Michael Mann and Gavin Schmidt
The issues involved in science communication are complex and often seem intractable. We’ve seen many different approaches, but guessing which will work (An Inconvenient Truth, Field Notes from a Catastrophe) and which won’t (The Eleventh Hour) is a tricky call. Mostly this is because we aren’t the target audience and so tend to rate popularizations by different criteria than lay people. Often, we just don’t ‘get it’.
Into this void has stepped Randy Olsen with his new book “Don’t be such a scientist”. For those who don’t know Randy, he’s a rather extraordinary individual – one of the few individuals who has run the gamut from hard-core scientist to Hollywood film maker. He’s walked the walk, and can talk the talk–and when he does talk, we should be listening!
While there may be some similarities in theme with “Unscientific America” by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum that we reviewed previously, the two books cover very different ground. They share the recognition that there is currently a crisis in area of scientific communication. But what makes “Don’t be such a Scientist” so unique is that Olsen takes us along on his own personal journey, recounting his own experiences as he made the transition from marine biologist to movie-maker, and showing us (rather than simply telling us–you can be sure that Randy would want to draw that distinction!) what he learned along the way. The book could equally well have been titled “Confessions of a Recovering Scientist”.
More than anything else, the book attempts to show us what the community is doing wrong in our efforts to communicate our science to the public. Randy doesn’t mince words in the process. He’s fairly blunt about the fact that even when we think we’re doing a good job, we generally aren’t. We have a tendency to focus excessively on substance, when it is often as if not more important, when trying to reach the lay public, to focus on style. In other words, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it.
This is a recurring theme in Randy’s work. His 2006 film, Flock of Dodos, showed, through a combination of humor and insightful snippets of reality, why evolutionary biologists have typically failed in their efforts to directly engage and expose the “intelligent design” movement. In his 2008 film Sizzle, he attempted the same thing with the climate change debate–an example that hits closer to home for us–in this case using more of a “mockumentary”-style format (think “Best in Show” with climate scientists instead of dogs) but with rather more mixed results. Randy makes the point that the fact that Nature panned it, while Variety loved it, underlines the gulf that still exists between the worlds of science and entertainment.
However, the book is not simply a wholesale, defeatist condemnation of our efforts to communicate. What Randy has to say may be tough to hear, but its tough love. He provides some very important lessons on what works and what doesn’t, and they ring true to us in our own experience with public outreach. In short, says Randy: Tell a good story; Arouse expectations and then fulfill them; Don’t be so Cerebral; And, last but certainly not least: Don’t be so unlikeable (i.e. don’t play to the stereotype of the arrogant, dismissive academic or the nerdy absent-minded scientist). Needless to say, it’s easy for us to see our own past mistakes and flaws in Randy’s examples. And while we might quibble with Randy on some details (for example, An Inconvenient Truth didn’t get to be the success it was because of its minor inaccuracies), the basic points are well taken.
The book is not only extremely insightful and full of important lessons, it also happens to be funny and engaging, self-effacing and honest. We both agree that this book is a must read for anyone who cares about science, and the problems we have engaging the public.
If the book has a flaw, it might be the seemingly implicit message that scientists all need to take acting or comedy lessons before starting to talk – though the broader point that many of us could use some pointers in effective communication is fair. More seriously, the premise of the book is rooted in perhaps somewhat of a caricature of what a scientist is (you know, cerebral, boring, arrogant and probably unkempt). This could be seen merely as a device, but the very fact that we are being told to not be such scientists, seems at times to reinforce the stereotype (though to be fair, Randy’s explanation of the title phrase does show it to be a bit more nuanced than might initially meet the eye). Shouldn’t we instead be challenging the stereotype? And changing what it means to the public to be a scientist? Maybe this will happen if scientists spend more time not being so like stereotypical scientists – but frankly there are a lot of those atypical scientists already and the cliches still abound.
When it comes to making scientists better communicators, Greg Craven’s book “What’s the worst that can happen?” demonstrates how it can actually be done. Craven is a science teacher and is very upfront about his lack of climate science credentials but equally upfront about his role in helping normal people think about the issue in a rational way. Craven started off making YouTube videos explaining his points and this book is a further development of those including responses to many of the critiques he got originally.
Craven’s excellent use of video to discuss the implications of the science is neatly paired with the work that Peter Sinclair is doing with his “Climate Denial Crock of the Week” series. Both use arresting graphics and straightforward explanations to point out what the science really says, how the contrarians distort and misinform and take some pleasure in pointing out the frequent incoherence that passes for commentary at sites like WUWT.
Crucially, neither Craven nor Sinclair are scientists, but they are excellent communicators of science. Which brings up a point raised by both Mooney & Kirshenbaum and Olsen – what role should working scientists play in improving communications to the public? Video editing and scriptwriting (and even website design!) is probably best left to people who know how to do these things effectively, while content and context needs to be informed directly by the scientists themselves. To our mind this points to enhanced cooperation among communicators and scientists as the dominant model we should be following. We don’t all need to become film directors to make a difference!
