The Reasons For Sci Comm Training

By Chris Mooney | May 25, 2010 9:28 am

Sagan TimeWhen I blogged the other day about the media training I was doing at MIT, the first comment read as follows:

Frauds at work.

Science is not about PR, Mooney.

You and your ilk make me feel both ill, and embarassed to say I am a scientist.

You should go crawl back under your rock.

To which Aileen Pincus, who also does media training, ably replied:

There’s no question that science is losing the public relations battle, so it’s interesting to me to still find scientists like the poster above who obviously believe that learning to communicate the science somehow harms the science. Yes, those who apply science commercially don’t suffer from such delusions, and they’re a good many of my clients. Others however, come to understand the real world of how science in funded only after long, losing struggles. Public support for science, essential to that funding, isn’t something to be scorned–and that can only happen when scientists learn how to talk to non-scientists.

Indeed–and that is only one of the reasons that many scientists are interested in having such trainings. I believe a lot of it has to do with the nastiness of the evolution and climate wars, and the sense that we have been “losing” them, or at least not making much positive progress–as demonstrated regularly in public opinion polls. It also involves the strong awareness that America is, er, “unscientific”–not very attuned to science, not very informed, not very interested–and that while the reasons for this sad state of affairs are myriad, uncommunicative scientists surely don’t help matters.

As for the claim that it is somehow a corrupting influence to learn how to explain yourself to non-scientists….this is the perspective, presumably, of those who slammed Sagan for his effectiveness and popularity. But it is hardly a dominant view in science any longer (if it ever was). And it really doesn’t make any sense–not everyone is going to be a bench scientist who excels technically in research. Science needs both to create new knowledge and also to disseminate it effectively so that that knowledge has an impact–so that it changes the world in a positive way. Why on earth would these two important ends be set in opposition to each other?

As for the notion that research results speak for themselves, and don’t need any communication, any translation….well, this is just wildly wrong, as anyone familiar with the media coverage of scientific topics, or with research on science communication, can tell you.

I am not sure how much energy needs to be spent refuting such negativism, though–because all the momentum is against it. In the wake of ClimateGate, scientists see an urgent need for better communications and media preparation. Yes there will be holdouts and naysayers, but they aren’t winning the day.

Comments (85)

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  1. Scientists Or Policymakers? « Back Towards The Locus | May 27, 2010
  1. Marion Delgado

    Alan Pincus’ reply is very good, and to the point.

    I realize I’m a broken record on this, but everyone sees the distorting effects of certain kinds of religiosity, but I’m the only person I know in the science blog world who points out the distorting effects of commercialism.

    1. Nondisclosure agreements hamper everything from full understanding of how research is done to attempts to replicate or confirm results to not reinventing the wheel in a research area.

    2. There’s a selection process – the research that produces pleasing results is re-funded (in a typical corporate/academic partnership) and the research that does not is not re-funded. Eventually, there’s at least a moderate bias in the general direction of the funders’ agendas.

    3. Because of the PR savvy most successful corporations have, the commercialized science dominates the dialog now. This gives the public a skewed view of how much controversy or doubt there is if there’s a commercial or commercial/political impact from a science (ecology, climate change, epidemiology). It also controls the framing of a scientific controversy, and sometimes non- or anti-commercial results get no publicity at all.

    4. There is also well-funded fraudulent “research” given the same PR channels as valid corporate-friendly research. The fraudulent work has its own outlets and dubious journals and a (usually smaller) population of mutually reinforcing referees and reviewers. For instance, if every part of a process of evaluation is owned by regulation-averse industry, then you’re not ever going to get an evaluation that would logically imply a need for regulation.

    5. The paradigm of the more radical free market economics (Austrian school, supply-side, etc.) applies – because they axiomatically assert the superiority of market-based evaluation, that system of economics is completely self-validating, and hence, tautological. First, you declare that market-based evaluations are the most valid. Then you say that your economics is correct because market-based metrics validate it. Then you extend that to validating commercial-friendly research and denigrating commercial-unfriendly research. You lean on corporate-funded research and belittle and reduce public-funded research.

    6. This leads to, e.g., the situation we have in AGW “controversy.” Since the denialist noise-machine got geared up, we’ve seen a demonization of peer-review (always “broken”), modeling (“meaningless”), consensus (also “meaningless”), data-gathering (a scam to get public funding) and theories (“only a theory, not a fact.”). Anyone familar with science at all knows that this is a direct attack on it in all forms. There are no sciences, and can be no science, without models, some form of peer-review, some gathering of data, and some hypotheses leading to a consensus on what theories explain data.

    Therefore, at least some of the attacks on public science are, frankly, not a defense against polemics like “The Republican War on Science.” They’re an attack, geared towards preserving the commercial science monopoly on public awareness.

  2. Ecocampaigner

    You can’t be the judge (scientist) and the prosecutor (policy advocate) at the same time. No matter how noble your intentions are, the appearance of a conflict of interests against the defense is too great to ignore.

  3. GM

    You are entirely correct that scientists should be aiming to be better communicators. I don’t see much argument over this.

    Where you entirely fail and what you are being criticized for is the idea that by making scientists better communicators you are somehow going to solve the problems of general scientific illiteracy and the pervasive anti-intellectualism of mainstream culture. I, and many other people, just don’t see how exactly this is supposed to work, and you are not doing a good job of explaining it as you typically refuse to reply when asked

  4. Jon

    You can’t be both judge and prosecutor, but there has to be a way to use science’s stamp of authority better than it has been used… There are people who have no trouble faking that authority (eg, Oregon Petition) or denigrating it (“Climategate”). Is the answer to do nothing about that?

    Also, everyone who gets their juris doctorate does not become a judge…

  5. Marion Delgado

    A shortened excerpt from a very good projection of the potential for commercialization distortion in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Mars:

    It was always quite obvious why people were advocating one program over another; you could look at people’s name tags and see their institutional affiliation, and predict what they were going to support or attack. To see science twisted so blatantly pained Sax a great deal, and it seemed to him that it distressed everyone there, even the ones doing it, which added to the general irritability and defensiveness. Everyone knew what was going on, and no one liked it, and yet no one would admit it.
    Nowhere was this more apparent than in the last morning’s panel discussion of the CO2 question.
    [..]
    And as they were obvious questions as well as hard, they did get asked; a scientist from Mitsubishi, which was in a perpetual hometown feud with Subarashii, stood and inquired very politely about the runaway greenhouse effect that might result from too much CO2. Sax nodded emphatically. But the Subarashii scientists replied that this was exactly what they were hoping for, that there could not be too much heat, and that an eventual atmospheric pressure of seven or eight hundred millibars would be preferabk to five hundred anyway. “But not if it’s CO2!” Sax muttered to Claire, who nodded.
    H. X. Borazjani stood to say the same. He was followed by others; many in the room were still using Sax’s original model as their template for action, and they insisted in many different ways on the difficulty of scrubbing any great excess of CO2 from the air. But there were also a good many scientists, from Armscor and Consolidated as well as Subarashii, who either claimed that scrubbing CO2 would not be difficult, or else that a CO2-heavy atmosphere would not be so bad. An ecosystem of mostly plants, with CO2- tolerant insects and perhaps some genetically engineered animals, would flourish in the warm thick air, and people could walk around in their shirtsleeves with nothing more cumbersome than a facemask.

    (emphasis added)

  6. Marion Delgado

    GM:

    Replying piecemeal would be bad role-modeling on Chris’s part. Instead, he wrote two books and counting explaining how making scientists better communicators would contribute

    to solv[ing] the problems of general scientific illiteracy and the pervasive anti-intellectualism of mainstream culture.

    And listing several other things that are needed which don’t involve scientists changing.

    I think Chris has made an excellent case. The real hold-up is working out the socio-economic factors. The supply of scientifically-trained people is relatively steady. The demand is declining. Meanwhile, we have a crying need for intermediaries because science is so specialized and its impacts are so immediate. But it’s a sometimes multigenerational need, and there’s no one agent with a lion’s share of the reward or being coerced to shoulder the burden of paying for it, so it’s a classic Prisoner’s Dilemma/Free Rider/Tragedy of the Commons situation, complicated by the fact that some people are paid to claim that it’s not a need. The issue now is how someone who is training in science can get paid and get prestige for going into education or media work for science instead of “real science” like doctoral and post-doctoral research. A few people succeeded at this, but mostly they’re prestigious because of being top research scientists – Richard Feynman, Steven Jay Gould, Carl Sagan.

