Framing Science

I’ve been busy the past week with wrapping up the semester. As a consequence, I have not had the chance to post about continuing developments related to the stolen emails from servers at University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU).

However, today is a convenient time to weigh in, since I share many of the same conclusions offered by Mike Hulme in recent op-eds at the BBC and Wall Street Journal.

Before discussing the Hulme articles, let me relay a few observations. Since the stolen email story broke, my concern has been that many bloggers and commentators are overlooking the true significance of the event. Not unexpectedly, the storyline offered by these commentators simplistically defines the event as yet another effort by the conservative movement to manufacture doubt and to wage a “war on science.”

Yet this predictable storyline overlooks the fact that scientists, science reporters, educators, and their institutions may have unintentionally created the conditions that helped a single focusing event turn into a global controversy and media frenzy. Reaction to the content of the East Anglia emails is so intense because it shows scientists talking and behaving in ways that cut against the stereotypical image of impartial, Vulcan-like high priests of reason. For too long in school and in news reporting, we have portrayed a cartoon image of how science is done, its connection to policy debates, and how scientists participate in these debates. This has worked for scientists in the past, but as the types of questions that society faces and as modes of communication change, the public is expecting and demanding greater involvement in science-related decisions and greater accountability on the part of scientists.

The East Anglia emails are a wake up call that we need to shift modes to educate, communicate, and report on how science really works and its role relative to societal decisions. In short, we need to fundamentally re-think how we educate, involve and engage the public in questions of science-related policy.

Specific to the East Anglia event and climate change, Mike Hulme and Jerome Ravetz adeptly describe this challenge in an opinion article at the BBC. As they write:

The disclosure and content of these private exchanges [the CRU emails] is only the latest in a long line of instances that point to the need for major changes in the relationship between science and the public.

By this, we mean a more concerted effort to explain and engage the public in understanding the processes and practices of science and scientists, as much as explaining the substance of their knowledge and how (un)certain it is.

How well does the public understand professional peer review, for example, or the role of a workshop, a seminar and a conference in science?

Does the public understand how scientists go about resolving differences of opinion or reaching consensus about an important question when the uncertainties are large?

We don’t mean the “textbook” answers to such things; all practising scientists know that they do not simply follow a rulebook to do their science, otherwise it could be done by a robot.

Science is a deeply human activity, and we need to be more honest about what this entails. Rather than undermining science, it would actually allow the public to place their trust more appropriately in the various types of knowledge that scientists can offer.

So what is a quick way to jump start changes in science education? One starting place, and an idea I have been pitching, is to develop a “civic science literacy” curriculum module that can be incorporated in entry-level college science courses for majors and non-majors alike. Here’s how I describe this module in a recent review article:

[The module] would introduce students to quality online news sources about science, teach students about how to constructively use participatory tools such as blogs and other social media applications, educate students on how to critically evaluate evidence and claims as presented in the media, introduce students to the relationships between science and institutions as they are often covered in the news, and socialize students into enjoying and following science by way of digital media after they complete their formal science coursework. In short, this type of media literacy curriculum would not only potentially grow the audience for science media, but also impart the skills, motivation, and know-how that students need to be participatory citizens in the online and real worlds.

So where in the popular media might we look for examples to include as part of this curriculum? A place to start is the ongoing conversation at Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog, one of the few places in the U.S. mainstream media where many of these sociological and political questions related to climate science are addressed. A second leading source, relevant to many fields in the life sciences, would be articles from The Scientist magazine, which routinely offers strong context for understanding the financial, social, and political dimensions of science. Other sources include David Goldston’s past columns on science policy at Nature or other commentary articles appearing at the Nature outlets. Past articles at Issues in Science & Technology are also good sources, such as this recent article on the “politicization” of science by Daniel Sarewitz.

Finally, a leading resource is the past series by CBC Radio on “How to Think about Science,” a series that introduces listeners to research in the field of social studies of science. I raved about the series when it came out and now the series transcripts are available as an edited volume.

Of course, these popular media sources should be complemented by deeper, yet still accessible core readings. Examples might include Mike Hulme’s recently published Why We Disagree About Climate Change, Roger Pielke’s Honest Broker, or chapters from this excellent edited volume on science communication and public engagement.

[For readers attending the upcoming AGU meetings, a pre-conference panel will explore many of these issues. Go here for details and to register.]

Comments

  1. #1 Douglas Watts
    December 3, 2009

    Well, focussing on the salient facts, rather than the deliberately or non-deliberately erroneous “coverage” of these facts, would be a start. And the facts are quite mundane, given that the stolen e-mails do not contain a single fact or factoid that changes anything regarding the body of scientific knowledge on climate science and climate change.

  2. #2 frog
    December 3, 2009

    This is all way too sophisticated PR massaging.

    Folks (at least my compatriots in the US) have a simplistic morality about everything. They think that who Tiger Woods is banging should be a public discussion. They believed GWB and his WMDs cause he appeared to be a “good guy to have a beer with” — regardless of his dry-drunk ways. They value the morality of a BJ over that a group of wars that may have killed millions.

    And you think educatin’ about peer review and symposia will get people to understand that even SOB’s can do science? That it’s not about the individuals, they’re personal attitudes, relationships and failings, but the long term process of science over decades and centuries?