602 Responses to "Communicating Science: Not Just Talking the Talk"
Colin Crawford says
Gary Owens, in comment #46, has most certainly posed the most succinct and comprehensive assessment of the “problem.” I have yet to read the entire study he links in, “Unskilled and Unaware,” but have seen more than a few articles related to it, some with excerpts. It should be required reading for everyone and I can’t wait to thoroughly examine its content. So, thank you very much Mr. Owen for your comment and conscientious references. However, I must add that those who manage to acquire even the most advanced degrees available in our educational system can find themselves so inculcated into such a narrowly focused specialty as to be equally ignorant of many other facets of life, even those that may be extremely relevant to a more comprehensive understanding of their niche pursuits. Alas, as Mr. Owen seems to allude, our religious, corporate and political “leaders” prefer an ignorant, irrational and highly distractible constituency to manipulate and fleece as they please.
Edward Greisch says
37 DVG: The legal model is obsolete. Scientists are their own opposition. NATURE is the only authority. Your wish for courtroom drama is not a good idea. What is needed is for everybody to be shown, rather than hearing, experiments rather than arguments.
Phil Matimein says
I agree with this article. Science communication is all too often the poor relation to the science itself.
It’s all about perception, not reality. Politicians, companies and media understand this, scientists often do not. They are, quite rightly, more occuppied with the business of research. The skills in communicating an idea in smple language is the preserve, often, of the salesman.
Research has shown that telling people to change and why they have to change is not going to get you success. Removing the barriers to change will give you a better chance. To do this you need to convince the decision-makers who can provide incentives for behaviour change.
Basically, the role of the salesman needs to taken on by someone who has the presence and charisma to charm. Employ an advertsising agency to sell the idea. It all sounds a bit shallow, but its unfortunately the way to spread your message. It is unlikley that scientific integrity will succeed in the time needed, when it’s up against professionals who know how to manipulate the general public’s way of thinking.
Perhaps this is a bit harsh, but I get fed up with scientists bleating that too few people are listening to them when they can only talk in terms that 80% of the population are unlikely to understand. Engage with communications professionals and learn about the art of selling a message.
16 September 2009 at 3:43 PM
The European heat wave of 2003 is at least partially attributable to global warming. The droughts and fires of Australia are also at least partially attributable to global warming. The fires of southern California and the Rocky Mountains are also partially attributed to global warming. The droughts in Darfur may be partially attributed to global warming.
All of the above have killed whole families. Any could provide a strong foundation for a narrative about the dangers of global warming.
Gavin, thanks, I’ve added the book to my reading list.
I wanted to respond a bit to number (10), I think that people learning about science learning how to think not what to think is the key. And of course our fast paced, prepare for as many tests as possible way of teaching simply has no time for this. Another thing I’ve had recommeneded to me, but haven’t yet checked out:
which is supposed to be a game about propaganda. Supposedly players learn to recognize it, and to become relatively immune. If it can actually accomplish that it would work wonders. I fear that the science of persuasion, as used by the professional spinmeisters has been advancing faster than the realists attempts to combat it. Perhaps this could be one tool for the counterattack?
Radge Havers says
#12 Jan Theodore Galkowski
LOL. But yeah, why not that too? I hear scientists deprecate science fiction all the time, but personally I wish they’d commandeer that art form and make it their own. What does it say about our culture that it’s becoming increasing difficult to tell the difference between the genres of science fiction and magical fantasy?
#27 Nick O.
It would be nice if Americans could appreciate scientists the way that they love ball players or the way that Italians appreciate opera singers. Neither of these areas of expertise, or many others that people revere, are easy either.
Education is part of the problem. The reality is, though, that many people (and numbers matter here politically) are more in touch with their sensory input channels than they are with the minutiae of mathematics. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is wrong to ignore it.
PZ Myers had a quote from Feynman not long ago, in part:
There was a lot of back and forth on various aspects of his quote. Regardless, it really is important while you’re doing what you do to communicate your love of your subject to your peers, to your superiors (if you have them) and to lay people especially.
By way of example, Myers’ take on “The Book of Kells” was that the doodads, while interesting, had nothing to do with anything, and so he completely missed the cumulative impact of sumptuous devotion that the book would have had when displayed to an illiterate congregation. I’m not advocating bad PowerPoint presentations, merely suggesting that communication occurs on a number of levels because everything we do is complex and layered. (The Kells text would have been perfectly legible to the readers of the time, BTW.)
Jim Bouldin says
“Perhaps this is a bit harsh, but I get fed up with scientists bleating that too few people are listening to them when they can only talk in terms that 80% of the population are unlikely to understand. Engage with communications professionals and learn about the art of selling a message.”
And I get fed up with people who think science is supposed to be delivered to them, by us, like a pizza at halftime of a football game. We can’t make people who don’t care and don’t want to learn, care and learn. And it ain’t in our job description anyway.
There seems to be a contingent out there who think scientists are obligated to do public educatiion. We ain’t.
Richard Pauli says
Pity that humans require such a comfortable level of story-telling and marketing in order to receive the well massaged message of danger ahead.
And too bad that we have such poor leadership – or perhaps it is our carbon kleptocracy …in any case we lack leaders who can hear science and recognize danger and charge toward solutions.
Our story could be that of the species that had fun, but failed to awaken to the danger – and then went extinct. We are writing our own drama, and there is no rule that says we will prevail.
I won’t say that we are doomed by global warming, but science says it is possible and so now it is the global human species that will decide whether to survive.
Anyway, that makes for a much more interesting story.
Martin Vermeer says
Aaron Lewis #35
Not the best number necessarily, but understanding. The exhilaration of grasping how something really works. Like predicting, when I was a teen, satellite passes: “it will appear from behind that chimney, in about… ten seconds” — family watching. Predictions made with cardboard nomograms from equator crossing tables. Or, asserting ahead of time that one Richard M. Nixon was a crook. My mother still remembers that…
Actually science is very competitive. But a sport?
