Getting out the Science Message

Environmental scientists are growing increasingly worried about their findings, and see  urgent need for more-concerted public action. In fact, their closet of anxieties is chock-a-block full! They see, and document, worrisome declines in fresh water availability and purity; growing urban air pollution; loss of habitat and biodiversity; ocean acidification, and much more. Journal publications proceed apace. The trends they can monitor often look bad enough. They have the disquieting sense that there’s much more that’s hidden, stuff that they aren’t tracking, that also portends trouble. Scientists are citizens too. They want to sound the alarm.

However, when scientists attempt to engage a larger public to share their mounting concern, they frequently see the broader announcements of their findings either truncated, or squelched, or lost in the shuffle, or manipulated, distorted, and exploited for political gain or financial self-interest by elected officials, private sector groups and NGO’s.

This is vexing. In response, scientists are tempted to try to (a) amp up the volume, (b) exert greater control over the framing and content of the message, (c) prescribe a policy, and (d) complain about their treatment.

It’s not clear that this is at all effective.

Amp up the volume? Making the case more loudly, more stridently, more emphatically – will work for you, if at all, only if you happen to be the one who has the biggest megaphone. Take it from anyone who lives in Washington, DC: the babble of the raging policy debates here is already deafening. Everyone and his brother is amping up the volume – on financial sector regulation, agricultural price supports, energy policy, you name it. Policymakers are clearly experiencing advocacy fatigue. Scientists should know that someone will always be able to outshout them short term, and probably long-term. Why put ourselves and our arguments at the mercy of those with superior numbers, more money, and greater power?

Exert greater control over the framing and content of the message? This requires that scientists commit an unnatural act – compromise with one another for the sake of some larger message.  We don’t do this well! We’ve been trained to analyze, critique, find a better answer, and move on – not buy in to something less than ideal because “it’s good enough.” The status quo is never good enough! In fact, get us together and we’ll argue, we’ll debate, we’ll replicate the policy discussion we deride when we see it in politicians, except we’ll do it less effectively. We’ll be more vindictive, more petty, and leave less room for our defeated adversaries to salvage shreds of self-respect. There’s a reason why Robert Maynard Hutchins, former president of the University of Chicago, described a university as “a series of separate schools and departments held together by a central heating system.”

Worse yet, rightly or wrongly, our society has decided that any attempt to coordinate a message is a sign that something reprehensible is afoot. If scientists are meeting to coordinate a message, it can only mean that we’re trying to distort the truth for some nefarious end. The public has built up antibodies to this approach, from whatever quarter. It will do us no good to swear that our motives are pure.

Prescribe a policy? Who put us in charge? This is off-putting for virtually every hearer. Roger Pielke, Jr., in his 2007 book, The Honest Broker: making sense of science in policy and in politics, gives an extensive discussion of just why scientists ought to shy away from this approach. He juxtaposes this role to that of offering policy choices, and analyzing the consequences and outcomes stemming from the various possibilities in a range of policy options. What power! Why would we want to trade the one for the other? Particularly when, truth be told, however good we are at our science, we’re rather naive when it comes to seeing the unanticipated consequences of policy formulation.

Complain about our treatment? Treatment of scientists by the media has at times, maybe even more often than not, been patently unfair. No question about it. For many IPCC scientists, a piece of a Nobel peace prize in exchange for years of hate e-mails, vilification by bloggers, and worse has proved a poor trade. But by and large, pollsters find that scientists still enjoy a high public regard relative to other professions. Scientists are still well-paid. And so on. Usually people who are among the world’s favored few do not receive a warm reception when they complain. As I write this, Stephan Pastis, in his syndicated cartoon strip, Pearls before Swine, has been doing a brief series with variations on a theme “no matter how bad your life is, don’t try telling it – complaining – to a dung beetle.”

Whew!  Pretty depressing. Well, if these strategies are truly counterproductive, perhaps it would be worthwhile to contemplate their exact opposites. Remarkably, these look like they might be more effective.

Lower the volume. We’ve all seen this work at a personal level. In the middle of a shouting match someone will start speaking very quietly, and bring a hush over the crowd. Why does this work? Well, it doesn’t, at least not always. But it does work when the speaker has something to say that’s generally acknowledged to be especially pertinent, and/or the speaker enjoys a special reputation within the group.

