Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Communicating Science

There seems to be a small industry these days, consisting of telling us that scientists either or both a) are bad communicators and b) should be doing more communicating with the general public. The latest round is spurred by the articles from Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum appearing in many venues as part of promotion for their book Unscientific America. (You can track some of it, in between the feud with PZ Myers, at their blog The Intersection and the articles they reference.)

I confess some amusement at being told both that I (as a scientist) am both bad at something, and should be doing it more. Unless it's something for my own entertainment (singing in the car, for instance), or health (running), I generally avoid doing things that I'm bad at. And think that most people are similar in that approach. But that's an aside to the more important matter.

The continual failing, including from the current round of Mooney and Kirshenbaum articles, is that they (and others making similar comments) never do get around to telling us (scientists) just what it is we should do differently, nor where we should be doing it. Fine-sounding words are mentioned, like 'reach out more'. But, let's try to carry that out. Er. What does it mean after all? Reach out more sounds nice, but after reading The Intersection for quite some time, and asking this question routinely, I still don't know what they mean. I do know that they've written routinely that scientist blogs are not the answer, so my efforts here are a waste by their lights. That's fine, their opinion. (Though I still wonder what, exactly, the question is.)

So I'll turn the question to my gentle, and not-so gentle, readers and ask you for what _you_ would like to see scientists (me as an example) do more of. And, what you'd like to see less of. More blog posts, fewer but better-crafted, more scientists writing blogs, drop the blogs and write letters to the editor, buy TV time and make science-o-mercials, ...?

In like vein, what are some of the dos and don'ts about communication you'd suggest? I do make some effort, for instance, to use a more common vocabulary and avoid math. But ... I do still use math, and know (following the quote from Stephen Hawking, who was advised when writing Brief History of Time that each equation would halve his sales) that this isn't the thing to do for widest readership. Even better if you can point to examples of good, and bad, ideas that I've carried out (intentionally or not) in the blog here.

15 comments:

jg said...

Organizations like the Heartland Institute have published community forum articles in my local papers, but to my knowledge I've never seen one by a scientist -- no criticism of scientists; my paper is small and not a scientific venue. I once wrote a community forum article, taking what I read from science journals. The paper's editor said it was too technical for their audience; yet a columnist calling global warming "hot air" and "junk science" gets published.

Discovering RealClimate and then the network of climatologist's who 'out' the propogandists has been a great help. (To all, please continue.) However, about a year ago I decided it was too much work for the results in local media; e.g., my references to Nature or RealClimate look no different to the reader from the opposition's references to the Heartland Institute or the Cato Institute. I concluded that the people I'm arguing with don't read science, and as an illustrator I should be putting more time into pictures.

This leads to my criticism of blogs: blogs are for the semantic learner. Also,they are sequential, so that excellent work gets buried in time (just like a letter to the editor). It might be just me, but reading an old blog post is less interesting than a new one. Compare this to an illustration that can be frequently updated reflecting and summarizing a scientist current views a research.

I wonder if industry trade journals are a place where climatologists should be writing. Some of these journals still have columnists and editor who garner a lot of attention by reading Lomborg and then saying global warming is a hoax.

Last, I'm impressed by the time and effort scientists put into answering questions from anyone. I don't know how you manage to conduct research, teach, write a blog, and stay up-to-date on events.

thank you,
John G

Philip H. said...

Bob,
Since I'm more into translation then I suspect you are, I'll answer your question. I should also add that I know Sheril and Chris personally, so I am not unbiased in my answers.

First, I think both of them would argue that sceintists do need to be more proactive about seeking out publicity for their work. You can't rely on your university or agency to go calling reporters, especially if your university or agency doesn't know what you are doing. Depending on the scientist an dthe situation, a call to the Public Affairs Office may be enough to set the ball rolling - in other cases the scientist might have to call the papers themselves.

Second, S&C would say that when a scientist sees science being misrepresented, or downright led about, the scientist has to speek up, and loudly. While no one managed to get a retraction out of the Washington Post over George Will's blatant lies about climate change, the resulting outcry did make the Post look really bad. Doing the same thing locally through letters to the editor and call-in radio wouldn't hurt either.