Hmmm, yes, perhaps… a spectator sport, still during this century.
Richard Steckis says
17Danny Bloom says:
16 September 2009 at 11:39 AM
“So far, this brief note on how climate denialists are similar in their denial to how the people during
WWII denied anything untoward was happening to the Jewish people in Europe at that time has caused a fuss among the denialists, of course.”
You have automatically lost your argument once you play the “holocaust card”.
Greg Craven, you’re an inspiration. Thank you. I’m making a list and checking it twice for people I’ll get your book this year.
Richard Steckis says
16 September 2009 at 8:55 PM
“The European heat wave of 2003 is at least partially attributable to global warming. The droughts and fires of Australia are also at least partially attributable to global warming. The fires of southern California and the Rocky Mountains are also partially attributed to global warming. The droughts in Darfur may be partially attributed to global warming”
Where is your proof? In fact. Where is there even minimal evidence of what you say? No weather events can be attributed to global warming.
[Response: Don’t be so dogmatic. For very large extremes, it can be shown sometimes (and was for the 2003 drought) that the likelihood of such an event can change radically under climate change – going from extremely unlikely to much more probable. If the odds double or triple then it makes sense to state that you can partially attribute (50 or 67% in those cases) the event to climate change on a statistical basis. Read Stott et al (2005), and the commentary by Allen in the same issue. This doesn’t work for weather events (such as single hurricanes) that are much more common and where any expected change is relatively small compared to the normal frequency. – gavin]
pete best says
Deniers are deniers and in the USA its appears that Fox News is the achilles heel of all things on the popular right. On the left humour is used via the Daily Show and the Colbert Report and AGW is made fun of there so its a big problem all over the USA.
Glenn Beck and O’Reilly on the right along with Hanity all on Fox against such people as Jon Stewart and Colbert all can make a mockery of scientists and science. One man who stands above the bar every time is this man:
Very funny and enlightening.
“But if a communicator _is_ allied with folks who _are_ empirically-verifiable experts, and can show it, that will enable the audience to grant them credibilit”
You mean like Al Gore, Anne?
“It is not just the counter-arguments of the denialists that are responsible for the decreasing alarm. The denialists are not winning — the scientists are blowing it with their disdainful attitude and their inept (though accurate) terminology.”
Nope, that’s just your bias trying to get denialists some proper screen time. The disdain for denialists is no more than flat earthers get, or 911 conspiracy theorists. No great outrage or “losing it” against those ideas by treating THEM with disdain.
Denialists WANT credibility. Even if they can’t get a coherent argument, they can use “there’s still a lot to discuss: just look at all the unanswered questions. We should wait until they are worked out”.
That’s scuppered if the layman can see the response “Yeah, and maybe martian heat rays are the cause…”.
Nick, I don’t think it’s reverse snobbery but a culture of immediacy.
Investments that don’t return profits in a year are ignored.
Entertainment that doesn’t give all it can in the first five minutes is sidelined or cast as “highbrow”.
And education that doesn’t show immediate and easy progress is avoided (both by the students and the teachers who want their school to pass exams, not have taught children).
Maths and science are not easy except for a very few people. For those few, their interest and ability align and they find those subjects easy. For the rest, most (not all, but a large majority I reckon) can become as good or near enough in these subjects but their interest and ability don’t align, so they have to work at it.
And rather than put hard work into it (which doesn’t pay, unlike hard work in a paper round or for adults, hard work in creating their own business), the culture of immediacy has them going for something easier.
And rather than find out how good they COULD be at maths or science, they explain away the problem as “maths and science is hard”. So may find it “hard” that those who are good at it are a minority.
And you know what happens to minorities in a school.
And that early learning of segregation carries on into adult life and into society.
Hugh Laue says
Dr Jeff’s blog is worth highlighting again http://blogontheuniverse.org/2009/06/13/a-day-in-the-life-of-the-earth/ He tells a compelling story.
I happened on this in New Scientist 22 Sept 1990, pg 18 by Jerry Ravetz “Science cannot deliver certainty on the global environmental issues, any more than it can deliver certainty on the moral issues of reproduction engineering. If we are to have the broad social commitment that will be necessary for people in our societies to adjust their lifestyles, the governing of these problems cannot be done in the absence of public consent. The management of scientific uncertainty has become too big a task for technical experts alone.”
Jerry turned 80 June 2009. His work can be found on http://www.jerryravetz.co.uk/ .
His NUSAP idea is being continued on http://www.nusap.net/.
The need for changes in lifestyle, demanded not only by climate impacts but resource depletion and limits to growth, has been known for a long time. It’s ultimately a moral/ethical issue. The formation of organisations such as http://www.globalethics.org/ is a small light in a dark world.
Best we can each do is try and practice caring for others – with that guideline our actions will not be far wrong. Use head and heart. Like Jim Hnasen, we should give more thought of the consequences of our actions on our children and grandchildren – and this includes the consequences of denial in all its forms.
pete best says
One other comment is a film that cannot get released in the USA about Charles Darwin which has been released everywhere else in the world except the USA. Some might suggest that some parts of the USA cannot be convinced of anything unless it is on Fox News and probably not even then.
Communicating science is a two way street, the listeners have to listen.
Hugh Laue says
Meant to link to globethics.net (see previous post) instead of globalethics.org . But both provide a useful service.
