Reflecting on the communication of science

This post was contributed by Nadine Lymn, ESA Public Affairs Director

When the hacked Climatic Research Unit email story broke shortly before the Copenhagen climate summit, there seemed to be a collective groan of dismay and frustration in the scientific community.  Just when positive momentum appeared to be gathering for policymakers to address climate change, this had to happen, casting a pall on scientific credibility.

 A number of recent opinion pieces offer varying explanations and solutions to the larger lesson that scientists might draw from this latest public relations setback. 

In their December 16, 2009 LA Times op-ed, Daniel Sarewtiz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University, and Samuel Thernstrom of the American Enterprise Institute argue that the scientific community is partly to blame for the fallout because it helped perpetuate the myth that there is such a thing as “pure” science.  Say Sarewitz and Thernstrom in their op-ed: 

Central to this disaster has been scientists’ insistence that they are unsullied providers of truth in an otherwise corrupt and indecipherable world. It was never so. Scholars continue to argue over whether such titans of science as Pasteur and Millikan lied, cheated and fabricated results or were simply exercising good scientific intuition. Popular chronicles of real-world science such as “The Double Helix” demonstrate that, in practice, science is competitive, backbiting, venal, imperfect and, indeed, political. Science, in other words, is replete with the same human failings that mark all other social activities.

 The two suggest that scientists need to recognize that policymakers-not “pure” science-ultimately need to decide what policy actions to take, decisions that entail values, interests, and beliefs and are informed, but not dictated, by science. 

On January 3, 2010, Chris Mooney, co-author of “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future” wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post, wherein he urges scientists to speak up and address “Climategate” and argues that a failure to communicate is the scientific community’s main problem: 

Scientific training continues to turn out researchers who speak in careful nuances and with many caveats, in a language aimed at their peers, not the media or the public.  Many scientists can scarcely contemplate framing a simple media message for maximum impact; the very idea sounds unbecoming.

Mooney asserts that scientists no longer have the luxury to avoid the media, and he is encouraged that some universities and programs now exist to train scientists in communication strategies.

Finally, Matthew Nisbit, of American University’s School of Communication, writes in his January 4, 2010 blog that the climate email scandal should spur scientists and scientific institutions to:

 …..increase and broaden public learning and input relative to how expert knowledge is developed, managed, and applied.   The goal is to distribute and enable power across groups in society rather than to consolidate it within science institutions or within a specific political party.

The scientific community, says Nesbit, needs to restore public trust by reinvesting in public engagement and broadening participation in decisions that draw on science.

 This blogger believes that how science is conveyed will continue to evolve; the only thing certain is that there will be no shortage of opinions on how it should evolve.

Author: Nadine Lymn

ESA Director of Public Affairs

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