The Intersection

I was deeply heartened that my post on the IPCC communication failure from a while back prompted valuable commentary on this blog. One comment in particular was so useful and constructive that I’m reproducing it in its entirety here as a way of prompting further discussion.

I had written that when it comes to communicating the urgency of addressing climate change, “We all have a great deal more to do…and the clock is ticking.” This prompted a lengthy comment from “hmd,” who enumerated, in detail, the various snags and roadblocks that prevent the scientific community (broadly conceived) from turning itself into a more effective communication machine. I am reproducing hmd’s entire comment with my own thoughts interpolated below:

Not sure what can be done. It seems like every stakeholder here is tied up in institutional knots.

Scientists – Well, their primary task is to do the science, not report on it. They might be encouraged to be more open and helpful to science journalism, but in the publish or perish world, that takes time away from their career-advancing research.

Ah, but what if for some small number of scientists, there was actually the possibility of career advancement in the field of science communication? Most scientists could continue to go about their normal publish-or-perish routine, but for those wanting to get into communication, don’t we merely need to set up an incentive structure for them to do so?

Science Departments – They could encourage more outreach, maybe even hire some people who combine teaching duties with public outreach. Of course, that would require budget for hiring teachers who are paid more than adjuncts and don’t bring in grant money. Trying to count public service stuff toward duties and tenure has the same problem – it takes time and doesn’t bring in grant money.

Don’t grants often have a public outreach component already? And couldn’t universities raise money from donors specifically for the puposes of enhancing the communication of their research findings? If universities made this a priority, they could then send some of that money to the departments for precisely this purpose (that is, if they don’t decide to centralize the communication function)?

Universities and Labs – Encourage their public relations people to be more science literate? Not sure how you encourage more public engagement without encouraging the kind of self-serving press releases that accompanied the cold fusion fiasco some years ago. Again, they’d probably need more budget to hire people who can serve as resources for the science journalists. And change institutional culture to encourage sciene departments to cooperate with this. But money will remain a problem.

Yes, money will indeed remain a problem…everyone wants money for everything. But if we can wake up the scientific community up enough so that it realizes the important of greater investment in effective, strategic communication, then money will follow.

Professional Associations – Like AAAS, American Chemical Society, etc. Maybe they could publish their own journals aimed at a scientifically literate layman audience? Science has some stuff like that, but a good half of it is still awfully dense for anyone not well-versed in the relevant fields. American Physical Society has AJP, but that is aimed more at science teachers than journalists. Then again, you still need to get someone to write those articles, and for a journal that doesn’t have the prestige of Science, it won’t be particularly attractive to scientists. Unless the societies can hire their own science writers to do it. Where’s the money for that? Maybe they can sell enough subscriptions to university libraries?

For the professional associations I have particularly high hopes. But I don’t think they should publish journals aimed at lay audiences–rather, I think they should use part of their member dues to establish centralized communication initiatives which a) invest in the best available communication research, and then b) go on to apply it in order to spread knowledge about science much more effectively than has been done so far.

Science journalists – A lot of attention has been paid to this. I think some work can be done here to identify some of the standard tropes of journalism – crafting a narrative, framing, connecting to the reader’s personal concerns, whatever – and how they can be utilized to increase the accuracy and relevancy of the information received by readers. Can we construct some standard ways to frame science stories that focus on the actual science rather than politics and personalities? And still hold the interest of the casual reader?

Wait a sec….Matt Nisbet has shown (PDF) that traditional science journalism really only reaches a relatively small population of science enthusiasts. It’s the mass media where the real problem lies.

Media Institutions – Generally these are for-profit corporations, that need to sell ad space and eyeballs to live. Does this create an inherent conflict with good, accurate science reporting? Do the media even care? How do we get them to care? Can we create some alternative way of reaching people beyond the science articles on page A12?

This is a real trick. The mass media–especially television media–care about ratings. Which means they would rather cover Britney’s bald head and astronaut love triangles than climate change. An argument could be made for the scientific community directly addressing the mass media and call for more responsibility on their part, so that stories like the IPCC report release don’t get swallowed up by infotainment coverage.

News Consumers – Generally already awash in an information glut. How do science stories rise above the noise? How can consumers distinguish between sense and nonsense when they lack expertise? Is there a way to present key information that can get past people’s filters and pre-existing biases? And who exactly do we need to reach, anyway? How do we provide enough information to protect the general public against FUD and disinformation?

It is because they are already awash in an information glut that we have to target them with the right messages, using the right platforms, in order to successfully communicate. We have to break the problem down by publics and by platforms, essentially. Then we have to find the right message–and messenger–for each different public. The whole project will require a heckuva lot of research….followed by effective implementation. And these are our current challenges.


  1. #1 John Fleck
    March 9, 2007

    Some great comments here. Thanks. I’d like to address the first point – that scientists need to be “encouraged to be more open and helpful to science journalism.”