Ray Ladbury says
Richard Pauli says, “Our story could be that of the species that had fun, but failed to awaken to the danger – and then went extinct.”
Well, the 1 billion in the world who are hungry probably aren’t having much fun. Nor are the 40 million poor in the US. The world is still divided among haves and have-nots, and it still sucks to be a have-not.
Joe-Six Packs, Soccer Moms, Nascar Dads, are there any other terms you can invent to describe the low life people who do not get your message? The arrogance of some of the commentators on this blog is just amazing. Hostile to intellectuals? And you still wonder why your message does not get through?
[Response: ??? All of these terms are common currency in US politics and are used by all sides to describe segments of the electorate. I doubt that any term used both by Sarah Palin and Barack Obama has any of the connotations you imply. Rather you appear to be assuming that people here are hostile to non-scientists, and then interpreting their statements as condescending, in which case, nothing much that can be said will affect your opinion. You are however wrong on both counts. – gavin]
Randy Ross says
Re # 67 – Pete Best – I just checked, and Darwin is available on Netflix.I just added it to my list.
David Miller says
Regarding Richard Steckis’s #62
In addition to what Gavin pointed out (the technically correct answer), I’d like to point out that Richard’s comment is exactly the defense used by the tobacco companies in denying liability for the effects of tobacco:
“Yes, this person smoked. This person got lung cancer. Yes, we can corroborate that most people who smoke regularly get lung cancer. Now, prove beyond a reasonable doubt that THIS case of lung cancer was caused by smoking our cigarettes”
Gavin cited references to statistical analyses that are the equivalent of statistical proof that smoking causes lung cancer. I just wanted to point out the tactic Mr. Steckis used because we’ve seen some already (PROVE that global warming caused this drought) and are sure to see lots more in the years ahead.
A key point is not to play to the dismissive, arrogant academic.
Yet, there are numerous posts about American disinterest in substance, of deniers, etc. In other words, the responses have been, in general, those of the dismissive, arrogant academics.
That the point of the original post can be lost so quickly is saddening.
Richard Steckis says
“If the odds double or triple then it makes sense to state that you can partially attribute (50 or 67% in those cases) the event to climate change on a statistical basis.”
Have the odds doubled or tripled? Have the odds changed at all? I do not think that Stott et. al. have adequately answered that question.
Greg Craven says
@Jari #70: I struggled long and hard for neutral but accessible (i.e. informal, everyday language) terms to describe the demographic that you think I am demeaning. I deliberately didn’t use any of the the terms in the book, in order to be safest in not offending anyone. (The one time I used “Joe Schmo”–which is what I’d used in drafts until someone thought you might take offense–I used it to refer to myself.) It was painfully p.c.
You can see I’ve put a lot of thought into this, and think it’s a critical issue. So, since my use of such triggered a reaction in you, could you help all of us out, and provide an alternative? What terms would be descriptive of the demographic, short, informal, everyday language, and non-judgemental?
Thanks for the help.
Randy Olson says
I love the comments of Jim Bouldin (#57). They exemplify much of what I talk about in the book, especially when he seems to equate “the art of selling a message” with the idea of communicating effectively.
Let me ask you this — when you write a research paper, how many times do you rewrite and revise it? And why do you do that? Why isn’t it good enough to just write a first draft, send it off, and let other people make sense of the inevitable rambling mess of a first draft? Why not do that and shout at the editor, “I’m not hired to be a science communicator — I’m not gonna waste my time with the art of selling my message!”
And when you do those rewrites, are you engaging in some dishonest practice the way public relations firms do? Of course not. What you’re doing is the same thing I write about at length in the third chapter of my book — you’re engaging in “storytelling.” It’s the same basic process. The only difference is the term “storytelling” terrifies scientists as it sounds like the start of the slippery slope towards dishonesty. But it’s not. It’s simply a process of taking information that makes sense to you and putting THE SAME INFORMATION into a form that will be digestable by a broader audience.
It all comes down to this — who is going to “bear the burden of communication” in today’s world? Once upon a time scientists had the luxury of standing up in public and rambling in the same disorganized manner as you get with a first draft. The public was so lacking in information, so desperate to hear what they had to say, and so willing to respect the authority of scientists that they would listen, then be willing to set to work rearranging the disorganized information in their heads until it made some sort of sense, usually in the form of a story.
But we have a problem now. The audience has changed. We’ve had a massive information explosion in our society accompanied by a communications revolution. And now the audience is no longer as eager to bear the burden of communication.
So what are you gonna do — get mad at the public (as seems to be the case in your comments), or develop a willingness to do multiple drafts of what you were going to say until you’ve crafted it into something that still has the same substance as you started with, but has been brought around to a style that will be more effective. Which is the subtitle of my book, “Talking substance in an age of style.”
Richard Steckis says
My reading of Stott et. al. is that their predictions of an increased likelihood of such an event happening is bases solely on Climate Modelling and not on any robust statistical analysis. The only reference to statistical method that I could see from their methods is a spectral analysis. There is no robust parametric statistical analysis that supports their contention. Therefore, the whole hypothesis succeeds or fails based on:
1. The models being an accurate representation of the climate variability over the next 90 years.
2. That HadCM3 at that time (2004) gives a close reflection of actual climate variability.
An assessment of the likelihood of more events like 2003 being based solely on ensemble runs of a single GCM is, in my view, not sufficient evidence for attribution to global warming.
