Turning Earth scientists into sparkling conversationalists

We Earth scientists can be great people on occasion…maybe even “the salt of the earth.” But we’re sometimes our own worst enemies when it comes to communicating what we know. Let’s be honest about the impression we make on others. They misunderstand our warnings. What’s worse? They often simply tune us out; they don’t listen at all. And if they do take time to actually hear to what we have to say about the climate or the environment, they can find us off-putting or polarizing.  

We have an Eliza Doolittle problem.

Remember her? In My Fair Lady, the musical-based-on-the-George-Bernard-Shaw-play-based-on-the-Greek-legend-of-Pygmalion, a phonetics professor – one Henry Higgins – coaches/transforms Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl, to the point where he’s able to pass her off as a duchess at an Embassy Ball. Why? How? Higgins was able to do this because he had good material to work with. At heart Eliza was a terrific person. She just didn’t present herself well.

Last year, the folks at the National Communication Association were kind enough to invite me to write a short piece on this for one of their publications, NCA Spectra. It was published in their November 2011 issue. You can read it online here. The article starts on page 2. [The ideas stem from several posts at LivingontheRealWorld; they’re too numerous to cite but you might start with those dated March 3 and February 28 of 2011.]

Like Henry Higgins, communication scholars are taking note of our plight. They’re doing surveys. Conducting research. Writing papers. Coming to Earth sciences meetings. And inviting Earth scientists to theirs. [A short aside…with NSF support, Gina Eosco of our staff has played a part in fostering this inter-community dialog at recent AMS and NCA meetings.] Those researchers are thinking in a disciplined way about how people actually hear us versus what we think we’re saying. It’s early days yet, but over time, it’s going to be a great collaboration. Society will be the better for it. The human prospect will be improved.

Why mention this today? Because starting tomorrow night and over the weekend, a handful of members of this communication world are taking stock of their community – where they are, and whither they are tending. They have a lot to offer the rest of us. They can apply their expertise in risk communication, in mass communication, interpersonal communication, the psychology of communication, collaborations, and so much more – to every aspect of the human endeavor. What they can tell us can make a difference to our economy, our public health, diplomacy, the advance and use of all branches of science, and our own self understanding and self-awareness of what it means to be human and in community.

But the world they’re trying to serve is in an unsettled, fractious state. In need of help but more willing to find fault or complain than to listen (a vital 50% but oft-absent piece of the communication story). And the maintenance of communication science and scholarship, at a time when society most needs it, is not assured.

The meeting organizers have asked a few folks from different realms to come in and join them – to bring an outside perspective. I’m preparing my remarks, and hoping to summarize them here over the next day or so.

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