Fourth, I keep calling S&C on their red herring that science blogging does no good, since they are bloggers themsleves. What I suspect they mean is that scienitsts who only blog about the technical nuances of thier work aren't advancing the cause of science because they aren't getting read by the public. Scinetists who do as you do, breaking down complex topics into more understandbale chunks, are probably on the right track.

Finally, I think they advocate a lot for scientists recognizing that they can't remain separate from politics and culture and expect respect and defference. Many of the coming crises in our world will need informed science to drive policy decisions, but if the Heartland Institute and other groups of its ilk are all the politicians listen to - because they are the only ones standing on the stage - that policy will be ill served.

I could go on, but the whole thing tires me out.

Eric L said...

Were you looking for what you should do or what generally needs to be done?

I would say you generally do what you do just fine, and I might link to your blog next time I'm in an argument with a denier. Though I would like to second jg's comment about blogs being sequential -- when you're looking for information, you want an encyclopedia, not a newspaper, though if you're just interested in learning something every day about an interesting topic, then a science blog is great. You might want to figure out what your most useful output is and create "Start here to learn about this topic" links on your main page. For example, your series on simple climate models -- the right way to read these is from the beginning, not starting from whatever you've written most recently while sifting through lots of other posts on other topics. The main examples of bloggers doing more encyclopedia style work out there are Coby Beck's "How To Talk to a Skeptic" and the rcwiki. Your focus is more on explanations of science, and I guess your labels links provide a way to navigate your site by topic, but they're not very prominent and don't provide any information on which are great to click on to learn about a topic. The modelling label is great, but it should be read from the start, not the most recent post. The sea ice label links to a lot of detailed posts on a subject you know a lot about, mixed in with posts not all that interesting to someone looking to learn the basics of sea ice. The rest are interesting if you're searching for that post you once saw on this site and you remember what it was about. Not that that isn't itself useful, but not what I'm looking for here. And of course, I don't expect you to write a whole encyclopedia, but you have produced some material that would be a great addition to some sort of climate encyclopedia.

The communication dos and don'ts depend on who your audience is, and that itself is going to depend on your communication style, so if you want to be a resource for people who want high school science level explanations of climate who can't handle too much math, and there certainly is use for that, then that's what you provide. I often argue with coworkers who are great at math and would want to see the work, and I wouldn't hesitate before linking them to some of Tamino's math heavy posts, but that's not for everyone. The tension with religion problem that you run into in evolution is fortunately not an issue in climate, but the tension with politics problem certainly is. The basic problem is that conservatism does not lend itself to solutions to a problem like global warming, so it is difficult to set aside political beliefs to accept the reality of this one issue. This is difficult to get around but to the extent it is possible I think the answer is if you hope to discuss the science and sway deniers, keep the discussion as far away from politics as possible. This can be tough; An Inconvenient Truth was in many respects a great work of science communication intended for a mass audience, but it starred Al Gore, a guy we all got a chance to vote for or against for President, a guy half the country thinks the country would be in so much better shape had he been President and the other half thinks is a serial liar who thinks he invented the internet, the guy who is mentioned constantly on denier blogs and op-eds... And that will color anyone's view of the information in the movie. But would An Inconvenient Truth have gotten the same attention without him? Maybe, just as Mooney says we need prominent Christian biologists speaking up for evolution, we need some prominent Republican climate scientists. But who would fit that role? And are they going to be in the Republican party long if they disagree on the issue most important to them?

Josh Gemmell said...

What bugs me most about Chris's "shut up and talk more" message is the fact that Chris is essentially telling scientists to do his job in a way that insults and confuses them. If he were to just focus on what he's supposed to be doing while at the same time provide constructive help and oppportunities to the scientists that he feels are effective communicators, I think that would work much better for everyone.

Philip H. said...

What bugs me most about Chris's "shut up and talk more" message is the fact that Chris is essentially telling scientists to do his job in a way that insults and confuses them. If he were to just focus on what he's supposed to be doing while at the same time provide constructive help and oppportunities to the scientists that he feels are effective communicators, I think that would work much better for everyone.

Josh,
The problem with your very valid approach is that Chris, and to a lessor extent Sheril, have been trying to do just that for years. They have been shouted down by many of the scientists in question who don't believe in framing, and they have also seen that, absent scientists in the dialogue, they can't make any headway. Thus the book.

