This morning I attended the science panel at Netroots Nation. The title of the panel was “Supporting Science, Benefiting Society.” This is the 4th science panel I’ve attended but the message is always the same – scientists suck at communicating to the general public.
The speakers on the panel including Daily Kos frontpager Greg Dworkin, Josh Rosenau from the National Center for Science Education, and two science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. Josh Rosenau discussed the evolution battle in many states and showed how despite some high profile fights, we’re actually progressing in our teaching of evolution in the United States. He pointed out that since 1968, science has won every court battle (the most recent being Kitzmiller v. Dover).
Oreskes and Conway continued the theme – science always wins in the end. Oreskes brought up the examples of DDT, acid rain, the tobacco-cancer link and the ozone hole. But she also cautioned that this approach takes a long time and it’s getting more difficult. Most newspapers are cutting their coverage of science-related issues and there’s a deep distrust of experts in our society. The anti-government ideology on the right distrusts any and all government intervention, and these groups work together on seemingly-unrelated issues that are related only by anti-government ideology. Journalism has also completely fallen down on the job by presenting political controversies of teaching evolution as scientific controversies. The media thrives on conflict and tries to manufacture it where none exists.
One topic that has come up time and time again at science panels is how much scientists suck at communicating to the general public. My question is why is it the scientists job to communicate to the public? Scientists are not trained that way. We’re trained to communicate with other scientists. Scientists are actually interested in the complexity of problems and the methodology of solving these problems. For a long time we’ve had the attitude that if we just present people with facts, the truth will win. As we’re seeing, this isn’t true. This isn’t how people think. Most people make emotional connections with arguments – that’s why “strong and wrong” often wins debates.
I think we’ve been looking at the communication gap the wrong way. Instead of bashing scientists for not being PR experts, why aren’t we funding think tanks and public relations organizations to present scientific ideas to the public. Why aren’t communications departments and science departments offering joint programs in science communication? It’s badly needed. It’s where the future of our country lies and it’s being abandoned.
Science needs its own army of hot blondes to go on TV to debate the Fox News army of hot blondes. The GOP may be awful at a lot of things (like governing) but once place where they are kicking our asses is in communicating and relating to the public.