[Response: Not sure what you think you are claiming here. All studies on attribution need to use a model (of some sort or another). All such studies need to test the validity of that model. And all conclusions are caveated by the realism of that model. This is as true for a statistical attribution as it is for a GCM-based case. But you will find that statistical models have a particularly hard time when you have a singular event that has never happened before in the instrumental record. Are you therefore claiming that no attribution is possible for any magnitude of extreme event? – gavin]
Bob Beal says
I am a historian now. But in a former life, I was an editor in the daily press and other print media. I still practise that trade occasionally, but mainly just for friends who find themselves in trouble.
A few years ago, I edited a book written by several environmental scientists and economists. The thing was a mess when I first saw it, and it took me a great deal of labor to fix it to the extent I was able. I told the principal author of that collaboration that if he had hired me six months before the work went to the publisher, rather than six weeks, the product would have been a great deal better and more effective.
My advice to you scientists is to hire an expert editor (or website designer, etc.) at the beginning of the project. Don’t leave it until the end and expect the experts in those other fields to perform miracles for you.
Ray Ladbury says
Jerry, While I agree that one should never dismiss a novice who is actually seeking understanding, there comes a point when a commenter has established himself as either a troll, a crank or an ignoramus. What is there to do then but dismiss them as such. Some people are ineducable
Jim Bouldin says
“Joe-Six Packs, Soccer Moms, Nascar Dads, are there any other terms you can invent to describe the low life people who do not get your message?.”
How about overly-sensitive? Nobody but you threw the term “low-life” in there my friend. We’re not allowed to use the term ‘soccer mom’ or talk about Americans’ disinterest and ignorance of science and nature now because you consider it arrogant? I think there are more than a few people out there, like you and jerry, who imagine insults and put-downs that aren’t really there, and frankly that isn’t our problem.
Hank Roberts says
A place to watch — carefully: http://www.stats.org
Look at the site, then look them up in Sourcewatch.
Were you fooled? You’re one of the smart people, right?
Scott A. Mandia says
Interested in securing a grant related to this thread?
The Education and Human Resources Directorate (EHR) is augmenting funding to support emerging areas of climate change education, with a focus on development of the climate science professional workforce, public understanding and engagement on climate change issues, and informed decision-making associated with adaptation to and mitigation of climate change impacts. These emerging priorities lie at the intersection of social/behavioral/economic, and global Earth system science, as well as educational, research.
Climate Change Education seeks to ensure that individuals and communities understand the essential principles of Earth’s climate system and the impacts of climate change, and are able to make informed and responsible decisions with regard to actions that may affect climate. (Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Science, March 2009, available at http://www.globalchange.gov/ ). NSF supports substantial investment in basic research that informs what we know about Earth’s changing climate and can guide decisions about how best to respond to change. (Solving the Puzzle: Researching the Impacts of Climate Change Around the World, NSF report, 2009, available at http://www.nsf.gov/news/nsf09202/index.jsp ). It is critical that climate scientists play an active role in the dissemination of their findings and that students at all levels, and in formal and informal learning settings, and the general public have access to data in ways that facilitate climate literacy and informed decision making. What are the most effective ways to communicate to students and the general public about how the Earth is changing in response to human activities? How can they have meaningful access to data collected at large observatory networks, for example, the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) networks, the National Ecological Network (NEON,) and the data bases to be coordinated under the Sustaining Arctic Observing Networks (SAON) initiative, see http://www.arcticobserving.org )? How can local high impact activities be scaled up and serve as national models? What are effective climate change literacy professional development opportunities for policy decision makers at all levels? How do we assess changes in individual’s understanding of the Earth’s climate system and the decisions they make about their actions?
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• In the Division of Graduate Education – NSF Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 (GK-12); and Integrative Graduate Education and Traineeship (IGERT)
• In the Division of Undergraduate Education – Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI); Advanced Technological Education (ATE); and National STEM Distributed Learning (NSDL)
• In the Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings – Discovery Research K-12 (DRK-12); Research and Evaluation on Education in Science and Engineering (REESE); and Informal Science Education (ISE)
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Acting Assistant Director for Education and Human Resources
“Why isn’t it good enough to just write a first draft, send it off, and let other people make sense of the inevitable rambling mess of a first draft?”
Is something the knee-jerk denialists should consider far more carefully.
Funny how their antics doesn’t harm their work, though…
If there is anything that can be said about communications, it is that the message that is received is far more remarkable than the message than was sent. These terms are “common currency” of US politics. Use of these terms can reasonably be understood by the hearer to mean that the scientist is not promoting science but a political viewpoint.
If a scientist is called an ivory tower arrogant ass, the scientist would reasonably be expected to feel offense. Any discussion is polluted. It works all ways.
Post after post on these forums throughout the years have indicated that a person is “not qualified” to comment. Or, a suggestion is “boring.” Etc. These are inherently suggestions that elevate the speaker in relation to another. There is simply no way to elevate oneself without another person feeling condescended.
Deniers have reasons for the denial – perhaps totally unrelated to the science but to the suggested policy responses. What are their reasons? What are their interests? That dairy farmer in Wisconsin? He feels under attack. Accept it. Then manage it. Help the opposition identify with us – identifiy their interests and yours. This is not accomplished by insults, but by patience and empathy. “Joe six pack” doesn’t get it? He may. But he has other interests that override it. Well, what does Joe six pack have to lose with what you are suggesting? That’s the underlying battle you face with them.
