Reflections on the Netroots Nation Science Panel

Filed in National by on July 22, 2010

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.

About the Author ()

Opinionated chemist, troublemaker, blogger on national and Delaware politics.

Comments (10)

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  1. nemski says:

    I don’t think you can disregard the communication faults of scientists. Look at the IT world and those IT peeps who communicate the best are the most successful. In IT you can create the best piece of software, but if you can’t communicate it will stay on the shelves.

  2. Jason330 says:

    So what that scientist are not trained to communicate. If they are as smart as they think they are they should be interested in getting trained.

  3. That’s my point Jason. There’s 2 problems with scientists debating professional PR people. 1) scientists aren’t professional PR people, they talk about science 2) these disputes are actually political disputes, not scientific ones. We’re ceding a lot of ground by treating this like it’s a scientific controversy. We need someone to talk in the language of politics.

  4. cassandra m says:

    Many times the “emotional” connection that needs to be made is simply a compelling narrative. Think about your best science teachers or the people who made you passionate about the subject. People like Carl Sagan or Brian Greene or E.O. Wilson have been able to captivate plenty of people beyond scientists. The real challenge is to come up with a compelling and factual way to be a participant in the he say/she say media laziness in discussing controversial scientific topics. But I’m not so sure that even Carl Sagan could counter the arguments of the alchemists that the media machine procure to be the “other side” of some of these arguments.

  5. anon says:

    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

    1. We do.
    2. They do.

    And yet the professional science communicators still suck at it. You ever read a press release from a science institution? Good grief, talk about some mind-numbing shit.

    Scientists focus on facts. Conservative whackjobs don’t. Science is hard to understand. Manufactured lies aren’t. We can’t win.

  6. anon says:

    BTW – We have been spoiled here in Delaware with two reporters nearly full-time on the science and environmental beats. Jeff Montgomery and Molly Murray at the News Journal have done some excellent work in explaining some very complicated things.

    But then try explaining wetland loss in a 5-second soundbite that’s part of a 30-second TV spot. Impossible. Stories about how the weather’s going wacky and the storm du jour? Easy to do!

  7. liberalgeek says:

    And let me be the first to take one for the team and interview all of the hot blondes. 🙂

  8. nemski says:

    Wow, you do one C’mon Delaware in donviti’s place and now you’re turning into him. 😉

  9. jason330 says:

    Scientists, like liberals only worse, always think that the truth “will out.” The fact it that the truth does not stand a chance when there are multi-billion dollar empires that benefit from keeping the truth bound and gagged.

    My message to the science panel would be to wake the fuck up already.

  10. Brooke says:

    As a person who spends everyday with the ‘hot blonds’ group, I can say that, on the whole, they’re not interested in science. So you can hire them to read your copy, but you can’t get them to write it. UI is hot… interview her. But when you do, point out that effective communication requires an acknowledgement and understanding of where the AUDIENCE is coming from. Without that, communication #fail.

    This is all of a piece. Scientists think science is fascinating and important. Therefore, it’s logical that people would be fascinated and think it’s important. But if you asked a scientist whether they’d put 10 dollars into researching cancer or 10 dollars into communicating about researching cancer, how would the money be spent?