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...

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Why to talk to the media: Turtle edition

Academics are like turtles, pulling their heads in when reporters come knocking. An article in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education has the best metaphor for this syndrome that I’ve heard: Scientists become turtles. They’re discouraged from media relations, and thus never get better at it, and they don’t think it’s their job.  As author Michael Munger, professor of political science at Duke University, puts it: “So whether it’s ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m not paid enough,’ faculty members turn into turtles. They draw their heads and limbs inside a protective shell and won’t come out. If they do poke their heads out briefly, they embarrass themselves because they have no mental framework for media relations. It is not hard, really, compared with teaching. It is just different, different enough that turning into a turtle becomes a natural, permanent response.” Munger makes the interesting case that even though reporters sometimes ask bad questions, use quotes that you don’t want them to use, and get the crux of the story wrong, we shouldn’t blame them or question their motives. Instead, we should remember that they are professionals who know their jobs and know what people will find most interesting.  So if a reporter uses your flip comment about stem cells instead of the meaty bit about your research, Munger suggests that you turn the blame on yourself. Ask yourself, he says, “How did I allow the producers to make that choice? Why did they not use what I thought was the best part of the interview?” Obviously this blogger thinks that science communication is a public duty that scientists should engage in. And, as Munger points out, the better you become at it the more fun it will be. What do you think about scientists engaging in media outreach? Is it a worthwhile endeavor that can reach out to the under-informed public, or is it a bother that takes time away from the important things, like research? Read Munger’s five tips for doing press interviews in the Chronicle...

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Should we “frame” climate change?

If we want to convince people to take action against global warming, maybe we need to take advice from advertising. A report by the nonprofit EcoAmerica, as reported by The New York Times in early May, suggests that terms like “greenhouse gas” and “carbon dioxide” turn people off.  Instead, they say, climate activists should change their rhetoric, emphasizing a “move away from dirty fuels of the past” and a “pollution reduction refund” (instead of “cap-and-trade”). In a SEED magazine article last month (highlighted in the NYT’s Dot Earth blog this week ), climate scientists were asked what jargon really bugs them within the climate debate, and what they would do to change the conversation. Ann Kinzig, the representative ecologist, points out that people process negative information differently than they do positive information, citing that more patients — and even doctors — will opt for a procedure if they’re told it has an 80 percent success rate than if they’re told it has a 20 percent failure rate.  In her words, so-called “sloganeering” is a first and small step towards the larger goal of deeper engagement and understanding.  She says that the right words need to be in place to make people “pause long enough to hear” an argument.  To her, language is never neutral, even in the scientific world.  In her words: “My own personal opinion is that we (scientists) – writing and thinking in our robust homes, from a room devoted exclusively to study, fueled by three square meals a day produced in another room devoted exclusively to cooking – tend to think more negatively about humans and their impact on the nature we so love. People are apart from nature. They are ‘shortsighted’ and they ‘destroy’ environments and their behaviors need to be controlled. They are not integral parts of nature, capable of observing problems and reacting with innovation and thoughtfulness, even if that cycle is imperfect. The labels and phrases we use now reflect the values and social norms of the scientists. If we accept that language is never neutral, why not adopt the terms that resonate with a broader swath of the public?” Read what other scientists, including geoscientists, meteorologists and social scientists, have to say about climate communication in the full SEED...

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