    In the vast majority of my encounters with scientists, I have no such difficulty. With only rare exceptions, I find scientists I contact eager to help me understand their research and convey it to the public. This includes both scientists working in political/policy-relevant fields, and also people whose work has no more public relevance than the chance that folks might find it cool to, for example, learn how black holes work.

    The fact that somebody outside their field actually cares generally seems enough for them to spend the necessary time to help me write a story.

  2. #2 David Bruggeman
    March 9, 2007

    Don’t grants often have a public outreach component already?

    True, but (at least for the NSF) grants are also supposed to address broader impacts (Criteria 2) and that doesn’t seem to be considered very strongly when proposals are reviewed.

  3. #3 Anthony Rasmussen
    March 9, 2007

    My grandma thought science was a bunch of nerds in white lab coats. Deriving from this, she distrusted their common sense, morality, and thus their conclusions.

    So I taught my grandma that science is just another way of thinking: you can make up explanations, you can listen to other people’s explanations, or you can let evidence tell you explanations. “Science” is the latter.

    Once she understood that science was just a fancy word for (her word) “duh”, she changed. Without formal education, she was intelligent enough to extrapolate from the idea of “science is the art of Duh” to global warming, evolution, and cosmology.

    In fact, she actually just started trusting what the scientists said. She always asks me, “Well, is it peer reviewed?” If so, she usually just accepts and moves on (with the same speed she used to accept Fox News).

    Most, if not all, people appreciate the ol’ maxim of trial-and-error. They just need to realize that trial-and-error taken seriously is called ‘science’. White lab coats come later.

    My grandma didn’t need a communication strategy to explain global warming. She needed to know that there is no greater “common sense” than letting evidence do the talking, and that is what we call “science”. Once she understood this, global warming was accepted without debate.

    The line I use a lot is: “Science is the art of the best humanly guess possible”. It works pretty well for me when dealing with friends and family.

    R.K. Pachauri will have a hard time communicating with Robert Bellarmine without René Descartes and Charles Peirce nearby.

  4. #4 SLC
    March 9, 2007

    I would suggest that one of the problems with science advocacy is that there are very few scientists in Congress, the state legislatures, local city councils and school boards. For instance, I can’t identify any scientists in the US Senate and only a few in the House (I believe that there are 3 persons with a degree in physics from West Virginia, New Jersey, and Michigan and somebody with an engineering degree from California). Putting more scientists and fewer lawyers in these positions will do more to advance good science then all the journalists combined. We should note that the Chancellor of Germany, Dr. Merkel, has a PhD in Physics.

  5. #5 Ed
    March 9, 2007

    I am not a scientist, but an engineer. I am also not a regular to this site, but am always pleased when I do occasionally drop by. [My apologies if this is repetitive.]

    To take my typical approach to this answer, I would first try to identify and clearly define the problem.

    From the post and comments above, we have:

    “…communicating the urgency of addressing climate change…”

    But what this means to me is that some scientists have completed there missions; conquered knowledge, etc. and are now in possession of relevant ‘information’. Group these ladies, gentlemen, institutions, etc. together and (as Chris has repeatedly emphasised) you have a consensus. However, this consensus is all too often not manifested in public policy (i.e. political action).

    To sum up, our task seems to be: to achieve public policy that reflects scientific consensus.

    Let’s move on to brainstorm possible solutions…
    A. modify the scientists to improve the transfer of information
    B. modify the politicians to improve the receipt if information and translation into policy
    C. modify the public to facilitate the replacement of ineffective politicians
    D. increase the efficiency of the media through which the information is transferred
    E. increase the efficiency of the political system through which policies are changed
    F. introduce/modify means to protect and defend the integrity of the information as it moves further from the source.
    G. introduce/modify means to track and trend the effectiveness of the above, capture lessons learned, and feed them back into the programme.
    H repeat, repeat, repeat the messages.

    Many ideas above have been proposed and discussed for item A above. I can’t think of much to add there.

    B could result from C if the public can become better informed; or the politicians may change their ways if influenced by public pressure. I think item F (information integrity) is also important in this context, but again we come to the proper flow of information.

    D involves the mechanics of the transfer. Why would media report on the IPCC when Britney is fighting to get out of (or is it back in to) rehab.

    E? I had to list it; but we’ve all heard about efforts to ‘reinvent’ government. If you want to take on that task, all the best mate.

    F possibly the most important of the list above (at least in my opinion). It should be obvious to even casual readers of this Blog.

    G. Follow-up is critical to ensure on-going effectiveness of any change or intended improvement. It reflects the real passion of those involved.

    H. Helps to mitigate the effects of outlying scientific opinions or media whose standards are ‘other than high integrity’.

    Break out the cloning machine because it seems evident to me that we need more Chris Mooneys.

    – passionate about the issues,
    – able to comprehend the science,
    – can very effectively convey information to all audiences of interest (political, other media, as well as the general public)
    – much more interested in the science than pop-culture ‘news’
    – very high likelihood of follow-up
    – fierce defender of information integrity

    While efforts to get the scientists ‘out there’ – as outlined in other comments above – will serve to address the problem, similar efforts to generate investigators/reporters of a certain scientific aptitude, passionate, creative, effective and of the highest integrity would be equally beneficial.

