Last Friday, in my post on Nature’s comprehensive coverage of science journalism, I mentioned the recent Nature Biotechnology conference paper on science communications co-authored by scibling Matt Nisbet. I also said I’d come back to one of the points in it that bothers me.
As I said yesterday, most of the material in this paper (the issues of media fragmentation, framing problems, incidental exposure, etc.) has been expressed elsewhere. I agree with the majority of it, and it’s nice to see it all in one place. But I have to take exception to a small piece of the paper – an example that I’ve heard Matt discuss twice before, and see again here: the framing of the National Academies’ report, “Science, Evolution, and Creationism.”
The Nature Biotechnology paper says:
Instead of relying on personal experience or anecdotal observation, it is necessary to carry out careful audience research to determine which frames work across intended audiences. Communication is both an art and a science. For example, the US National Academies (Washington DC) used focus groups and polling to inform the structure of a written report about the teaching of evolution and to frame publicity efforts. Their research indicated that an effective storyline for translating the relevance of evolutionary science for students was one emphasizing the connection to advances in modern medicine. Contrary to their expectations, the research concluded that an alternative frame emphasizing recent court decisions did not provide nearly as effective a message. (italics added)
OK: “contrary to” exactly whose expectations?!
The polling data must have been “contrary to the expectations” of some people involved with composing the report, because a 2008 CBE-Life Science Education paper by Jay Labov and Barbara Pope of the NAS, which is cited in the Nature Biotechnology paper, says,
Based on what was learned from understanding our audiences, the organization and presentation of sections of the final product are different than what the authoring committee and project staff originally envisioned. For example, the committee began its work shortly after the decision of Judge John Jones III was announced in Kitzmiller et. al. v. Dover Board of Education. The committee originally thought that this decision should be prominently touted throughout the booklet as one of the main reasons why various forms of creationism (including intelligent design) should not be taught in the science classroom – it’s illegal.
This really puzzles me. I’ve never met a biologist who thought the best way to build an argument for the validity of evolutionary theory to the lay public – much less K-12 students – was around legal cases. If that was really the original plan, the NAS sure didn’t ask me about it!
I do think the legal cases, like Dover, are important and interesting. I’d want to include them in materials for teachers and school boards, so they have some familiarity with the legal history of challenges to teaching evolution. Plus, the Scopes trial makes an interesting story. But descriptions of legal cases are hardly compelling reading for most people, who generally want to know how science is relevant to their daily lives.
If I may resort to the maligned “personal experience or anecdotal observation” (actually both): a few years ago, when I had to create a basic science literacy course for college non-majors, I structured it around the tangible benefits of evolutionary theory to medicine and agriculture – just like the NAS report did! I did that back in 2005, well before the NAS report was published. It seemed obvious to me as a teacher that I had to reach my students on their own terms, using issues that were important in their lives and their families’ lives. Health is a universal issue of interest; plus, my college had lots of pre-nursing students. So I explained how we get antibiotic resistance and why vaccines need to be constantly updated. That’s how I taught evolution. It just made sense.
My curriculum worked pretty well, even though I based it on personal experience with my community, and didn’t use a focus group. Am I opposed to focus groups? No. I realize that when you teach, your students are your focus group; there was a lot of content in my class that could have worked better, and I took my students’ candid feedback to heart when revising (and hopefully improving) the course. When it comes to preparing a static report, especially an expensive, high-profile report by a national body, running it by a few focus groups first is indeed important, so you don’t waste valuable resources, or worse, generate a negative response. But I really dislike the implication that personal experience and anecdote aren’t useful, because I think they’re vital.
Let me be specific. I think it is absolutely vital in a democracy as diverse as ours that people with relevant personal experience, such as teachers with experience in schools that serve various socioeconomic groups and ethnicities, or nurses with experience treating patients in inner-city and rural clinics, be included in developing science outreach programs. My personal experience made it clear to me what type of “evolution frame” would work for my students.
