Who speaks for Science?

14 03 2010

Kent Brockman interviewing Professor Frink from the SimpsonsRhetoric alone isn’t always enough to convince people. Sometimes you need some good old fashioned lies and misdirection. Well meaning journalists also aid and abet those on the periphery by providing a platform for contrarian views (the concept of “journalistic balance”). So manufacturing debate on topics with high scientific consensus is easier than you might think.

You don’t have to look far for shocking examples of misdirection in the media. A classic debating tactic is to blow one small issue out of proportion. Surely if just one aspect of a larger theory doesn’t quite fit, then the entire thing must be rubbish? If you don’t know the details, it’s a compelling premise. Famous journalists like Margaret Wente and Rex Murphy use this ploy frequently. The more controversy they generate, the more readers/viewers they draw in.

In the realm of “public debate” scientific consensus can mean shockingly little. Issues can become polarized by ideology, witness the separation in opinion on climate change for liberals and conservatives. If you can attack an issue with enough money and skillful misdirection you can disrupt progress for years. Just look at what happened with “Big Tobacco”. Naomi Oreskes has written at length about this issue, check out her book “Merchants of Doubt”.

So the problems facing science communication are real. And they’re significant. What can we do? Should scientists be trained in rhetoric and public communication? Should we take responsibility to engage journalists?

The answer is a qualified “yes”. (Wouldn’t you expect that from a scientist?)

The role of scientists is to conduct research, investigate phenomena and understand, as best as possible, the way the universe works. Over the last 200 years, the scientific method of hypothesis formulation and testing has been refined and tested repeatedly. It provides us with a consistent and thoughtful approach to understanding the complexities of our environment.

But the scientific method is a terrible mechanism for communicating with the modern public. Subtlety, nuance and shades of gray are inherent in the scientific method. On the front page of the newspaper they become boring and irrelevant.

While an entire new generation of scientists is taking communication very seriously, individual scientists simply cannot be given the responsibility of ensuring appropriate and fair reporting in the media. That’s beyond our realm of influence. It is the journalist’s responsibility.

Journalists are trained in reporting and communicating news. Most journalists come from an Arts and Humanities background and many ended their study of science in high school. We all know the best sports journalists are avid sports fans. So it’s no surprise that when it comes to reporting science, some understanding of science and the scientific method really helps.

Journalists with science training are rare, but usually are associated with some of the best science reporting. The Discovery Channel program Daily Planet, co-hosted by Jay Ingram, is a great Canadian example.

Science plays a fundamental role in our society, and the reporting of it needs to improve. False balance needs to be eradicated, and we’re convinced journalists would agree with this. A lobby group for accurate science reporting appears necessary. The Science Media Centre of Canada is a good place for this to begin.

What can scientists do?

We need to engage three key spheres: politics, media and our local communities.

This begins with scientists getting better at talking to the press and public, and then taking the time to actually do it. We should report errors and bias, and become true advocates of our profession in political circles.

It’s easy to complain that scientists are not good communicators and they shouldn’t even try. Most television interviews reinforce this idea. The cartoon above from the TV program The Simpsons is not too far from the truth in many cases.

However, one has to understand the multiple layers of responsibilities borne by practicing scientists. Managing a lab and students is like running a small business. To become a successful communicator and a successful scientist requires support. Without it, one of the two is going to suffer. If it takes reporters and television personalities years to become adept at their craft, is it realistic to expect scientists to suddenly become masters of communication?

No. But we don’t all need to be. A small number of true role-models could make a difference, just look at what Carl Sagan achieved. We need to cultivate and encourage these individuals. Moreover, they deserve respect and formal recognition from the scientific establishment, not the bitter grumblings and jealousy Sagan frequently encountered. Professional recognition needs to include outreach.

Once we’ve learned to communicate better, scientists need to leverage the potential of our collective voice. No single lobby in Ottawa speaks for science. Not the granting councils, not the Royal Society. It’s time for us to start speaking as one.

Could a Canadian Association for the Advancement of Science make a difference?

Next article: The trouble with models

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