To disregard that they have legitimate concerns is dismissive. They WILL feel insulted. They will feel disregarded.
re: #80 – Again, you suggest that imagined insults and put-downs aren’t really there, and that “frankly that isn’t our problem.” This is being dismissive – exactly what the original post mentioned needs improvement. I don’t expect you to understand it. Merely that you accept that it is what it is. To better connect, it takes patience. It IS a problem. The deniers ARE a problem. And the firt post provides suggestions on managing the problem.
I’d suggest a read of “Taking the War out of Our Words” by Sharon Ellison. I think it’s pretty insightful.
Hank Roberts says
As David Miller points out, Steckis’s approach is an old familiar one from the industry PR for tobacco and other problem materials sold in the markets, as well as for coal.
That argument should have a place in the list. I don’t know that it has been boiled down clearly enough. Someone should study his writing for a pithy presentation worth quoting.
I’d suggest “Denial of Epidemiology” as a placeholder — the argument that nobody can prove anything from general knowledge (kerosene accelerates fires; tobacco increases cancer; burning coal increases CO2 increasing warming) but rather that each individual measure has to be proved independently of all the others.
Jim Galasyn says
Re George Mason University, that graphic of the Uruk-hai grabbing the child is hair-raising! Fear appeal much?
Jeffrey Davis says
I saw the European heat wave referred to as a “5 Sigma”
event. (3 in 100,000, I believe. Well rounded.) A little outside our 200-300 year detailed temp record.
I’ve seen references to statistical rules of thumb that say that for events outside of “2 sigma” you really want to look outside normal variance for a cause.
[Response: I think it was 3 sigma event over a patch in Western Europe, but a 5 sigma event in Switzerland. Either way – rather unusual, I would say. – gavin]
Terry Miesle says
Re: 39, 56 Global Warming in popular media.
Global Warming has been a regular theme in Science Fiction. It has been so for quite a few years now. New series like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain/ Forty Degrees Below/ Six Days and Counting are built around the Earth’s equilibrium change. Anime series like Ghost in the Shell – Stand Alone Complex feature mass migration of refugees as a subtext which bubbles up into major political problems.
It’s out there in the media, but not in the Prime Time series. I don’t even recall hearing about it in ABC’s Defying Gravity – and they certainly could have built coastal city changes into the story, centered around Nasa etc. in Florida. How much sea level rise would cause us to move the Kennedy Space Center?
Chris Dudley says
I tried to fill the Real Energy void for a bit: http://mdsolar.blogspot.com/
and may get back to it. Had a good run of discussions but in the end found that larger blogs had a wider readership while the physics was pushing us towards renewables in any case. http://mdsolar.blogspot.com/2008/01/eroie.html
Perhaps the difference is, once a practical problem is solved, a scientist wants to move on to another problem while a story teller is happy to tell the same story over again in a different way. In some ways, there is only one story (conflict then resolution) with may forms so the enjoyment comes in the elaboration. The audience is ready to hear the story again and again but the scientist is off looking for the next problem and figures the story of the last problem is told and finished. Problem solving is conflict and resolution as well, but one is living it, not recounting it.
TG O'Donnell says
An important discussion and one that in itself demonstrates the scale of the problem.
The spread of opinion e.g. Jim Bouldin (57) and Randy Olsen (76) and the different perspectives adopted and argued demonstrate the nature of the challenge. The gaps between those who feel that assertion of the facts regarding AGW (as they know them to be) is itself sufficient, those who feel the need for more effective communication, persuasion and ‘marketing’ by scientists v’s those who suggest that perhaps the central debate is not yet closed, is clear to see.
However, the implications of Prof. Mandia’s comment (50) seems most critical; the key target groups for all sides in the debate are those who care enough to access the blogs, read the books and consider the evidence. Many/most of these will not be climate scientists, or indeed scientists of any type, nor will they be equipped to evaluate the technical (and sometimes conflicting) evidence presented. However, they will tend to be educated, intelligent and most importantly, engaged ……. They do give a damm, for both selfish and altruistic reasons ….. and they dislike being hectored or talked down to.
As said by Randy (76) the challenge for all scientists is ‘putting the same (high quality) information into a form that will be digestible by a broader audience’ ….. telling the same story in a way that has meaning to the audience. Communication matters; the most convincing story will carry the day.
Could it be the ‘product’ that’s the problem?
I’m not a marketing pro but have worked as a product manager.
Marketing is not needed for a good product. Just cheapo packaging and then gear up manufacturing and distribution for the long haul.
You may be expending effort on flogging a dead horse.
Definitely worth taking a look.
Lynn Vincentnathan says
I saw those Greg Craven YouTube videos over a year ago and loved them. It’s a much better presentation of what I’ve been trying to say over & over on this site re false positives and false negatives.
If that doesn’t work with people, then nothing will. We already know that making an argument about how much $$$ one can save by doing the EC (environmentally correct) thing without lowering living standards doesn’t work, bec there’s no such thing as an economic rational man (or woman, for that matter), but there is such a thing as a free lunch, many many free lunches paid for by all those $$$ one could be saving by doing the EC thing.
Well, anyway we really do learn a lot about human nature — not thru scientists’ failure at communication so much as thru people’s unwillingness to figure out what scientists are saying. I mean parents can figure out baby talk; we should be able to figure out science talk.