    I don’t like the idea of keeping science mediation in the box of commercially viable popularizations, though. I think the Republican tendency to call everything that doesn’t feather their own nest “socialism” should be leveraged – create a taxpayer funded system of educating the public on science, for free, and if it’s labeled socialism, well, that word has lost all semblance of meaning by now, anyway.

  7. GM

    Marion Delgado:

    I have read Chris’ books and the criticism above is based precisely on what is in them. Unscientific America contains nothing but empty statements about how better scientific communication will solve the problem with zero detail about how this is going to work out in practice and how long it will take.

  8. Nullius in Verba

    The controversy is over whether the purpose of the course is to enable scientists to develop the public understandingof science, or to promote the public acceptance of “scientific authority”. Is it your aim to educate people so they can make their own minds up, or simply to be believed?

    Any scientist will support the former. It is the impression given that it is the latter being referred to here that has led to the reaction noted.

    In the description of the course, I didn’t see any mention of educational techniques, ways of achieving clarity, simplifying without losing important detail, picking out essentials, staying focussed, … as I’d expect from a course on popularising scientific education.

    Instead, we see “framing” being described as a communication technology on the curriculum. Framing, a term used in media studies, sociology and psychology, refers to the social construction of a social phenomenon by mass media sources or specific political or social movements or organizations. It is an inevitable process of selective influence over the individual’s perception of the meanings attributed to words or phrases. A frame defines the packaging of an element of rhetoric in such a way as to encourage certain interpretations and to discourage others. (According to Wikipedia.)

    Now I’m not entirely sure what is meant by that – I’m not good at postmodernism – but I can see why a scientist of the old school would be worried by the way that sounds. I can also see that it can be interpreted more innocently, so I’m not going to jump to conclusions as the previous commenter did.

    But whether it is what you intend or not, you do still apparently fail to understand that trying to use scientific authority is what got you into this pickle, and that any course to get you out of it has to address that point head on. It is precisely this sort of technique that is resulting in you losing the public relations battle. People see “framing” used every day – by politicians and advertisers. They’re not stupid. They can recognise it. They might not be able to penetrate the extent to which the truth is being distorted, but they can see that you’re not being completely straight with them.

    I suppose that from a sceptical partisan point of view there would be short term advantage in encouraging you to teach this course to the believers. But I’m concerned that in the longer run it will end up with all scientists being tarred with the same brush.

    And on a more amusing note, I think it would be sensible for any potential registrants in this course to note how the phrasing of even the simple announcement of the course led to confusion, controversy, and a negative impression when it was immediately ‘misunderstood’ (if it was misunderstood). I take it you didn’t apply the methods of the course to the writing of the announcement. The irony is delicious. There is a lesson to be learned here, I think.

  9. GM

    9. Nullius in Verba Says:
    May 25th, 2010 at 1:14 pm
    The controversy is over whether the purpose of the course is to enable scientists to develop the public understandingof science, or to promote the public acceptance of “scientific authority”. Is it your aim to educate people so they can make their own minds up, or simply to be believed?
    Any scientist will support the former. It is the impression given that it is the latter being referred to here that has led to the reaction noted.

    It only looks this way if you define science as collection of knowledge that is to be poured into people’s heads from on top. I see “scientific authority” as referring to the epistemological authority of the scientific method with respect to the “alternatives”

  10. John Kwok

    @ GM -

    You’ve hit the nail on the head. I must remain skeptical of Chris’s advocacy since he doesn’t propose any viable solutions. What we need are scientists who can be effective communicators, and such skills are not taught in science classrooms (nor should they be), but rather, in courses pertaining to rhetoric and writing. So a partial solution to “communication” would be ensuring that students are taught by great teachers of writing
    (such as, for example, as I noted yesterday, the late Frank McCourt, though he did not teach two of the foremost scientific communicators of our time, physicists Brian Greene and Lisa Randall, when they were attending our high school alma mater).

    @ Marion -

    I concur only with your first comment. As for your latest comment attacking Republican reaction toward “socialist” tendencies of Democrats in the Federal executive and legislative branches of government, I would have to agree with them and the Tea Party Movement in noting that such an orientation does exist (But let’s table that discussion for another, more suitable, occasion.). Whether the solution is either public or private or both, training scientists to be better communicators is a skill that is learned not in the science classroom, but instead, in courses devoted to public speaking and writing. Such courses should emphasize the teaching of effective means of communication, not whether a scientist can deal successfully with a Colbert Report-styled interview.

  11. SLC

    I think the problem here with Mr. Mooneys’ opening remarks on this thread is that, IMHO, PHYSICS MSG and Abbie Smith are complaining not so much about the message as about the messenger. Unfortunately, Mr. Mooney has burnt a lot of bridges to many who should be his allies in this fight against ignorance and stupidity.

  12. I have that TIME magazine framed in my office. I agree with Chris’ view that it’s hard to imagine the NAS membership taking issue with Carl Sagan’s amazing communication skills today.

    Aaron Huertas
    Press Secretary
    Union of Concerned Scientists

  13. What about asking first questions like, what are the aims and objectives for the science that is being communicated. Examples:

    1)Are the aims to make science a priority for people like children to become inter4sted in it enought to go and study it. Example, school councils and education Dpts working on it impact on curriculums. (more layman and non scientitst groups)
    2)Is it to tell the general population that science is important for future economic growth. Example, needing further research and study into nuclear energy is a very realistic way of doing that. (scientitst groups)
    3)To generate money for institutions or industries. Example science magazines, TV comapnies (which are businesses in them selves) (again scientists and non)

    Also, some scientists are very good at being scientsts but not good communicating it, and vice versa. It’s possible that certain media type presenters, who are not scientists, turn out better at it’s communication than it’s method. Sometimes both.

    The climate change issue appears to be not a very objective way to start this process but is telling about who and why science gets where it does (so far). What needs to be asked is, what are the main objectives first for communicating science.

  14. Martin Gardner was good example of, “certain media type presenters, who are not scientists, turn out better at it’s communication than it’s method” – being recreational Maths.

    Also, my post was missing lots of ‘i’s.

  15. GM

    What about asking first questions like, what are the aims and objectives for the science that is being communicated. Examples:
    1)Are the aims to make science a priority for people like children to become inter4sted in it enought to go and study it. Example, school councils and education Dpts working on it impact on curriculums. (more layman and non scientitst groups)
    2)Is it to tell the general population that science is important for future economic growth. Example, needing further research and study into nuclear energy is a very realistic way of doing that. (scientitst groups)
    3)To generate money for institutions or industries. Example science magazines, TV comapnies (which are businesses in them selves) (again scientists and non)

    If the list of goals that people have in mind when we have this discussion is restricted to the above (and similar) topics, then like most people are totally missing the point (and we are in a lot more trouble than it seems on the surface).

    The goal is not to achieve little things like these, they would all follow as a consequence of the real goal (not the economic growth part though as if the real goal is achieved there should be some serious rethinking of what the whole idea of economic growth means). And the real goal should be to have a society that is reality-based, as simple as that, but also as fundamental in the same time. Which is extremely important because reality eventually catches up with everything and everyone that refuses to acknowledge its existence, and because science is the only working method of understanding reality that we have, a reality-rooted society also means a scientific society.

    Where a fracture line arises between people who broadly share the above conviction is the recognition that there are some very strong and powerful factors that prevent the majority of people from adopting the same position, of which religion is the major one

  16. “strong and powerful factors that prevent the majority of people from adopting the same position, of which religion is the major one”

    But if science comminication is done in such a way, it might prevent – the preventers. Bottom up, schools, education and childrens minds growing – early persuasion. Top down, who presents what science – evidence of a concrete and sustainable way that science can be responsible for wellbeing. Sideways in, governments speaches like presidents using phrases like ‘i think’ over ‘I believe’.

