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A New Year’s Resolution For Scientists: Engage More With The Media

Steve Silberman and Rebecca Skloot just pointed out to me an editorial from science writer Chris Mooney that has appeared online and will be in the Sunday, January 3rd edition of The Washington Post.

In the essay, “On issues like global warming and evolution, scientists need to speak up,” Mooney continues his longstanding call to scientists to take ownership in combating scientific misinformation, invoking the very weak response of the scientific community to the aftermath of e-mails and documents hacked from the Climatic Research Institute at the University of East Anglia.

The central lesson of Climategate is not that climate science is corrupt. The leaked e-mails do nothing to disprove the scientific consensus on global warming. Instead, the controversy highlights that in a world of blogs, cable news and talk radio, scientists are poorly equipped to communicate their knowledge and, especially, to respond when science comes under attack.

A few scientists answered the Climategate charges almost instantly. Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University, whose e-mails were among those made public, made a number of television and radio appearances. A blog to which Mann contributes,, also launched a quick response showing that the e-mails had been taken out of context. But they were largely alone. “I haven’t had all that many other scientists helping in that effort,” Mann told me recently.

Could we have done anything differently?
I agree to some extent but, in this particular case, I don’t think that any concerted effort by scientific communicators could have overcome the bleating by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck that took one or two statements out of context from among 1,073 e-mails and a million words, claiming proof of a massive global scientific conspiracy to manufacture climate change warnings.

The problem is that when one’s statements are not bound by facts, you can pretty much say whatever you want; that will be the first thing uncritical sycophants hear and remember.

It took several weeks for the AP to release its own investigative findings of the stolen documents to show that while there were petty and heated disagreements about specific data, nothing was faked. But by that time, science had lost a lot of ground to climate skeptics as detailed in an article Mooney cites:

Scientists themselves also come in for more negative assessments in the poll, with four in 10 Americans now saying that they place little or no trust in what scientists have to say about the environment. That’s up significantly in recent years. About 58 percent of Republicans now put little or no faith in scientists on the subject, double the number saying so in April 2007. Over this time frame, distrust among independents bumped up from 24 to 40 percent, while Democrats changed only marginally. Among seniors, the number of skeptics more than doubled, to 51 percent.

When a large segment of the public puts their faith in right wing miscreants that somehow have huge audiences, I have trouble seeing how scientists can respond no matter how many facts they have in their pockets or how effectively they communicate. I don’t mean to sound defeatist but I think that responding to so-called Climategate was incredibly difficult no matter how well-prepared the scientific community could have been. This single crystallizing event was far more understandable to people than decades of climate research, starting primarily with the fact that the average person seems to associate the daily weather with climatological trends. Add to this mix a media empire with people who manufacture apparent facts by repeating untruths (i.e., Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11) and feeding the American love for a good conspiracy theory.

I’m just not sure how good Climategate is as an example of a failure by scientists to communicate with the public.

“Many refuse to try; others go to the opposite extreme of advocating vociferous and confrontational atheism.”
After discussing his expert area of devastating hurricanes, Mooney then raises some excellent points about countering the denial of evolution by acknowledging that for many, evolution is an issue not of science but of faith.

“Many Christians, including fundamentalists, can accept evolution as long as it is not attached to the view that life has no purpose,” Karl Giberson, a Christian physicist and the author of “Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution,” told me recently. “Human life has value, and any scientific theory that even appears to deny this central religious affirmation will alienate people of faith and create opportunity for those who would rally believers against evolution.”

This quarter of the essay will likely be the part that will create froth and lather in the blogosphere so I will mostly leave it for other commentators. Most of my day-to-day colleagues are moderately to strongly religious and many use their faith as motivators for their careers in the biomedical sciences. Many religious people in my community are huge fans of science. I contend that some degree of spirituality can co-exist with science. We’re not going to talk people out of their faith; there is far more common ground here for us in science with a large swath of the US population who are religious and open to and often embrace scientific discourse.

Practical issues in engaging the public
I certainly agree that we can do a much better job of communicating with the public. Mooney cites the summer course run by Jeremy Jackson at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at UC-San Diego in training young scientists in communication skills and media interactions. Mooney closes the editorial with reference to books I really need to read:

And in another sign that the times may be changing, a syllabus for such classes is already here. A spate of recent books, from Randy Olson’s “Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style” to Cornelia Dean’s “Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public,” seem like perfect assigned reading.

I’ve long held that scientists have a duty to interact with the public in a substantive way, particularly as beneficiaries of federal grant dollars provided, in part, by taxpayer dollars. I first heard this philosophy uttered by Harvard epidemiologist and nutritionist, Dr. Walter Willett, when he visited a few years back.

Because I’m in a research area where scientists seem to be tapped for press interviews more often than in other areas, I’ve added plans to some career development grant applications to provide media training for myself and my trainees. But as a scientist who has spent a lot of time interacting with the public and reporters, I can also say it is a thankless effort which one undertakes because of personal commitment and pride.

That is to say: some of my colleagues and superiors still think that interacting with the public and press is a self-serving, self-aggrandizing waste of time that detracts from hunting down research dollars.

I disagree strongly, of course. I’d say that my public talks and press interactions have complemented the expansion of my research program into other areas, giving me name recognition that has assisted me in networking with other researchers and grant program officials. About 90% of my interactions with television and newspaper reporters have been very fruitful and have gotten me into audiences with politicians and decision makers who normally wouldn’t have had the time of day for yet another cancer researcher.

The best way to get scientists to interact with the public and the media is to give them actual credit for it – in academic currency, it will simply never count as much as peer-reviewed research publications or research grant dollars. Even teaching awards rarely matter in academia so I think there will have to be a huge shift in academia-think before one gets credit for teaching the public.

To me, this is the major barrier to scientists engaging with the public.

*This blog post was originally published at Terra Sigillata*

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One Response to “A New Year’s Resolution For Scientists: Engage More With The Media”

  1. felixw says:

    If global warming scaremongers want to be taken seriously they might consider

    (1) Debating their opponents rather than pretending they don’t exist;
    (2) Stop destroying the raw data so their work can’t be checked
    (3) Insisting that groups (such as NASA) share the data they have been hiding.
    (4) Stop saying that the climate is warming in public, but admit that it is cooling in private emails.
    (5) Stop manipulating the peer review, tenure and grant systems to marginalize researchers who disagree with them
    (6) Encouraging an atmosphere of openness and transparency in the scientific community.
    (7) Treat this issue as a scientific matter dealt with by scientists, and not as an ideological campaign run by politicians and pundits.

    But if you violate all of these reasonable conditions, don’t expect to be taken seriously by impartial minds.

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