At least I’ve never had much problem with scientists or their lingo/presentation. I just listen to the media’s often bungled accounts of their findings, sometimes going to the sources in scientific journals, where I read the abstract and perhaps conclusions with all their caveats, where I figure if scientists are talking mildly & cautiously about having reached sci confidence about such&such a problem, or even think it might be proven in the future bec the laws of physics indicate it might, it must be really really bad.
The public has nearly always been on the alarmist side of environmental hazards, beyond the scientists….until now when (perhaps) the greatest enviro problem we’ve ever faced — AGW — is confronting us.
There is just no level of cajoling, humoring, enthralling with stories, or scaring to death & alarming that seems to work in this the most serious issue. It’s really too bad. It was such a good world to live in.
Ike Solem says
This is interesting, from the Guardian UK:
US planning to weaken Copenhagen climate deal, Europe warns
Similarly, in California our governor is threatening to veto our latest renewable energy standard attempt, while also signing an executive order to boost renewable energy – that’s odd, isn’t it? It only makes sense if the two politicians are simply doing what Exelon and Chevron (respectively) want them to do with respect to energy and climate policy – support the status quo.
However, this creates problems with the public, who typically poll very high in support of renewable energy and against relying on energy imports. Thus, we have weak proposals floated that will do little if anything to change matters, but which do allow politicians and compliant press outlets to pretend that “something is being done.”
In reality, very little is being done – go ask your local university if they’ve suddenly received funding for any solar or wind research institutions – the answer will be no. However, federal money is flowing for ‘clean coal’ research at the university level, which is a continuation of the policies of the last government, isn’t it?
It’s astonishing that the whole issue of “clean coal” and carbon capture and sequestration hasn’t been submitted to some independent entity for scientific analysis – the National Academy of Sciences should be given the job.
Hank Roberts says
> George Mason
check it out:
Based on current trends, 41% of scientists believe global climate change will … Overall, only 5% describe the study of global climate change as a “fully …
STATS: We Check Out the Numbers Behind the News
Climate scientists agree on warming, disagree on dangers, and don’t trust the media’s coverage of climate change. S. Robert Lichter, Ph.D, April 24, 2008 …
STATS: Cooking the books on global warming- or overheating a bad …
The report was based on a mail survey of government scientists dealing with climate change. The heart of the survey asked scientists about a dozen “types of …
Hearing a statement like that, we might find ourselves sympathizing with climate change skeptic Steven Milloy, who asked August 9 on Fox News: …
John (Burgy) Burgeson says
Wow! So many good posts have followed my suggestion for civility.
A couple of posters don’t understand my argument, though. In sum: Civility is better than sarcasm because sarcasm DOES NOT WORK. Neither does arrogance, dismissiveness, telling somebody else to “read the science.” Etc.
No, civility does not ALWAYS work either. My claim is, however, that it has a better chance of working.
Jim someone wrote that clear communications was “not his job.” I think him to be wrong; it is everyone’s job.
None of us will likely leave a letter for our great grandchildren saying, in effect, “Yeah, I saw all this coming but I didn’t think it was my job to tell people about it. It was my job, however, to laugh at them sarcastically.”
Ray made a good point — some of the persons are trolls and deserve the scathing remarks they get. That’s true — BUT IT IS COUNTERPRODUCTIVE to do so.
Anyway, that’s my message. Your mileage (finally spelled that right!) may differ.
BTW, The Craven and Olsen books are on my next “buy list.” I appreciate a lot that these good people stopped by to chat and I found their remarks to be spot on.
Jessica Whitehead says
The need for accurate communication about complex climate topics is often at odds with the desire to make it understandable to broader audiences. Scientists are credible sources of scientific information, but they often have trouble adapting that information for public audiences. As has been mentioned, they also fight the public stereotype of scientists. And although communicators have the “language” skills, they may not have the perceived credibility of a climate scientist. Additionally, some communicators may also come with baggage that automatically generates distrust among large segments of some desired audiences.
One approach to resolving this issue is climate extension, which is a relatively new concept for bridging the science/practice divide. The idea is to bring climate extension agents ¬¬— scientists with backgrounds in both the physical and human dimensions of climate change — together with stakeholders to develop ways to apply information about climate change, its impacts, and adaptation options to decision-making. Climate extension agents focus on presenting climate information to policymakers and the public in ways that address stakeholder needs, accommodate regional and local contexts, and fit into the planning and decision-making processes that stakeholders are familiar with using.
I am the regional climate extension agent (my actual title contains a word that won’t get through the spam filter) for the SC Sea Grant Consortium and NC Sea Grant, which are both part of NOAA’s National Sea Grant College program. As part of my job, I work with other Sea Grant extension agents from a variety of disciplines. Together, we help citizens and policymakers in the Carolinas apply climate information to important community and policy decisions pertaining to the impacts of climate variability and long-term climate change. We at Sea Grant are committed to being “honest brokers” of scientific information – we stick to the best available science, acknowledge uncertainties, and help decision makers weigh their options without advocating particular solutions.
In addition, through our initiative’s partnership with the Carolinas Integrated Sciences and Assessment center (NOAA’s Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessment center, or RISA, for the Carolinas), I frequently collaborate with university scientists and government agencies on research aimed at overcoming risk perception barriers and developing ways to make climate information relevant to decision-makers. Consequently, I serve as a bridge between scientists and stakeholders, relieving some of the pressure on scientists to be perfect communicators while providing stakeholders with the source credibility they need.