  17. GM

    How exactly is this supposed to happen? You are not going to teach the homeschooled with better scientific communication. Better scientific communication can only help with people who will be exposed to it, are willing to listen and have a sufficient intelligence to understand. None of those applies to more than two thirds of the people in this country. And this assumes that those better science communicators will be able to get the media time needed, which is also very doubtful – you can be the greatest science communicator ever, but you still have to talk about science and this is not stuff that will get you much air time on major media at the moment.

    The only way you can educate the uneducatable is by targeting the roots of the problem, which is the information kids receive very early. I am not going to go into the extreme here and suggest that kids of overtly religious parents should be taken away from them as soon as they are able to speak, or even earlier, although this is quite sensible if one looks at it rationally and it is not like it is not something that moderate people like Dawkins have not already suggested, but at least there should be very strong concerted effort in school to fix the damage that’s already done and reverse it. This means openly discussing superstitious beliefs and explaining why they are nonsense, and it also means drastic improvement of the educational standards, starting from very early age, i.e. expand by an order of magnitude and shift the material 4 or 5 years down the grade levels, spend a lot of time educating kids into the epistemological rules of science, and most importantly, have a draconian testing systems that will not let ignorance pass, as it is happens all too often today.

    These are specific things you can do. Of course, they will never be done, as the socio-political climate does not allow it, but they actually address the problems. Running your mouth about vague concepts that don’t really have much meaning attached to them and not suggesting anything specific that actually targets the problems only helps perpetuate the status quo

  18. Sean McCorkle

    @13

    I agree with Chris’ view that it’s hard to imagine the NAS membership taking issue with Carl Sagan’s amazing communication skills today.

    Interestingly, at the time, he was frowned upon by many astronomers/astrophysicists for going after the limelight and being a rock star. Only after a few decades later do folks now realize what a great service he performed.

    Some thoughts on this discussion:

    1) Science subjects are interesting. Humans are naturally curious. Its a perfect fit. Yet why are science magazines struggling and newspapers dropping their science sections in droves? Why is anti-intellectualism dominating the airwaves and spreading more-and-more into the internet? Is it because the intellectuals aren’t taking enough part in the public discourse? Where are todays Sagan’s, Martin Gardiner’s and Isaac Asimov’s (one of the best expository science writers ever)?

    2) If taxpayers fund research, the taxpayers have a right to know what’s going on in the research world. Publicly funded scientists have a duty to perform public outreach. Its part of the job. I go beyond Chris Mooney’s call for some scientists to learn communication skills. I believe ALL scientists need to learn how to communicate effectively with the laymen. Scientists need to start showing up at their local elementary, middle, and high schools and explain what they do for a living (other professions do this already). Scientists need to start showing up at local civic organizations and give talks about their research. Not only is this good for socieity, its beneficial for the scientists. I believe it was Richard Feynman wo said that if you can’t explain it to a non-expert, you don’t fully understand it yourself.

    3) In addition to being a body of knowledge (which is dynamic & ever-changing), science is a method of acquiring knowledge, a way of thinking. Probably the most important goal of science education from K through 12 and beyond, is to instill and then reinforce this kind of thinking in as many people as possible. (Robert Pirsig quite elegantly showed how this kind of thinking comes into play in everyday life, by the example of diagnosing problems in a motorcycle. Sagan also did a nice job of showing the utility of scientific thinking in everyday life in “The Demon-Haunted World”)

  19. I continue to find it interesting that after all this time, and all the comments, the issue still boils down to those who understand and accept that science’s detractors operate from an emotional standpoint, and thus require a different set of techniques for communication; and those who still naively believe that more facts and more “education” (usually k-12) will solve the problem. And the training Chris advocates with this post focuses on the first approach – namely that if you are dealing with emotion-based responses to your work, you need emotion-based techniques. So many scientists completely ignore this, to science’s collective peril.

  20. GM

    2) If taxpayers fund research, the taxpayers have a right to know what’s going on in the research world.

    Yes, they do, and nobody is stopping them from learning it. The question is do they want to know?

    Publicly funded scientists have a duty to perform public outreach. Its part of the job. I go beyond Chris Mooney’s call for some scientists to learn communication skills. I believe ALL scientists need to learn how to communicate effectively with the laymen. Scientists need to start showing up at their local elementary, middle, and high schools and explain what they do for a living (other professions do this already). Scientists need to start showing up at local civic organizations and give talks about their research. .

    How many people will be left in the room after they start talking?

    Not only is this good for socieity, its beneficial for the scientists. I believe it was Richard Feynman wo said that if you can’t explain it to a non-expert, you don’t fully understand it yourself.

    Just because Feynman said it, it does not mean it is literally true. If you can’t successfully explain evolution to people in some remote village in the mountains of Yemen, I am more than willing to accept that it is not your fault and that everyone would fail in your place. There is a minimal level of intellectual development and education that has to be met for a person to be able to understand complex scientific issues, no matter how skilled the communicator on the other side is.

  21. GM

    I continue to find it interesting that after all this time, and all the comments, the issue still boils down to those who understand and accept that science’s detractors operate from an emotional standpoint, and thus require a different set of techniques for communication

    We understand the origin of those attitudes very well, which is why my list of things to do includes what it does.

  22. GM

    …if it was approved and posted, that is

  23. John Kwok

    @ GM -

    I said this in reply to Philip H.’s comments at the original thread yesterday and it bears repeating now:

    @ Philip H. -

    In college I was keenly aware of the jealousy felt toward Sagan by two professors of planetary geology at my undergraduate alma mater. One noted with ample pride how they (they being the two scientists and professors of engineering at my alma mater) had upstaged Sagan when they created the cameras and imaging system for the Viking Lander.
    I think Sagan did indulge in some of that “shameless self promotion” and so, might I add, other prominent scientists, such as, for example, Stephen Jay Gould. But being a “celebrity” doesn’t mean that one is effective with regards to communicating science to the general public. One could make a most persuasive case that Gould (via his criticism of racially biased IQ testing), E. O. Wilson (conservation biology) and Ken Miller (via his ample work on behalf of emphasizing the teaching of evolution, not creationism, in American high school science classrooms) have been far more effective in influencing public opinion than Sagan ever did.

    Again, this raises my concern that Chris may be more interested in the superficiality of scientific communication – as indicated by his emphasis on Colbert Report-styled interviewing – than on whether professional scientists are affecting public opinion when they note that there is no “debate” between evolution and creationism or explain why the scientific evidence for anthropogenic global warming is both substantial and conclusive.

  24. Gaythia

    @1 Note that it is Aileen Pincus, not Alan. See photo here: http://www.thepincusgroup.com/abo-ail.html

    Some of us participants on the Intersection actually are female.

  25. John Kotcher

    A recent post by Andrew Maynard at 2020 Science about the benefits of public engagement for scientists comes to mind. Anyone wondering what’s in it for the scientists should take a look:

    http://2020science.org/2010/03/10/engaging-the-public-on-science-surely-youre-joking/

  26. Kirth Gersen

    I (cynically, perhaps) feel that adult outreach attempts by scientists are nothing but preaching to the choir — for them to do it more eloquently won’t change a thing. Earlier impacts are the key — specifically, science education in children, which is currently being left in the hands of people with no scientific training or background of any kind. I spent six years teaching high school earth science, during which time my scientific research ground to a halt, and my total earnings were $19,000/year — not enough to both live off of and pay off the loans on a hard science degree from an accedited university. That’s not tenable, and in the long run is not sustainable. We intentionally raise generation after generation of children whose primary education is in Woo, and who receive nothing vaguely resembling a scientific idea until it’s far too late for them to care one way or the other about it.

  27. Schaffaeri

    Old topic, same bullshit from the naysayers. And I say “bullshit” not because I’m trying to stir the pot but because most of it is based on misrepresentations. I never hear anyone, including Chris, say that “making change X will cure the problem of scientific illiteracy,” as if we just need to get better at X and *POOF!!!!* scientific illiteracy isn’t a problem. That’s a misrepresentation of the position that Chris (and many others who say similar things and get similar attacks) puts forth, IMO.

