenger instead of dealing with the problem: more on some scientists behaving badly to the need to become better communicators

    As for the reptition of the point made by Mike about the disparity in resources; for heaven’s sakes, scientists are not the first nor only group who had to learn how to make effective public campaigns and communication despite very limited resources. A bit less self-pity, a bit less ad hominems, and more actually dealing with the need to be better at public and governmental communication would well be in order.

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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.

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