I’ve been in my current position just over a year, and our program is still developing. I encourage folks to visit the Oregon Sea Grant, Maine Sea Grant, and Rhode Island Sea Grant Web sites to see how some of our programs have already made strides in effective climate communication and in making climate information relevant for policy-making.
In addition to Sea Grant programs, there are other ongoing climate extension efforts out there. Climate extension agents are part of the RISAs in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama (Southeastern Climate Consortium, SECC) and Arizona and New Mexico (Climate Assessment of the Southwest, CLIMAS). There also are climate extension agents in cooperative extension that deal with agricultural issues. National Weather Service forecast offices have forecasters who are designated “climate focal points” and are trained to assist with short-term climate variability data and issues. These focal points are beginning to branch into longer-term climate problems as well. Finally, there are many other NOAA organizations and RISAs, other universities, and NGOs who are doing climate outreach that may not specifically follow an extension model.
In conclusion, if you’re in the United States and you need assistance reaching out to decision-makers on coastal climate change issues, such as explaining basic science or using information for adaptation, try contacting your state’s Sea Grant program. You can also contact the National Estuarine Research Reserves, as well as your regional RISAs, and NWS forecast offices, and local cooperative extension offices.
David B. Benson says
Joe, you are going to lose your six pack.
Mom, you are going to lose your soccer ball.
Jim Bouldin says
Well Randy (76) it’s hard to know what to make of this whole post and thread, like wrestling phantoms in the dark. Not unusual for these kind of topics, so I’ll just try to clarify my points.
A main point is that there is a contingent that seems more than ready to blame scientists for the fact that not everyone in the world is convinced of the evidence in favor of topics a, b, or c. I’m not buying it. Has it never occurred to them that perhaps the educational system, various socio-cultural sanctions and mores, and (gasp!) the effort expended by the unconvinced themselves, may perhaps have some role in this sorry state of affairs?? Moreover, has it not occurred to them that that group known as the media has the primary responsibility for informing the public of what happens in the world?
As to your example of revising a manuscript, there are significant differences between that and what you call “story-telling”. I don’t consider that I’m telling a story when I write a paper. The much better analogy is that of a newsman describing what he found about the natural world, how he went about finding it, and what context or relevance the study has. A beat reporter, not a writer of novels, if you will. Good reviewers’ revision requests, as you know, are focused mainly–or entirely–on making sure you in fact actually have real legitimacy to your principal claims, not that you presented it in a way that even Shakespeare might be tempted to plagiarize it. If one can do both (and get it past the reviewers), well damn, then one is certainly awesome! To the contrary, your “story-telling” is apparently focused instead on finding the lingo, style, etc., that somehow flips the correct psychic/emotive light switch inside the reader/listener/watcher. Fine, a great and needed skill for certain audiences, but not the same thing as getting one’s story right, and not going to work with our primary audience.
Notwithstanding this point, scientists have, in my experience, a much better ability to communicate with the general public than you and others seem to acknowledge, or is generally appreciated in this thread. You can’t teach a general education class without some ability to relate all across the spectrum. Your caricature of the former scientist rambling without coherence–I really don’t know where you got that or why you think it still holds.
Lastly, there is in fact a huge amount of information on climate change and other scientific topics out there that the average person can understand if they make the effort, Wikipedia being just one obvious example.
Jim Bouldin says
Jim someone wrote that clear communications was “not his job.” I think him to be wrong; it is everyone’s job.
No he didn’t say that. He was trying to make the point that, for whatever reason, there seem to be people who feel that scientists are supposed to not only do good science in the daytime (which they apparently are pretty mediocre at), and are also supposed to be terrific “story-tellers” able to relate to everyone in society (better than that schmoe Al Gore did at least, notwithstanding that we have a part of society known as the media who have that specific assignment), and perhaps, I don’t know, do stand up comedy on the weekends and at least occasionally take LeBron in a slam dunk competition. Oh my God, that was sarcasm wasn’t it?
I think this thread is total garbage. You’re talking as if there were one semi-incomprehensible story. That’s simply false. The average guy is confronted with two stories, not one. One story says “There’s no problem. This is exactly like the rants of the eco-wacko movement which has ALWAYS taken minor issues and reported, “We’re all going to die.” Well, it is TRUE that the environmental movement has done that in the past, and it is TRUE that it is doing it today. Anybody who says that there is NO WAY to prevent the warming is simply a liar. We know that stopping the warming is simple – just add a little sulphur to the stratosphere at a piddling cost and global warming WILL, not might, WILL be stopped in its tracks. That it will take a bit of learning and trial to do it correctly is just a big duh. So what? Of course, there is that piddly side-effect, the death of the oceans, which will continue unabated in that scenario. Thus, eco-wackos such as those who run and frequent this site do their cause GREAT HARM by not admitting that global warming is NOT a problem – that the problem is the death of the oceans.
This whole argument is silly at best. We already know when the general public will be convinced that the issue is serious. That’s when the coral reefs start to die off in earnest and the arctic ice all melts in summer. Both are going to happen within a few years, which is the blink of an eye as far as global CO2 concentrations is concerned. Books, sites, and other such attempts to convince the masses to change anything physical about how the world is run are a BIG WASTE OF TIME. We MUST wait until the physical world states the case. Until then, the Deniers vs the Alarmists is just a side show to let folks scream “I’M RIGHT AND YOU’RE DELIBERATELY DESTROYING THE (WORLD/ECONOMY)”