    The common position that I hear is that X, Y, or Z alone isn’t going to solve the problem. The problem has many roots, and there is no silver bullet. Becoming better communicators (X) isn’t going to fix the problem alone, just as much as pumping more money into education (Y) or making fun of religious people (Z) is by itself (that list could continue, and does). Instead, we likely need people working on improving X, Y, and Z at the same time in order to get at the many roots of this thing (and if you claim there’s only one cause, you’re full of shit…and you know it).

    Chris is a science communicator, so he focuses on X very heavily since it’s a court where he’s already playing ball, just like someone like Dawkins focuses on attacking religion (Z) since that’s his gambit. Sometimes I think the plurality of this gets lost in Chris’s focus, but I’ve heard him espouse a position of plurality in the past. We just need more of that and less slandering of people using different strategies as the “wrong” ones.

  28. GM

    That’s a very good point, but it is part of the awful and totally inadequate “deficit model”, which claims that the major component of the problem is scientific education and which is thought to have been thoroughly discredited by the authors of this blog and their buddies

  29. Deepak Shetty

    As someone who grew up with Carl Sagan and who can still remember stills from Cosmos, Sagan works if you have some interest in science or you have an open mind.

    If you believe this is not the case , quote his dragon in the garage ad verbatim to people who believe that God is outside boundaries of science. Quote his reasoned position on abortion to a pro-life believer and see how many minds you can change. Sell his baloney detection kit to the religious, see how many takers you have.

    So yes scientists need to be better communicators – but its not going to reduce opposition to good science.

  30. Communicating better is always a good idea, but as others have observed, it’s not just about pouring information out in an entertaining way. This isn’t only about putting on a great show. It has to also be about accuracy and truth.

    Even Sagan didn’t “accommodate” his religious audience, other than to expect them to listen, same as everyone else. Having watched Cosmos again recently, there are episodes in which he refers to astrology, myth, etc. as quaint anachronisms; just plain wrong. He may not have ridiculed, but he certainly had no truck with them.

    This holds true in his books too.

    He didn’t burn bridges, exactly, but he didn’t build any that compromised the integrity of the science either, or tried to make it less threatening. At best he just treated it as if no one really took those things (i.e., religion, mythology) really all that seriously any more.

  31. Deepak Shetty

    Even Sagan didn’t “accommodate” his religious audience, other than to expect them to listen, same as everyone else.

    Exactly. And this is what Mooney and co. just don’t seem to address and I’m not even sure they get this point or perhaps they don’t want to. A large part of the problem is that people just don’t want to listen.

  32. this has been a fascinating discussion and I’m really pleased at how people have been candid but not over the top. I’m a professional communicator with an interest in science. I think everyone agrees that there is no silver bullet to this problem – it will take decades to overcome the cultural and institutional inertia of ignorance and fear. But media training is essential, and outreach is also essential.

    What’s missing is a systematic approach to understanding what resonates with different communities. Science has to be sufficiently relevant to people who will never understand every nuance of it. While Chris and Sheril scratch the surface of this in their book, I don’t think they ever intended it to be THE comprehensive playbook on how to solve this monumental problem – more I think it was a call to action and some general thoughts on how we might approach a solution.

    Effective outreach requires patience and persistence. It requires humility. It requires the tenacity to work though initial failures. In a very real sense, it requires the principles so integral to the scientific method.

    This idea that “people just don’t want to listen” is really a cop-out. Sorry, it is. I don’t see Jehova’s Witnesses deciding not to knock on doors anymore just because 99% of the people they visit slam the door in their faces. They believe they have “the truth” and they’re obligated to tell it. They are gaining converts, one by one. Scientists, quite frankly, should be no different. You don’t have to physically knock on doors, but you can never stop trying to reach people.

    If we want people to take science (and scientists) seriously, we have to demonstrate how science plays a role in just about everything. The mainstream media is actually doing a decent job with the gulf oil spill in this regard – they’re working hard to find the right engineers and scientists to explain what’s happening in the gulf and why it’s important. They sometimes don’t do as good a job in other situations.

    There are dozens of examples and opportunities each day to add the scientists’ perspective on salient news stories. University PIO’s, for example, should be all over this.

    Another important idea is for scientists to simply build more relationships with non-scientists. I’m working on a project now to engage science bloggers and mom bloggers in an “introductory” conversation that I hope will identify common interests and priorities. It’s the first step in a very gradual process.

    I hope the people here will join us.

  33. Deepak Shetty

    @David

    This idea that “people just don’t want to listen” is really a cop-out. Sorry, it is.

    No it isnt. It is identifying what needs to be addressed on a higher priority. Take for e.g. the current hot topic of evolution. Is the problem that absolutely no scientist is an effective communicator? That not a single person has written a good book that explains evolution in an easy to understand manner?
    So what prevents these people who want to listen from accepting evolution?

    A cop-out is refusing to acknowledge that the problem isn’t just with the scientists or their communication skills. A good percentage of people who aren’t scientists but have a reasonably open mind and some curiosity seem to be able to do just fine even with these so called poor communicator scientists.

  34. LRU

    I also really like a lot of the comments here. I thought I might build on a few compelling ideas mentioned by other posters and offer a few of my own thoughts.

    I particularly like the idea of engaging the public on an emotional level. However, perhaps the argument could benefit from being even further broadened. Being an ordinary, non-scientifically inclined member of the public, I feel inundated by media. I read a multitude of books, newspapers, online news sources, blogs, tweets, facebook posts, newsletters, and various other things, on a multitude of topics. As someone who engages in a multidisciplinary way, however, I find I’m drawn to ideas and arguments that speak not only to the purely scientific but to science’s implications in the broader world.

    Having just come back from New Orleans, I was surprised at how engaged the people I met were with the issues of climate change, hurricanes, levees, the disaster in the Gulf, oil drilling technology and how these issues impact their daily lives. From the young, native-born tour guide who discussed Katrina and Ninth Ward construction, to the Russian cab driver who raged against BP’s unconscionable lack of responsiveness, to the voodoo salesguy who spoke on a greater need for government involvement with oil regulation, to the blue-haired old matriarch who confidently held her own on the mechanics of oil drilling and why she thought ‘Top Kill’ just wasn’t going to work, it seemed like quite a number of people were aware of and very well versed on these matters and the science behind them. Yet from these interactions, I gathered their engagement was not just with the science but its very real impact on so many different levels. I would say the public may already be engaged with science but perhaps, in an oblique way and their ‘scientific illiteracy’ may be due, in some part, to other interests leading the ‘framing’ of how science is seen and used in the media.

    Admittedly, I am a fan of postmodern thought. And constantly reviewing the ways in which issues are seen by shifting the focus of the argument, creating a frame in which the issue can, and perhaps, should be considered, and being flexible enough to be responsive and on point to any argument which may arise seems to me to be a useful intellectual tool that can be easily translated into practical ways. At the very least, this idea can be used to break out of calcified arguments and encouraging new views. Training scientists to speak to journalists and to the public, may, at the very least, allow scientists or those who have science’s best interests at heart, to speak on the subject on their own terms and ensure the viewpoints of scientists stay relevant in public discourses on science and scientific issues.

  35. @Deepak I’m not suggesting scientists are the “only” problem. I’m saying if scientists want a change, then it’s on scientists to make it happen, and I’m saying scientists are reasonably frustrated but need to do more to understand what motivates other audiences. I’m saying we have to affirmatively and assertively reach out to people and never stop, no matter how frustrating this is. Ironically, science communication has to evolve in a difficult communications environment or it will die.

    and sorry, I still think it’s a cop-out. You can’t just throw your hands up and walk away if you want a change. You get it, I get it, but someone else doesn’t. It’s a clear choice – tell that someone else they’re an idiot, or try something else to help them get it. We’ll never get everyone, but we will do a lot better than we are now.

    it’s my understanding that something like 40 percent of Americans don’t believe in evolution. but 40 percent of Americans are not just stone-cold stupid and intractable.

  36. GM

    his idea that “people just don’t want to listen” is really a cop-out. Sorry, it is. I don’t see Jehova’s Witnesses deciding not to knock on doors anymore just because 99% of the people they visit slam the door in their faces. They believe they have “the truth” and they’re obligated to tell it. They are gaining converts, one by one. Scientists, quite frankly, should be no different. You don’t have to physically knock on doors, but you can never stop trying to reach people.

