The Public is "Scientifically Illiterate." But Do Scientists Have "Public Literacy"?

By Chris Mooney | March 31, 2011 9:02 am

Sociologist Barry Glassner, the president of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, agrees with my “Do Scientists Understand the Public” paper, written for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Writing in USA Today recently, Glassner argued that

Were hard data and cold logic all that mattered, any number of common personal behaviors would be long gone by now, from smoking to overeating. As any skilled public relations practitioner will attest, successful communication meets people on their own turf — by means that address emotions, fears and values.

I do not mean to suggest that scientists transform themselves into Don Draper-style Mad Men and embark on a course of Madison Avenue-style spin. But scientists who want members of the public to better understand their work ought to start by understanding them.

Glassner, certainly, is not so, um, ignorant as to think that public ignorance is the problem. Instead, he calls for scientists to invest in “public literacy”:

Scientists and their advocates need to become more knowledgeable about how people come to their beliefs — who they rely on for scientific information, what they hear, and through which filters they hear it.

Amen to that. It is not like scientific information travels in a vacuum, after all. It travels through minds and through media, both of which can have quite the distorting effect.

Thankfully, the new trend in the scientific community today is to understand these problems of information transmission and translation–encoding and decoding, as a communications nerd might put it–rather than acting as though they don’t matter.

They most emphatically do.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: science communication

Comments (6)

  1. Indeed. Thanks for your leadership on this. I agree that it has gotten better, but there is still so much left to do.

    Question – are you aware of any instances where scientists and/or science communicators have done some full-fledged opinion research on their messaging? I’m thinking not only about contentious issues such as evolution and climate change, but also of supporting things like funding NSF or NIH or STEM education programs.

  2. Chris Mooney

    It seems rare to find hard scientists actually doing opinion research. But there is so much out there from social scientists that there’s a lot to draw on. There may be private research commissioned that doesn’t get made public.

  3. Amanda

    Want the scientific word out…try getting it into religion and you will see a huge change in point of view. The key is to disguise the science so people don’t realize that is what it is. Sadly, people are afraid of science.

  4. Another part of this issue is filtering and curation in regard to information sources. Even if scientists got on board, made efforts to understand the public mindset better and then figured out how to best deliver news of their work to the masses, there is so much information out there right now that it’s hard for the public to know what to listen to or how to find a trustworthy source. How do you cut through the clutter?


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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 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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