Belette said...

"Scientists should talk more" is (I think) just excuse making. In much the same way that you can be sure that when GW really starts causing trouble, all the right-wing conservative folk will be laying into the scientists for failing to warn them loudly enough that there was a problem.

The clue is in the job title. Scientists do science. They are good at it. They usually aren't good at communication. People who are good at communication are the despised PR-types, journalists, marketroids, etc. etc..

What the scientists are saying is well known. You can find it in IPCC if you want. All govts employ enough flacks and tame semi-scientists to translate it into politician-speak if they want to hear. Generally they don't want to.

ps: I still owe you a response on the sea ice. Sorry. Rowing.

ourchangingclimate said...

I think science minded blogs only reach a very small portion of the population, and even then mostly people already agreeing with the science. It doesn't do terribly much to convey scientific thinking to the general public (except when lay-readers go out and communicate it further in theor own circle of friends and family).

More use of other media is also needed: radio, TV, newspapers, inductry-organizations, etc.

The tone of the communication is very important: I increasingly notice that otherwise reasonable peple are turned of by the somewhat paternalistic, sometimes outright agressive response they get (mostly from the 'supporters' of scientists rather than the scientists themselves however). We need to be aware of who is listening: Many innocent bystanders also read our messages and responses, and the snark would better be removed if we want to be heard. Btw, I admire the way you handle 'skeptical' questions and such, as you usually manage very well to keep a respectable tone. This comment is not directed at you personally.

Bart

Philip H. said...

@ Belette:

Speaking as a government hack and tame semi-scinetist I will, only here, strongly disagree. Politicians do want to hear, but the want to hear about here and now, or at best the next 18 months. They don't need the next 20 years - their action window is not that long.

Similarly, if Bob and I both stuck to just doing science, this blog (and my own feeble attempts at blogging) wouldn't exist. You'd have no place to post your comments, or give answers to sea ice questions.

Finally, can you lay off the slaps at government employees? We grow weary of being expected to do so much more with so much less (by politicians, the media, the public, and other scientists). Our weariness urns to anger when we get beat up for it. The lazy bureaucrat leaning on the shovel is an urban myth, and it does nothing to further your point.

Penguindreams said...

Philip: Re. Belette -- he's a recovering government scientist and a science blogger himself (including Realclimate). He's got standing to make his comments. In my reading, anyhow, the knock was against the governments, not the science types -- not asking the questions or listening to the answers.

Philip H. said...

Bob,
Belette may have standing, as you put it, but I still take issue with being called a flack and a tame semi-scientist. Yes, I draw a federal paycheck - since when does that mean I leave my rational faculties at the door?

And if he's slapping at the political appointees in federal agencies, who do often get it wrong before they get it right, he coul dhave been clearer about it.

Belette said...

@Phil: I presume you're objecting to "All govts employ enough flacks and tame semi-scientists to translate it into politician-speak if they want to hear." First of all, I don't see any imputations of laziness in there - there are plenty of zealous hardworking flacks in the world.

Second, there is a valuable role for people interpreting science for governments. As someone interested in the science, I don't have any interest in that role, and my language reflects that, but my apologies if you are one of these hardworking people.

Third, you seem to have misinterpreted me as saying that scientists should positively avoid communicating. I didn't say that and I don't believe it (or I wouldn't blog, contribute to wiki, or to the late-lamented sci.env).

I'm fully aware of the time-horizon problem; I was debating this with PD on sci.env more than 10 years ago.

Fourth, nothing I said could be taken to imply that got employees are irrational.

Philip H. said...

Belette,
Thanks for the clarifications. While my reaction may appear . . . over the top . . . to many folks (yourself included) I am, in fact, weary of being degraded in the blog-o-sphere simply because of the origin of my paycheck not the quality of my work. I do indeed work hard at translating science for policy folks here in D.C., though honestly some of the questions they ask are less then enlightened.

Thankfully, Bob's site here has been relatively free of such slaps, so to see someone using language that suggested one was coming sort of set me off. And if you catch me during college football season, I'm anything but tame.