    How long would it take to achieve the goal this way? How long do we have before our collective ignorance catches up with us?

    In case you didn’t notice, most of what I suggested was of the same “force science onto people” variety that you suggested. The difference is that it involved things like centralized and drastically raised educational standards and a working educational system in general. Plus getting directly at religion in school, of course…

  37. Chris Mooney

    I would like to elaborate on David Wescott’s great comment, and particularly the part about a “cop out.”

    It is quite apparent that public opinion on climate change has shifted in a negative direction in the past several years. Moreover, it is a reasonable inference that ClimateGate has something to do with this fact, as does the broader problem of right leaning media coverage. See here for the effect this has had on the British public.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/science/earth/25climate.html?emc=eta1

    See also the work of Anthony Leiserowitz at Yale, showing a stunning and alarming increase in the percentage of the America public that is now “dismissive” of the issue

    http://opa.yale.edu/news/article.aspx?id=7313

    While there are many factors driving this woeful dynamic (I would also point to the shift in administration, the weather, etc), I only wish to make a simple observation. If rightwing communication strategies and trends in media coverage can help shift the U.S. (or British) public in a negative direction on this issue, and in a relatively short period of time, then why can’t well planned scientific communication approaches have the opposite effect? And why isn’t that a worthy objective to be shooting for?

  38. Anthony McCarthy

    Given the awful coverage that science gets in the media, the only way it’s going to improve is either if
    1. those who want better science coverage spend the billions and billions of dollars to buy up major media companies like Rupert Murdoch does and does the opposite of what he has,
    2. learn to make the most of what you can short of that, which requires being smarter about how you attempt to get your message out over the corporate – right wing lies.

    The greatest force distorting science is the corporate media. Anyone who believes they can rise above that isn’t in some lofty Olympus, they are in Cloud Coo coo Land.

    Reality. Sometimes it’s just so grubby and unpleasant.

  39. GM

    If rightwing communication strategies and trends in media coverage can help shift the U.S. (or British) public in a negative direction on this issue, and in a relatively short period of time, then why can’t well planned scientific communication approaches have the opposite effect? And why isn’t that a worthy objective to be shooting for?

    You are assuming that public’s response to a communication strategy is only a function of the communication strategy itself. But this is an unwarranted assumption.

  40. You know, this whole framing war has been bugging me for some time, mostly because I had a feeling I had seen it from a non-blog source long before I ever began to read and comment here.

    Yesterday on the plane to Buffalo, I realized where: In the 2004 National Research Council study titled “Improving the Use of the “Best Scientific Information Available” Standard in Fisheries Management” (2004) by the NRC’s Ocean Studies Board (OSB). To wit:

    Some council members may not be conversant in fishery science. Indeed, nearly all of the current 118 council members across the eight regional councils have no background in stock assessment science. The councils have expert scientists at their disposal on advisory panels and on review committees (Appendix F). Providing more training in scientific principles to council members is one means of making the translation of scientific information more effective. In addition, council members would benefit if those scientists who present information to the councils made a concerted effort to develop communication skills that effectively inform audiences with diverse, and often nontechnical, backgrounds.

    So if the NRC thinks its a good idea, why is Chris so wrong?

  41. Deepak Shetty

    @David

    and sorry, I still think it’s a cop-out. You can’t just throw your hands up and walk away if you want a change.

    Did I imply that? I said that I believe that people unwilling to listen is a bigger problem than effective communication. I never said that problem shouldn’t be tackled. The first step to fixing a problem is identifying the cause , no?
    Mooney and co believe communication is the biggest (but not the only) problem. And the sentiment is that it is for the scientists to fix. I’d disagree , its the general population who suffers and so the onus lies on us , the non scientists. When stem-cell research is blocked , its not the scientist who wont have a cure for the disease.

  42. Deepak Shetty

    If rightwing communication strategies and trends in media coverage can help shift the U.S. (or British) public in a negative direction on this issue, and in a relatively short period of time, then why can’t well planned scientific communication approaches have the opposite effect

    Because the effective communication strategy you point out is willing to lie and distort facts. It can spread FUD without any problem, It can smear people without a regret. Are you really willing to do that, just because it is effective?

  43. Deepak Shetty

    @David

    it’s my understanding that something like 40 percent of Americans don’t believe in evolution. but 40 percent of Americans are not just stone-cold stupid and intractable.

    They are when it comes to evolution (or in some cases just dishonest or ignorant).
    It doesn’t mean that they are so when it comes to every aspect of their life.

  44. GM

    So if the NRC thinks its a good idea, why is Chris so wrong?

    Probably because there is the very unlikely possibility that the NRC is just as wrong as he is

  45. thanks to all – very thought-provoking today.

  46. Deepak Shetty

    @Philip H

    So if the NRC thinks its a good idea, why is Chris so wrong?

    Is anyone actually saying that scientists should not be better communicators or that there isnt plenty of scope for improvement?
    The disagreement lies in
    a. Is this the 8iggest problem – bad or ineffective communication?
    b. On whom does the onus rest?
    c. How do you tackle controversial issues like evolution – where good communication may already be there? How do you prevent your lawmakers from passing stupid laws e.g. Texas? Is the problem that scientists havent effectively communicated to politicians?
    d. How do people like Chris actively ignore the fact that religion does play a part in the rejection of science? Or if they acknowledge it , they blame it all on the scientists or the new atheists?

  47. Anthony McCarthy

    a. Is this the 8iggest problem – bad or ineffective communication?

    If you want the public to understand something ineffective communication is bad communication and trying is the only way to have any effect.

    b. On whom does the onus rest?

    Doesn’t matter if it’s an “onus” or not, there aren’t volunteers effectively giving the public accurate information, are there? You want it done, you’re going to have to do it yourself.

    c. How do you tackle controversial issues like evolution

    Telling people they’re stupid isn’t the place to start.

    d. How do people like Chris actively ignore the fact that religion does play a part in the rejection of science?

    “Religion” isn’t all one thing. Most of the people who accept evolution and climate change and just about all science, are religious. Atheists who want to insist that isn’t the case are as much denialists as religious fundamentalists tend to be.

  48. GM

    What I simply can not understand is why we are spending time discussing scientific communication (yes, it’s important, but it is not the most important thing) instead of discussing how scientists could have a say in what is being taught in schools and how.

    The only thing that is achieved by having fights every year over what the curriculum will be in Texas, Florida, Alabama or whatever place happens to have chosen a majority of creationists among 14 people (or whatever the size of these things was) in its school board, is a giant waste of time and energy.

    None of this would ever happen if there was a centralized curriculum prepared, say by NAS and NCSE. As it is all over the world.

    So the problem with teaching of evolution and the whole dissipation of useful energy that goes into the endless fight with creationists is very easily solved by a centralized education system. Yet this somehow never gets mentioned in the discussion even though it will be a giant step forward, and very quick too. Why?

  49. GM

    49. Anthony McCarthy Says:
    May 27th, 2010 at 4:03 pm
    c. How do you tackle controversial issues like evolution
    Telling people they’re stupid isn’t the place to start.

    Then how exactly are they going to know that they are stupid? If you don’t know that you are stupid, are you ever going to invest any effort in educating yourself? One of the major differences between scientists and laymen is that scientists actually tend to be a lot more intellectually humble than people on the street, due to having had their noses rubbed for decades in the course of their research and training, and being much more aware of the possibility of being wrong.

    d. How do people like Chris actively ignore the fact that religion does play a part in the rejection of science?
    “Religion” isn’t all one thing. Most of the people who accept evolution and climate change and just about all science, are religious. Atheists who want to insist that isn’t the case are as much denialists as religious fundamentalists tend to be.

    I think we should have a new category of denialism that will include the people who will insists that religion is totally compatible with science and it never prevents science from being accepted by the public, despite the evidence presented by the very existence of three quarters of the population.

  50. Deepak Shetty

    @Anthony McCarthy

    Telling people they’re stupid isn’t the place to start.