That’s why I find it unbelievable that this came as a surprise to the NAS team developing the report – the NAS has some pretty smart people on board, and the report’s authoring board included some savvy communicators, like Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
So what really happened? I was just speculating, because I wasn’t there. So I called someone who served on the NAS authoring board and asked. And what I heard makes a lot of sense. Specifically, at the time the revision of the NAS report was being designed, the Dover case was all over the news, and it was apparent that any NAS report would have to address public questions about it – especially since one important use of the document would be to present the NAS point of view in legal cases dealing with teaching evolution. The NAS report has a lot of potential uses – K-12 education, although it’s the use emphasized by both the Nature Biotechnology and CBE-Life Sciences Education papers, was just one of them. So it makes sense that given the potential legal use of the NAS report, that legal framing would have been on the table.
But lots of things were on the table – the NAS report was never going to emphasize legal arguments to the exclusion of other arguments. As my source remembers it, the day-long authoring committee workshop included many different authors with diverse perspectives, including two high school biology teachers, ethicists, paleontologists, biologists, science writers and NAS staff. At least some of these individuals had previously advocated teaching evolution through practical, applied examples, and felt it was important to include that framing in the report. The committee’s goal was to find balance – there was “no discussion about what was going to make up what % of the report.” And when the polling came out, my source doesn’t remember it being surprising. That doesn’t mean no one on the authoring committee was surprised, but it certainly wasn’t a universal sentiment.
So it appears the idea that the NAS authoring committee wanted a legal frame for the report, and was surprised by polling data indicating that would not be successful, is a bit of an oversimplification, if not misleading. Why does this bother me? I mean, in the end we got a great NAS report out of the process, right? Well, the reason it bothers me is that it makes it sound as if biologists don’t know how to communicate with their students and the general public, and even worse, that personal experience is useless in science communication. I don’t think that’s true. My personal experience teaching low-income and nontraditional students in a small college in a conservative community is a vital influence on the way I frame science.
Last Wednesday, when I had to slip out of the State of Innovation Conference early, I had the good fortune to encounter the venerable sociobiologist E.O. Wilson in the elevator. (yay!) I spent almost five minutes talking to him; if there ever was a time in my life for an elevator pitch, that was probably it! But I didn’t pitch anything. It was more important to simply thank him for his leadership in one particular area: communicating the importance of environmental conservation to religious America (as he does in his book, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth.)
I grew up in a conservative religious town. The people I grew up with were neither bad nor stupid; most of them loved the natural world. They spent a huge proportion of their time outdoors – camping, fishing, hunting and hiking. But many of them couldn’t relate to ecological arguments, because they perceived science – rightly or wrongly – as being materialistic and therefore anti-faith. They didn’t see how their personal values could possibly be acknowledged, if a strictly evidence-based discourse was shaping policy. I know this probably sounds alien or bizarre to many scientists, but many people in the town where I grew up honestly felt oppressed by what they saw as powerful environmental lobbyists with sinister government scientists on their side. (You ecologists can quit rolling on the floor now; I’m serious.) See what I mean about the importance of understanding different perspectives?
E.O. Wilson tries in The Creation to make environmental arguments accessible to people who are working from a different worldview than most scientists. He doesn’t patronize them. He assumes that most Americans want to do the right thing. And that’s huge to me. If I had a copy of The Creation when I was a tree-hugging high school idealist with a Greenpeace sticker on her locker, I would’ve made every adult I knew read it. It says the sorts of things I wanted to say, but just didn’t know how to say back then.
Anyway, I didn’t get all that across to E.O. Wilson in the elevator. But when I mentioned where I grew up, he brightened and said, “I know just what you mean – I grew up in Alabama.” When E.O. Wilson wrote The Creation, he was writing for people he knew – a community he was part of, and one he cared about. Those people are citizens of the United States. They one of the groups that science communicators and science policymakers should be most concerned about reaching. We can’t write them off. And that is why it is so important that we bring different experiences and perspectives to the table: because as convinced as we may be of the importance of science, there are perfectly reasonable, genuine, caring Americans who do not understand science, do not relate to it, and do not know why they should bother to invest their time in it. If that statement is “contrary” to your expectations, perhaps you should try engaging your cabdriver or airplane seatmate in a genial debate about evolution (I’ve done both). It might be startling.
If we are going to succeed in improving public science literacy, we can’t do it from a bubble or an ivory tower. In the real world, the perspective bestowed by personal experience – ideally, a diversity of many perspectives and experiences – can sometimes be more valuable than all the focus groups or polling data in the world. At least that’s my take on it.