I don't think I was interpreting you as saying scientists shouldn't talk to policy folks - I was just trying to add my voice to the still small cry to scientists that our normal timelines don't work politically, and when you are talking to policy and political types you have to understand that. I have lost count of the number of times I've heard from fellow scientists that their encounter on Capitol Hill didn't go well because their audience wouldn't accept their solutions or predicitons. Said solutions or predictions often had decadal time scales, which as you know don't work for most politicians.

Penguindreams said...

all: I don't mean to be, or for this comment thread to be, a 'bash Chris and Sheril' area. The only thing that makes their comments worth paying attention to, in my mind, is that I've read them long enough that I think they do have some real points on the topic. Certainly they have on other things they write about -- that's why I do read them.

jg:

As to the time ... I think 'labor of love' figures in there somewhere.

Philip H.:
Did you fail to copy over point 3, or was there a mis-count? Anyhow, point 1 ... I don't see that being much concern. Few scientists I know are concerned about whether the general public knows about how spiffy their work is (as long as the financial support keeps coming). Probably they should be more so (so that it will). But for me, I'd be satisfied if my employer's public affairs office didn't say that I couldn't answer questions from media. No concern from me about whether they go out advertising my work for me.

Second: Do we have any evidence that letters to the editor from scientists are any more effective than letters from non-scientists? There are a lot more of the latter people. If Chris talks about blame, and he does, I think it's only fair blame if it is somehow worse for a scientist to not write a letter than for a non-scientist to not write one. And, given how few scientists there are, the scientist letters to the editor would have to be enormously more effective than non-scientist letters. Myself, I haven't seen anything to suggest that they are. But it's not my area so I could easily have missed it.

Fourth: While I hope that I'm on one of the right tracks (I strongly suspect there is more than one), it's also clear that I'm not about to be changing the minds of many people. Most of the visitors (certainly most commentators) here appear to be pretty knowledgeable about the science. So no great changes, even if I also had far more traffic than I do.

Final: In the realm of the Heartland Institute, I think scientists are irrelevant. Politicians don't listen to Heartland because there is nothing else to listen to. Rather, because Heartland provides excuses for the politicians to do what they (or their backers) wanted to in the first place. The counter to Heartland is not scientists, but a political group with a different orientation in its politics.

Eric: On the political side, I'll disagree. 'conservatism' as currently used, I think does have a lot of problems. Conservatism as used before, say, 1980, on the other hand, is perfectly capable of responding to environmental issues. In that older sense of the term, I'm a conservative myself. In vein of the modern Republican party, apparently few scientists (the recent Pew study) are members any more -- single digits of percent. This is rather surprising to me, as scientists as a group in my experience are conservative. But not so surprising after reading the party rhetoric for 30 years.

Irrespective of such things ... I don't think that ultimately we (scientists and, more generally, people who prefer reality-based decision making) can be successful _without_ addressing political concerns. There is a large population in the US which has successfully been made petrified that they can't accept the science without giving up their SUV, job, and having black helicopters and storm troopers monitoring their every move, ready to whisk them off to concentration camps. I recently corresponded with a guy who could not talk about whether CO2 was a greenhouse gas or not, without continually talking about taxes. The science is the science, and doesn't care about your taxes either way. But he could not get over his paranoia. The only way to get to the point of talking about the science with such people lies through some version of soothing their paranoia about science. I don't think I'm a good person for that (but see http://moregrumbinescience.blogspot.com/2008/07/keep-your-vehicles-how-you-choose.html for some of my comments in that direction last year).

thingsbreak said...

I don't know how much you read/have read Abbie Smith/ERV, but a third party blog recently provided a telling summary of her interactions with Mooney on the subject of science communication, and at least a few of her comments seem to echo some I think you've expressed at times.

John Mashey said...

See what to do about poor science reporting on concrete proactive actions. Good science reporters seem an increasingly endangered species, but there is still *serious* leverage in cultivating any you can find and helping them & editors.

Of course, much of this work can/should be done by science-literate "helpers", but some may still be relevant to actual scientists, whose extra credibility can be useful.

There were some helpful comments in that thread as well. jenn recommended A Scientist's Guide to Talking with the Media from UCS. I thought I'd ordered it before, but I hadn't, so I have now.