    Strawman? I left it as an open question. You could have said well I’d start with and give options…

    And second yes with respect to evolution
    Ray Comfort is stupid, so is Ken ham , as is Michael Behe and William Dembski and Sarah Palin and so on so forth. Do you disagree? Perhaps you feel that we dont show these characters due respect for their enlightened views?

    Religion” isn’t all one thing. Most of the people who accept evolution and climate change and just about all science, are religious.

    Sigh , strawman. Clearly climate change denialism has more to do with your political views than your religious ones , even if a good number of people deny both. And a neat side step of whether or not you believe that Religion is indeed a factor. (And yes we do know that Ken miller is religious , francis collins is religious). Heres a direct question “Is religion a factor (or not) when people deny evolution?”

  51. Deepak Shetty

    @GM
    I believe your solution does have merits, that school curriculum should be decided by qualified representatives, not elected representatives.
    Another problem I see in America is the number of home schoolers (and the breaks they get). Where I come from , very few parents believe they are qualified to teach mathematics/science/etc to their children. they see their role as helping their child only when he/she has difficulties. It doesnt seem to be the case in a lot of states. Perhaps cost or lack of good schools is a factor , but I don’t think it is the only one.

  52. GM

    The problem with homeschooling is very easily solved – just ban it and have everyone go to school. Or if this looks too totalitarian to people, at least have draconian certification exams every year that will make sure that kids have learned what they are supposed to have learned.

  53. Deepak Shetty

    @GM

    just ban it. Or if this looks too totalitarian to people, at least have draconian certification exams

    While Id love to see this happen, I do not have any real expectation that it will. To pass legislation to this effect would need a smarter set of politicians(left or right wing or independent) than America has right now. And the public doesn’t exactly seem to be clamoring for better uniform education standards. Much the reverse in states like Texas (It still astonishes me that people want to write out Thomas Jefferson and not many people from Texas are opposing it – perhaps historians haven’t been effective communicators about the importance of Jefferson).

  54. Nullius in Verba

    “If rightwing communication strategies and trends in media coverage can help shift the U.S. (or British) public in a negative direction on this issue, and in a relatively short period of time, then why can’t well planned scientific communication approaches have the opposite effect?”

    Because you have to have better and more logical arguments.

    “at least have draconian certification exams every year that will make sure that kids have learned what they are supposed to have learned.”

    I’m in favour. The exam needs to be set by the universities and industry, and if any state schools fail the test, they get shut down and all the teachers banned from ever teaching ever again. I reckon that within five years you’ll only have homeschooling left.

  55. Deepak Shetty

    @Nullius
    heh.
    realistically though what can you do other than have an economic penalty for ignorance?

  56. Nullius in Verba

    Well, if you’re asking how you can make people learn real science, then you can’t, and in my opinion you shouldn’t. It’s their choice.

    But a lot of people are genuinely interested and open-minded (to some degree), and are let down by bad education and poor arguments – ones that revert to assertions of authority as soon as the going gets difficult. Those people at least you can help. I have always thought that if you teach people how to see it for themselves, then the misinformation can get no foothold.

    I have seen any number of arguments on evolution, say, where the only argument offered is that evolution is what virtually all biologists believe in, and they’ve spent years studying the subject so ought to know. An invocation of scientific authority – an Argument from Authority – which the arguers cannot seem to understand why it doesn’t work.

    In my view, based on a number of replies I’ve had to my challenges, the general view is that the public are too dumb to understand the real arguments, so they have to simplify and abridge, and then rely on arguments from authority to paper over the cracks. The problem is universally seen to be that the authority is failing and needs to be bolstered, and people have various schemes for doing that like banning all the alternatives. My view is that authority arguments are a political and not a scientific approach, and thus vulnerable to political counters. The only way is to teach real science. And scientific method is the most powerful weapon on the battlefield anyway, so why not use it?

    But I’m told that’s too hard to do. And I can’t say that I’ve had all that much success here, so maybe they’re right. Realistically, I can only point to the problem. Solutions are harder.

  57. GM

    While Id love to see this happen, I do not have any real expectation that it will. To pass legislation to this effect would need a smarter set of politicians(left or right wing or independent) than America has right now. And the public doesn’t exactly seem to be clamoring for better uniform education standards. Much the reverse in states like Texas (It still astonishes me that people want to write out Thomas Jefferson and not many people from Texas are opposing it – perhaps historians haven’t been effective communicators about the importance of Jefferson).

    Who said that I think it can happen right now? But the same applies to the “let’s work on having the next generation of scientists be better scientific communicators and everything will be fine” approach. If anything, the latter will take something like 30 to 50 years to have any significant effect, if it has an effect, which is doubtful, due to the fact that if you don’t work on addressing the problem of militant anti-intellectualism that is running rampant in society today, your great communicators wont be of much help.

    While if we start seriously working on pressing for some real legislation changes, we can do it a lot faster than that. But we aren’t doing it

  58. Anthony McCarthy

    Then how exactly are they going to know that they are stupid? GM

    People who think they can convince other people to change their thinking by telling them they are stupid are far stupider than the people they are trying to convince. It’s record of proven nonsuccess in this area is more than a long enough trial of it.

    GM, you are stupid, as your comment to me proves.

    There, wasn’t that convincing?

    Strawman? Deepak S.

    I’ve come to conclude that the use of the word “strawman” means that the person can’t think of anything else to say. That’s what it seems to mean now. Your response would do nothing to overturn that conclusion.

  59. John Kwok

    @ Deepak -

    The reason why “rightwing communication strategies” work in the USA and in the United Kingdom is because they appeal to a majority of the population that accepts more democratic, more libertarian principles in politics and economics. If there were more people like noted skeptic Michael Shermer – whom I might add, is, like me, veering somewhat right in our political views – who could point out to our fellow conservatives why the fact of biological evolution – as well as the Modern Synthesis theory – makes ample sense from the perspective of conservative political and economic views (since Darwin was strongly influenced by Adam Smith’s thinking of free markets in developing his concept of an “economy of nature”).

    It also isn’t constructive to lump Sarah Palin, Michael Behe and William Dembski with the likes of Ken Ham and Ray Comfort, no matter how emotionally appealing that may be. Why? Clearly the first three have demonstrated more than once ample signs of intelligent thinking, and to merely put them together with Ham and Comfort is demeaning not only to them but to those intelligent people who do support them (I would prefer referring to their supporters as misguided, somewhat intellectually-challenged, acolytes, but would refrain from any systematic denunciation of them as stupid and ignorant.).

  60. John Kwok

    @ Anthony -

    I am still waiting for Chris Mooney to acknowledge my observation that Carl Sagan was never as important a science communicator in affecting public sentiment and opinion as the likes of Sylvia Earle, Stephen Jay Gould and E. O. Wilson. Or to recognize that training scientists to become effective communicators doesn’t mean that they must adhere to the level of discourse practiced by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but instead, more along the likes of Gwen Ifill, Jim Lehrer and Ray Suarez.

  61. Deepak Shetty

    @Nullius

    Well, if you’re asking how you can make people learn real science, then you can’t, and in my opinion you shouldn’t. It’s their choice.

    But that assumes the choice is a fair one. If you are taught in a certain way, while younger , it is entirely possible that you may choose to reject science , where it wasnt a real choice at all.

    The only way is to teach real science. And scientific method is the most powerful weapon on the battlefield anyway, so why not use it?

    Because people dont believe that the scientific method is the most powerful one. Take for e.g. prayer , you can conduct as many experiments as you wish that might show prayer is ineffective or a placebo(assuming) , and not a single person will acknowledge that prayer doesnt work. Similarly while you may believe that some people use arguments to authority to prove evolution , but Im sure you will be able to find atleast some texts that answer everything reasonably. Use these texts to convince creationists that humans weren’t magicked into existence and see how successful you are. In an ideal world what you say should work. This isnt that world.

  62. Deepak Shetty

    @GM

    While if we start seriously working on pressing for some real legislation changes, we can do it a lot faster than that. But we aren’t doing it

    Just like all the other legislation changes we get through? Hell Americans overwhelmingly voted for a change and all there is to show for it is a healthcare bill thats somewhat better than where you were.