    Are you kidding yourself?

  3. #3 wagdog
    December 4, 2009

    While I am all for deflating people’s expectations about the idealised scientific process so as to minimise the damage of Swiftboating attacks, what you propose might end up turning people away from science altogether. The way science is portrayed to young people is essentially a bait-and-switch – show the explosions and cool experiments and technology. Once they’re hooked, then gradually introduce all the politics of peer review and research funding. Young people will simply turn to fields in which there is even less upfront honesty — such as high finance.

  4. #4 Gaythia
    December 4, 2009

    I have experienced what wagdog describes; a starry eyed introduction to science, followed eventually by certain cold hard realities. I did not turn to high finance, which is fiscally unfortunate for me, I suppose.

    But I think that this is looking at the wrong level. The people we need to reach are not scientists but they are citizens and voters. Frog makes some good points. Douglas Watts is right about focusing on the salient facts.

    Before we can go deeper, we need to get out a basic, comprehensible message supporting climate change to the general public.

    We face opponents who are willfully spouting plausible sounding nonsense on various topics to influence the ignorant so that certain vested interests can continue business as usual.

    We need short term action plans to even be able to get to the point where we have the resources necessary to implement the excellent, but longer term, goals outlined in this post.

  5. #5 A
    December 4, 2009

    Josh at Enviroknow has a comprehensive discussion on the
    ‘Climate-change emails:’
    http://enviroknow.com/2009/11/25/climategate-the-swifthack-scandal-what-you-need-to-know/
    and concludes (right up front):”Given the similarities between this smear job and the Swift Boat attacks on Senator John Kerry, SwiftHack is a far more appropriate name.”

    The proper frame is that those now pushing these ‘news’ are self-interested, the same people who also doubted the link between tobacco use and lung cancer.

  6. #6 Don
    December 7, 2009

    Matthew: Your “civic science literacy” curriculum module is a great idea, and a hugely expensive one. I teach biology at a large public university. At the introductory level, I slip a bit of social science into the force-fed basic science that is required for these classes. My pitch is the notion that all basic science is actually set in a social science context is considered weird by my colleagues, but given collegiality, I receive no negative feedback from my peers; the students are either fascinated by these bits of the lectures, or they say, “why is he wasting our time with this? How is knowing the differences between objectivity and subjectivity going to help me get into medical school.” I do these social science bits to set up my upper division class in global change ecology. My introductory class has 700 students, my upper division class, in which one can have the discussions, substantial reading, term papers, and student presentations (required for your module) has 30. Thirty is a number actually larger than ideal for discussion, but it is what is real given the scale of the operation. The ratio of 30/700 gives an idea about the likelihood of a student getting a module such as you suggest. So students at very expensive private schools can all have such a module, not so for the rest. I would value your comments, since I’m one who actually does a module similar to what you advocate.

  7. #7 Quietmarc
    December 7, 2009

    University is far, far too late. This sort of education needs to start in grade school, the earlier, the better. When I was a tot, I was lucky to have good teachers, but maybe even luckier to have TV programs like 321 Contact and Square One to teach critical thinking and basic science skills. Once you’ve seen a music video about “Tesselations” or “The Angle Dance”, you never forget ‘em…

  8. #8 Patrick Tomlinson
    December 7, 2009

    You want to sell science to the public and make them understand the basics of AGW theory?

    Have Adam and Jamie do it.

    Mythbusters is a PERFECT example of how scientists should be reaching out to the public. Two popular and funny non-scientists performing the sorts of hand’s on DIY experiments almost any handyman with a garage, time, and a modest budget could do for themselves. Mythbusters demystifies the scientific method and relates it to the common sense rules of reasoning we all apply to our daily lives without ever thinking about it.

    For the best illustration of this, watch their episode from last season busting moon landing conspiracy myths. They took popular, reasonable sounding memes that cast doubt on the moon landings, (flag would wave without air, there are no stars in the pictures, etc), and absolutely destroyed them.

    It was a complete shut down. I know several people in my own extended circle of relatives and friends who were on the fence before that episode who have left that nonsense behind.

    That is how to handle these denialist windbags. Demonstrate that a jar filled with CO2 gets hotter in the sun than a jar filled with air. Explain to them how a single gallon of gasoline is converted into may tens of gallons of CO2 when it’s is burned because it bonds to free floating O2. Then ask them if it’s really so hard to believe that dumping billions of tonnes of this stuff into the air can cause the same sort of warming they have just seen with there own eyes.

    Take it out of the abstract and make it real.

  9. #9 Patrick Tomlinson
    December 7, 2009

    Edit. Should have read flag wouldn’t wave without air.

  10. #10 Douglas Watts
    December 7, 2009

    I think the “wake up call” is about how economically and politically powerful entities like Exxon-Mobil like to conjure up and sustain fake controversies, such as this. Would be nice if this blog could focus on the science and not “coverage of the coverage.”

  11. #11 Matthew C. Nisbet
    December 8, 2009

    Don,

    I have intentions to write a grant to hopefully fund the development of this curriculum module and to evaluate it’s impact in courses here at AU and at other institutions, ideally a large state university as you describe.

    Please email me if you have an interest in following up.