Scientists hold both these trump cards. We have a high reputation, and at least some of our number have some very important things to say. Nobody wants to miss them.

Leave any framing and content of the message to others. Face it. The only reason you and I are against this approach is that we’re control freaks. Don’t get me wrong. This is not to suggest that scientists be careless with their presentation of what they’ve learned, or abdicate their responsibility as citizens. But what I am suggesting is that we throttle back any desire to convince others of the truth of what we’re saying, or the facts of our findings, or manipulate our readers or hearers into taking actions we feel necessary. Instead, we should focus first and foremost on doing a good job of disciplining our own thought process; and then secondarily on expressing what we’ve learned with clarity, and distinguishing (following Darwin) very precisely between “facts” and “views.” We should emphasize listening over speaking. We should seek to understand before seeking to be understood. If we maintain this focus, then over time (and really relatively quickly) people will start listening to us. And we’ll be very happy with the results.

Hold up all the policy options to consideration. We should strive to be the best at this! In Washington, DC, contrary to stereotypes either in the city or outside the beltway, those who are skilled at coming up with not one but several options, and who are able to envision the consequences furthest into the future, are held in the highest regard. The policy arena is filled with “one-notes” – monotones who find that all topics of conversation lead to their issue, and who always find that one policy approach is that to be preferred. Those who can think more flexibly, nimbly, adaptively – those who can think more – are those who are and will be valued most. Here’s another fact. Practice this, and before long we’ll get better at it. It’s easier, and more fun, than we might think.

Find reason to be grateful instead of complain. They tell us that our most important decision in life is our choice of parents. If you’re reading this blog, instead of scratching the dirt or poking around trash cans for a living, you’ve chosen well! You can look forward to a comfortable life.

Here’s the best part. This part is so good it’s almost miraculous. In fact, it is miraculous. Quieting down? Being open to all options rather than insisting on your own way? Giving thanks instead of complaining? In each case, the most effective choice is also the one that takes less effort. A twofer!

Speaking of giving thanks…Thanksgiving is just around the corner. If we don’t check in before then…have a good one.

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8 Responses to Getting out the Science Message

  1. william h. hooke says:

    Have just been made aware that The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media today (Nov. 18) posted Part I of a two-part series on leading climate scientists’ and science journalists’ “Lessons Learned” from the climate change controversies of the past 12 months… hacked e-mails from the University of East Anglia and the IPCC’s mistaken report of Himalayan glaciers melting by 2035. Part I (http://bit.ly/9UYOjt features original comments by nine leading climatologists. Check it out at http://www.yaleclimatemediaforum.org/2010/11/scientists-and-journalists-on-lessons-learned/
    Part II, to go live on Nov. 23, includes original insights from leading science writers and journalists tracking climate change coverage. All this has come from Bud Ward, who is the Editor of the Yale Forum

  2. James H. Henderson says:

    Excellent synthesis or is it an analysis of the vocalizing process that should take place for practicing scientists. The science of climate change has been littered with all of your examples. I have tried to explain to people within my social strata that when scientists disagree over findings it is a reflection of the process of the nature of scientific inquiry. That process requires testing of hypothesis and many attempts to disprove it. Too many times the testing is viewed by the public (aka washington policy gurus) as a lever to move the policy in one direction or another for convenience (can you say votes). Thanks for bring some clarity to the whole mess.

  3. Roger Caiazza says:

    I have a question. In your first paragraph you state that environmental scientists see, and document: “growing urban air pollution” among the reasons that it is necessary to get the science message out. While admittedly it depends on which urban areas you are talking about, do you think this is a problem in the United States?

    The only way I can think of where you get a trend of growing air pollution is if you compare exceedances of the standards over time. That is only because the limits have been lowered. There have been significant emission reductions across the board in the US and marked improvement in air quality. Unfortunately we have reached a point where additional emission reductions are more difficult, costly and don’t produce as much bang for the buck so it is getting harder to meet the new air quality standards but that does not mean the pollution trends are going up.

    Maybe the messages are falling on deaf ears because the public is tired of the scientists always claiming yet another catastrophe (such as urban pollution is geting worse) is right around the corner and those forecasts are not verifying.

