Thursday, May 10, 2007

Scientists are lousy communicators

Scientists do a lousy job of communicating to non-scientists. That's one reason science and scientists are being effectively beaten up and demonized in a variety of public debates on issues like evolution and climate change.

I refer you to a new website on communicating science - "Speaking Science 2.0" - put together by Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney.

Chris is Wash. DC correspondent for Seed magazine, author of "The Republican War on Science" and the about-to-be-released book "Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle over Global Warming." He blogs at Matt is professor of communications at American University in Wash. DC and is widely recognized for his work on framing science messages (also the name of his blog -

They recently published op-ed pieces in Science and the Washington Post that attracted widespread national attention. They are starting a nationwide lecture tour today on this topic.

A synopsis of their talk follows below:

Speaking Science 2.0

"We do not see the world as it is. We see the world as we are."
-- Talmud scripture

"It's not what you say, it's what people hear."
--Republican strategist Frank Luntz

Over the past several years, the seemingly never-ending fights over
evolution, embryonic stem cell research, global climate change, and
many other topics have led to a troubling revelation. Scientific
knowledge, alone, does not always suffice when it comes to winning
political arguments, changing government policies, or influencing
public opinion. Put simply, the media, policymakers, and the public
consume scientific information in a vastly different way than do the
scientists who generate it. As a result, scientists and their
organizations repeatedly face difficult challenges in explaining their
knowledge to diverse groups of citizens.

As issues at the intersection of science and politics gain more and
more attention, something beyond pure science--beyond "getting the
facts out there"--will be necessary to break through to the public.
But what are the new directions? It's time to question some central
assumptions and focus on fresh ideas.

**A conversation about new directions in science communication.**

In this joint presentation, journalist Chris Mooney and communication
professor Matthew Nisbet explain how scientists and their allies can
"reframe" old debates in new ways, while taking advantage of a
fragmented media environment to connect with a broader American
public. Drawing on case studies from the battles over stem cell
research, evolution, global warming, hurricanes, and other subjects, a
key point of emphasis will be that scientists must adopt a language
that emphasizes shared values and has broad appeal, avoiding the
pitfall of seeming to belittle fellow citizens or attacking their
religious beliefs.

Innovative strategies for public engagement could not be more urgent:
Science will figure, as never before, in the 2008 presidential
campaign and beyond. Scientific "facts" will increasingly be pulled
into fraught political contexts, and bent and twisted in myriad ways.
This political environment can seem perplexing to scientists, or
worse. But it's one to which they must adapt if they want their
hard-won knowledge to play its necessary role in shaping the future of
our nation.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:39 PM

    Part of the problem arises from the framing of the debate (as your third link makes explicit). Too many people think of the term "evolution" only in the Scopes-trial perspective of human evolution.

    This became apparent to me last week when we had my sister-in-law over for dinner. We got onto the subject of politics, and I mentioned the moment in the late GOP debate when three of the ten candidates admitted that they didn't believe in evolution. Sister-in-law said, "I'm not sure I do, either." This shocked me, as she is a very bright and articulate person in her 50's who dabbles in various paranormal and conspiracy theories, but from a genuinely curious rather than a true believer position.

    She went on to talk about some of the things she'd read involving alien intervention in human evolution and lost superior civilizations, until I stopped her and told her that I could give her countless articles describing the evolution of one plant species from another (I'm a botanist). She gave me a blank look and said, "I'd never even thought about evolution in plants."

    Which I doubt is true. She likely was taught about Mendel's experiments with peas in high school, but had forgotten it. One penalty of living in an environment where information pours into us at a mile a minute is that we displace the old with the new until we raise our hand in frustration, as did the poor soul in the old Far Side cartoon, asking to be excused because, "My brain is full".