  63. Deepak Shetty

    @Anthony
    You really need to find new logical fallacies to abuse , because you only seem to be aware of strawman. Calling Sarah palin stupid will never convince her , but proving she’s stupid may convince some people who might have otherwise voted for her.
    A strawman is attributing a position to us that we dont have, while proceeding to knock it down

    People who think they can convince other people to change their thinking by telling them they are stupid are far stupider than the people they are trying to convince. It’s record of proven nonsuccess in this area is more than a long enough trial of it.

    Please show proof of where I said that calling people stupid will convince them of anything. If not take back your statement.

  64. Deepak Shetty

    @John Kwok

    The reason why “rightwing communication strategies” work in the USA and in the United Kingdom is because they appeal to a majority of the population

    Bwah ha ha. Yes Im sure I can appeal to xenophobic tendencies of people to draw support to anti-immigration policies and so on and so forth. You are also confusing rightwing policies with rightwing propaganda.

    It also isn’t constructive to lump Sarah Palin, Michael Behe and William Dembski with the likes of Ken Ham and Ray Comfort, no matter how emotionally appealing that may be.

    Read what I said carefully. I said when it comes to evolution, these people are stupid. That doesn’t mean that they are stupid period. For e.g. I believe Ms Palin is shrewd as is banana man.

  65. Anthony McCarthy

    You really need to find new logical fallacies to abuse , because you only seem to be aware of strawman. Deepak

    Why not try making a coherent and cogent argument instead of falling back on a term that has become meaningless through frequent misuse?

    If my point about the counterproductive effect of calling people “stupid” had been meant for a specific person, when I made it, I’d have put it in those terms.

    As it is, the rest of your comment was exactly the kind of thing I was talking about, as I’d imagine any intelligent person reading it would have realized. And so rendering your subsequent answer either hypocritical or a failure of the self-critical habit so necessary in science and any other rigorous endeavor.

  66. Deepak Shetty

    @Anthony
    I did define the frequently abused term for your benefit, quoted your statement of a position that you seem to be attributing to GM or me and asked you for proof.
    If that’s not coherent enough for you, I suggest you go back to school (preferably the non home-schooled variety).

  67. Anthony McCarthy

    Deepak, I suspect I was using the term in formal debate many years before you were born.

    Your suggestion is as trite as your rhetorical tactics.

  68. Deepak Shetty

    @Anthony
    ?

    Deepak, I suspect I was using the term in formal debate many years before you were born.

    There goes the coherent and cogent argument.

  69. An iteration (3:17am, so quite tired , may have errors – text in double brackets are the added parts)

    What about asking first questions like, what are the aims and objectives for the science that is being communicated. Examples:

    1)Are the aims to make science a priority for people like children to become inter4sted in it enought to go and study it. Example,

    school councils and education Dpts working on it impact on curriculums. (more layman and non scientitst groups)
    2)Is it to tell the general population that science is important for future economic growth. Example, needing further research and study into nuclear energy is a very realistic way of doing that. (scientitst groups)
    3)To generate money for institutions or industries. Example science magazines, TV comapnies (which are businesses in them selves) (again scientists and non)

    ((The subjects here, about why science is important, appear to be more about one of two equally important objectives, that is, to create a world where most people will think like scientists and what is the key purpose of science to scociety.

    Most people naturally probably won’t end up thinking like scientitst at all, even though, lots of non scientists and scientsits would prefer that. It could be because of the pyschology of the way people are. An example, the man who works in a bakery store selling cakes isn’t going get into science because to him, it’s not reallt that important – this answers quite a lot of questions about why people do what they do and think how they think. Something that is important to one person might not be to another. The baker might have a greater interest in theatre as apposed to quantum mechanics – that’s his choice – choice is another subject that tells a lot about why people do what they do. If a scientist, decides to do what he does, like write a book about a scientific subject like quantum mechanics, it’s probably not going to change the bakers mind because the baker isn’t going to look out for the book – - because the baker is only interested in theatre (in his spare time!). If on the other hand the scientist goes out and networks about how his science could help the process of making a bakers shop a better place to sell cakes, he might have a bigger impact ANd he might make more waves as a result.))

    So science mostly doesn’t work in a vaccume. Is coupled with business. Lots of businsess as we all know, are funded by government. Institutions like universities and schools, all wich use a business plan, include people at the top who control who, and what is being done – therefore what is being studied. The skills needed to get these people to see the importance of a product, like science, can be achieved but has many obstacles. The main one is that the person doing the business of persuasion (because that’s what it boils down to) is perhaps better to have business sense as apposed to science sense, at leats at the onset. The schools idea is long term – high inpact. To get this into univeristies could be similar but different strategies might be used to over come what the science will do in terms of influence to society and general and to that university.))

    Also, some scientists are very good at being scientsts but not good communicating it, and vice versa. It’s possible that certain media type presenters, who are not scientists, turn out better at it’s communication than it’s method. Sometimes both.

    The climate change issue appears to be not a very objective way to start this process but is telling about who and why science gets where it does (so far). What needs to be asked is, what are the main objectives first for communicating science.

    But if science comminication is done in such a way, it might prevent – the preventers. Bottom up, schools, education and childrens minds growing – early persuasion. Top down, who presents what science – evidence of a concrete and sustainable way that science can be responsible for wellbeing. Sideways in, governments speaches like presidents using phrases like ‘i think’ over ‘I believe’.

    ((This is a general personal observation. I am aware of religion and people who follow religion but don’t often speak about it because I don’t find it as interesting, as say science – that’s it really. If people want to follow religion, then in my mind, that is their decision, not mine. As long as they don’t break the law (harm children, people, animals) then they can go about doing what they want and it has nothing to do with me. This does not mean I will not respect their decision, nor the people. The problem whith making people think and behave as science (in a way that they probably won’t do – back to the start of this text) is not as important, in my mind, as getting science, itself, actually done, that is, to do what it’s supposed to do – to make the world/society a better place, to make us wonder about it’s greatness and finally to understand, study, and be wonderfully immersed in what and how things actually work!!!!))

  70. So the science communicator has to talk to the guy at the school, who is at top, who tells the other guy, who decides what’s being studied, who then tells the kids what to study. The science communicator has a great job on his hands! Otheer way would be to do a TV programme then the kids say, “HeY Dad I want to be a scientist!” Which one works best?

    The science communicator who went to the bakers store, in order to make the store a better place, can still write a book about quantum mechanics. Indeed, that’s his own study and also because it’s just as inportant a subject, but the difference is and as the saying goes – you win some – you loose some, the win on science impact for bakers store, the loose, on the book. However, obscure subjects like the ones researched at the Large Hadron Collider (totally love these subjects) are importamt – only they are different important, have less significance to every day society, like practical uses for Economics, and are more difficult to get the non scientist people to become interested in – unless you are the superb Stephen Hawking.

  71. gillt

    Mooney: “And it really doesn’t make any sense–not everyone is going to be a bench scientist who excels technically in research. Science needs both to create new knowledge and also to disseminate it effectively so that that knowledge has an impact–so that it changes the world in a positive way. Why on earth would these two important ends be set in opposition to each other?”

    That is not the job, nor should it be, of research scientists, a large portion of whom are socially awkward anyway. Journalists and the media need to start doing a far better job at their job.

    I think it takes a great amount of cluelessness and hubris for a science communicator to declare America unscientific then point the finger at dorky scientists for having bad PR skills.

  72. GM

    I think it takes a great amount of cluelessness and hubris for a science communicator to declare America unscientific then point the finger at dorky scientists for having bad PR skills.

    Quite well said!

  73. GM

    64. Deepak Shetty Says:
    May 28th, 2010 at 12:13 pm
    @GM
    “While if we start seriously working on pressing for some real legislation changes, we can do it a lot faster than that. But we aren’t doing it”
    Just like all the other legislation changes we get through? Hell Americans overwhelmingly voted for a change and all there is to show for it is a healthcare bill thats somewhat better than where you were.

    Americans didn’t vote for change, they voted in hope of exactly the opposite.