  4. Pingback: Getting out the science message? Custer’s scouts had it right at the Little Bighorn | Living on the Real World

  5. Joe Lalonde says:

    It’s not so much getting out the science. It is how much bad science is mixed in with good science which has corrupted the whole field of science.
    Current science deems “if you don’t have a degree, you don’t have a brain”. Too much traditional teaching and passing down of bad science has made unbreakable manmade LAWS that do not go together when trying to look at the “Big Picture”. Putting current science into the past just makes the current science look totally foolish.
    Too many individualized areas have corrupted the whole.
    Does my opinion matter? Of course not. Who am I?
    I am the guy who found science did not include planetary rotation and all the energies and stored energies this generates which means the current science base of theories ARE incorrect.

  6. Very good post!

    Most of your recommendations make sense, even though I’m not in total agreement. Re the framing and content of the message, there is something to say that letting the media/journalists take care of the framing (and content) often goes very wrong (in terms of skewing the science). Besides, isn’t is clear that narrative and framing are hugely important to how a message is conceived? If we let others do that for us, we better make sure they do it right, and that’s evidently not what’s happening right now.

    I just wrote at my blog:

    There’s no strong relation between knowledge/information and people’s perceptions: Just the facts won’t do. It’s all about the narrative (see also Mooney and Nisbet). Climategate resonated because it could easily be spun into the underdog fighting the mean establishment. Scientists and those communicating the science should take a lesson from this: Don’t be such a scientist when communicating with non-scientists.

    Randy Olson (author of “don’t be such a scientist”) has suggested that scientists get PR and communication professionals on board to improve the framing and narrative. Is that the way to go, to be able to remain pure as snow as scientists ourselves? I’m not sure, but these are very important questions indeed, and you provided some good insights oin your post. Thank you.

    • William Hooke says:

      Thanks, Bart, both for the kind words and for your thoughtful insights. I heartily second your endorsement of Randy Olson’s book. A couple of questions for you.

      First, with regard to Climategate. By still trying to justify ourselves, and continuing to be defensive here — one year on! — could we be hurting more than we’re helping? Mightn’t we be better served by shrugging off the criticism, trusting the public to recognize that scientists, like everyone else, aren’t perfect? Why waste time and effort trying to convince them otherwise? Isn’t the public counting on us to move the science forward — looking for surprises, early detection of emerging problems, etc.? Shouldn’t we focus on making progress, keeping them abreast? Isn’t that what we’re best at? Trained to do?

      As to framing, are we possibly trying to control the inherently uncontrollable? Once we put information out there, aren’t people pretty much free to try to take it wherever they want? If they’re off base, won’t their spin die a natural and well-deserved death — provided we let it, instead of fueling the flames by trying to defend ourselves?

      Isn’t that a lesson that public figures — politicians, entertainers, athletes — have learned? Look at the contrast between Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Carter was an upright figure, a model of probity, but troubled by every self-perceived flaw. He was possibly his own worst enemy. By contrast, Clinton, when faced with criticism and impeachment proceedings, just hunkered down and soldiered on.

  7. I agree that an overly defensive attitude from scientists, as has arguably been seen in the last year, is not productive in terms of increasing credibility or opening up clogged communication channels. As a result of “climategate”, many scientists have gotten afraid for speaking out publicly, while some others have gotten more strident or even defensive. Both reactions are understandable, even though neither are useful imho. (http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/2010/11/23/climategate-lessons-learned/ )

    However, shruggin off the criticism and ignoring it leaves the public with the impression that perhaps the allegations (of widespread bias, fraud or hoax, in increasing order of ridiculousness) are right. So there’s catch-22 here I think: We’re damned if we defend ourselves and we’re damned if we don’t. I agree though that we should tone down the defensiveness, and rather just state clearly and calmly how science works and what the major scientific insights are.

    Scientist do science, but increasingly, many of them are also engaged in public communication: Trying to inform the public of the scientific understanding of climate change.

    As to framing, it’s impossible not to do so. Even when just stating the facts, we’re using a frame; the frame of distant, dispassionate, scientific objectivity. That frame however is wholly insufficient in getting the message across to a non scientific audience. Just putting information out there and hoping people will value it for what it’s worth is probably naïve: It doesn’t work that way.

    The contrarian spin, rather then dying a natural death, seems to take on a life of its own. That requires a different reaction than ignoring it and hoping it will go away, which may have worked for Clinton, but it’s clearly not working in this instance.

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