  74. Come to think of it, the baker store idea I added, might not be a good example of how to communicate science to the layman(3 am in the morning might have something to do woth it), but it does suggest how difficult it is to get the information across to non science groups. It might that the comminicator goes to a factory that produces hoovers, or computers, but the point is, the more far fetched the layman is about the importance of science, the greater the challenge it is to get them to see it’s piont. TV docs and journalists in mags do have control of its communication but only up to a piont – if people actually read or see what they say. Very difficult – best asking the experts!

  75. GM

    See, it is no about getting people to be interested in science or to have more kids aspiring to be scientists. The important things is to have everyone think like a scientists because the survival of the species depends on that. This very crucial point is completely missed by everyone who thinks that anything other than all our war on religion will help (and by plenty of people that would be classified as “New Atheists” too), because all of the “non-offending” approaches to the problem do not address this at all.

  76. Deepak Shetty

    @GM
    heh. And I thought I was cynical.

  77. John Kwok

    @ gillt -

    You get a ringing endorsement from me for your comment (# 73). Very, very well said.

  78. So,

    Have we got anywhere with any of this yet? – (looks at comments…) Not good enough.

    You should all be bashing, shouting and arguing with each other with capital letters, and swearing even – like they do on comments on a climate change forum.

    Supposing we got so as far as science subjects getting into schools really well, via fancy science TV programmes that are sent to schools – which is a reallty good way to do it. All is going well, then the teachers have face up to the fact that teaching the more dry text book stuff to kids, like having to use correct units in a physics answer as an exmaple, is part of text book education. There is also the fact that the text book isn’t much like the brilliant TV programme that has just been presented to them by a superb set of scientists and presenters. It’s just becomes a let down – now all hard work-boring they say! This part is easy if you’re a sad git like me who reads text books for sheer joy, but kids can be a hand full, unless someone comes along and makes them think of it all in a completely unique and different way – teachers.

    Teachers next job – keep them on task.

    Have fun.

  79. Milton C.

    That (disseminating information) is not the job, nor should it be, of research scientists, a large portion of whom are socially awkward anyway. Journalists and the media need to start doing a far better job at their job.

    Except that it IS their job (part of it) now. Written an NSF or NIH grant lately? Or, I guess I should say, received an NSF of NIH grant lately? They’re requiring funded projects to actively reach out and disseminate information to an unscientific public, thus making that very much part of a scientists’ job….if you want to get funding for your research, at least.

    I’ve served on NSF funding panels, and we very much do consider the outreach/education components of grants when we select them for funding – it’s not just something put on the funding guidelines to make the NSF (or agency of choice) look better.

    I think it takes a great amount of cluelessness and hubris for a science communicator to declare America unscientific then point the finger at dorky scientists for having bad PR skills.

    I think it takes a great amount of cluelessness and hubris (and mealymouthed hypocrisy) for scientists to complain all the time about how unscientific the public is and then prove to be too complacent and lazy to get off their asses and actually do something about it….or to just point the finger at someone (everyone) else.

    I’ve worked in academia as a research scientist for 15+ years, and I’ve seen this blame game (pass the buck instead of taking action) occur this whole time, while not much has changed in the public. Hell, I’ve been one of those lazy and complacent scientists, myself! In my experience, the scientists who are willing to tag on outreach and education components to their research, however, have received tenure quicker/easier than other scientists, have enjoyed better public notoriety, have achieved access to field sites/subjects for future projects more easily, and get more research funding than those who would rather rest on their laurels and prove to be a lot of talk but absolutely terrified of action. And no one’s asking research scientists to stop doing research here. Science is moving, folks, and it’s moving in a direction where scientists need better commuication skills. It’d be best to get off your ass and join the club if you want to compete over the next couple of decades, or just get left behind.

  80. Nullius in Verba

    “I think it takes a great amount of cluelessness and hubris (and mealymouthed hypocrisy) for scientists to complain all the time about how unscientific the public is and then prove to be too complacent and lazy to get off their asses and actually do something about it….or to just point the finger at someone (everyone) else.”

    That’s the concept of “division of labour” for you.

    It’s not a matter of pointing fingers. People should do what they’re best at, and employ others for what other people are best at, so we all get the best. Sticking other tasks onto grant conditions to satisfy a political desire isn’t a good way to get the best science, or the best public communication for that matter.

    Nor is it a matter of laziness – or at least, not in a straightforward sense. The problem is not who communicates, or how much they communicate, but what they communicate. The problem is what we commonly refer to as “dumbing down”.

    Whenever a scientist gets involved with the media, one of the first things they are told is to keep it simple, comprehensible for an audience that can’t follow science. So the scientist can be as enthusiastic as you like about getting the interesting sciency stuff out there, but it will end up on the cutting room floor because nobody believes for a second that the general public would be able to understand. They would all turn off, and the media guys would lose audience ratings. And that would be terrible.

    It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. We never explain science, because the general public “would not understand”, and they don’t understand because we never explain. We have spent so many years not explaining that even if you start now it would take years to repair the damage. And science presentation has degenerated to a series of ‘Gee! Whiz!’ recitation of conclusions and achievements and aspirations, without ever talking about the process of getting there.

    Simple example – we all know that scientists have sequenced the human genome. It’s a great achievement, and anyone can see how it could be useful. But most people have little idea how they did it. How many of those people who “know” about the human genome project from watching the news also know that you can extract DNA by using a kitchen blender, a sieve, liquid detergent, pineapple juice, alcohol, and a stick? Or why that works, or what you do next?

    It’s not especially hard to understand, but people are rarely told about it, so of course they don’t know it. They’re told that scientists have done it. They’re shown flashy graphics of double helices. You’re told in great detail about the politics, and the economics, the arguments about intellectual property, and people’s opinions on all that. But the science itself is done by magic – you “send it to the lab” or “put it in the box and press a button”, where occult process are performed and the answer comes back in the form of what looks like a bar code that the wise can point to and tell your fortune from. Their “scientific literacy” is a hollow shell.

    It’s not new. Richard Feynman wrote a brilliant essay about it; this “Wakalixes” approach to science education. They’re told the final conclusions, but not how to understand it; the basics. It’s just meaningless words to them, which makes them think they “can’t do science” and they just give up. But they were never given a chance.

    Here’s a programme about the results this has had in Britain. I don’t think Britain is alone, either. It’s one of the main motivations for homeschoolers – people see what socialised education has done, and don’t want their own children to be damaged in that way. (Whether it succeeds at that I can’t say. I only mention it because it was mentioned above.)

    Which brings us to the main problem – the use of “Scientific Authority”; an oxymoron if ever there were. Having failed to teach basic understanding, educators must fall back on an alternative: that you should believe it because scientists say so. It’s totally anti-scientific! But it’s a refrain I hear constantly repeated, especially from those claiming to be the most scientifically literate.

    The “problem” for science awareness is that this travesty is finally – finally! – falling apart. People don’t believe the scientists. Scientific authority is being rejected. And you can no longer fix it up with clever political/advertising techniques like “framing” from the postmodernist camp. We have a long way to go, and its collapse will leave ruins in its wake. A new understanding will not be put in place overnight.

    But the first step to learning something new is to admit to yourself that you don’t know. In science, that’s an acceptable answer.

  81. Marion Delgado

    Alan Alda continues to have this as a key interest.

  82. gillt

    Milton C.: “Except that it IS their job (part of it) now. Written an NSF or NIH grant lately? Or, I guess I should say, received an NSF of NIH grant lately? They’re requiring funded projects to actively reach out and disseminate information to an unscientific public, thus making that very much part of a scientists’ job….if you want to get funding for your research, at least.”

    How many scientists do you personally know who do this, including your former self? How’d they manage say raising a family, being a successful, publishing scientist, having a life AND partaking in educating the public on science?

    From where I’m sitting, it is simply not a reality for the vast majority of grad students and post-docs with dreams of running their own labs or working in academia or industry to take on the title of Information Disseminator to the public. Since you were a former scientist of 15 plus years, how many hours a week did you spend in the lab or the field? If it’s anything less than 50 then maybe it explains why you aren’t doing it any longer.

  83. It would be good if science, or for that matter anyhting, wasn’t so diluted with business, politics, journalism, not that these are not of help, but it seems that’s the way of the world. I am quite sure there could be a better way, and at least the strive for that, is better than nothing.

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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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