    To put it another way, I believe we need to find, recruit, or produce great scientists who are capable and interested communicators as well as great communicators who are capable and interested in the science.

    Chris, beyond the union of your parents; what/how/who made you? What were your influences? Where did this start? How did you come to be? Can you be reverse engineered?

  6. #6 Chris Mooney
    March 10, 2007

    Wow, Ed, not only did you break down the problem nicely, you made me blush.

    I think in various ways, I’ve been writing about and advocating A through H for some time. The strong recent emphasis on A is new for me, but I’ve increasingly realized that it’s deeply important, in part because a number of the other solutions–particularly D–seem very hard to achieve.

    You suggest that I ought to be reverse engineered…but, why not take the existing brainpower and resources of the scientific community–more brainpower than I myself possess, and considerably more resources as well–and apply those to the task? Isn’t the “engineering” feat here likely to be much more effective?

  7. #7 micro mel
    March 10, 2007

    Let me bring the perspective of a young scientist turning science writer/communicator.

    I began my research in a microbiology lab in 1999– the same year I started my undergrad degree. I was, to play it down a notch, ecstatic when my first co-authored publication printed.

    I wanted to translate the “Greek” to “la langue de non-experts” for my friends and fam, but that was a much harder task than anticipated. So I asked myself, “What’s the point of science if we, scientists, don’t provide the means for others to understand it?”

    It took me six more years of research to really recognize this problem.

    Five technical publications later, I’m in the midst of switching from a MS in micro to a MA in journalism. Lately, in my quest to seek out my dream career, I’ve had some not-so-pleasant experiences. I’ll spare you the lengthy stories and just say this:

    I’m no longer sitting in the lab all day in my little white lab coat, but that doesn’t mean I’m a traitor to science. Isn’t it just as important for the science to be communicated effectively to the public as it is for the science to be tested? This chick thinks so.

    In my experiences, a number of researchers care about this problem too, but most don’t have time/moolah to address it–they’re busy seeking top-journal publications, top-dollar grant money, top-of-the-line equipment. Indeed, this is the “publish or perish” routine as posted above.

    And after experiencing both sides, scientist & journalist, I’ve found the initiative for science communication usually stems from the latter.

    Chris, I couldn’t agree more when you say, “…but for those wanting to get into communication, don’t we merely need to set up an incentive structure for them to do so?” Where can I sign up?!

    Regarding Ed’s comment about cloning Mr. Mooney: last week, the Nebraska Legislature’s Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on LB700- Adopt the Prohibition of Human Cloning Act. If a non-expert Senator can make a proponent with a MD and PhD from Harvard look like an idiot, I believe our government still has hope. Let’s just say the committee wasn’t impressed with the shoddily written bill, and I highly doubt it will advance. Clone away! :)

  8. #8 James Annan
    March 12, 2007

    There seems to be some major question-begging going on here. What needs to be communicated to “the public”? What if they don’t want to know, or aren’t clever enough to understand? IMO there’s already plenty of clear analysis directed at policy-makers and anyone else who’s sufficiently motivated to take advantage of it. AR4 wasn’t newsworthy because it only said what everyone already knew anyway (in fact it was less alarmist than much media coverage over recent years). Do you think that everyone who reads it and believes it will agree on a specific raft of policy decisions? If so, then which decisions would they be?

  9. #9 Chris Mooney
    March 12, 2007

    “Isn’t it just as important for the science to be communicated effectively to the public as it is for the science to be tested?”

    Yes, definitely. That’s what this thread is all about. Mel, your story (broadly speaking) is one that, in my travels, I’ve been hearing quite frequently lately…and this gives me hope that we will indeed see improvement in this area.

    James, I have to say that your comment troubles me. “What if they don’t want to know, or aren’t clever enough to understand? IMO there’s already plenty of clear analysis directed at policy-makers and anyone else who’s sufficiently motivated to take advantage of it.”

    Suggesting that the public is stupid or incompetent is an easy way out, and frankly, in my view, a cop out–a way of trying to exonerate ourselves for our own failure to communicate adequately. I say, let’s stop blaming others and look hard at our own failings.

  10. #10 Kate
    March 12, 2007

    congrats on braving an intimidating career shift from bench science to media, mel…i think that’s fantastic, and it’s something more of us scientists need to do, alongside this generalized need to integrate more media- and public-friendly science communication into our research agendas that we’re all promoting here.

    while i agree w/ hmd et al that a large hindrance in scientists’ attempts to better communicate is the system that science is so ingrained in. most scientists realize that the scientific community can only be as strong as its support network, i.e. funding agencies, public support, etc); if there aren’t intra-departmental and -institutional changes to facilitate this, such as its inclusion in tenure decisions, scientists lack impetus. academe is chaotic enough as it is; based on a recent chat w/ a tenure-track professor friend of mine, there isn’t much room for teaching requirements, let alone extra-institutional communication efforts on behalf of one’s research. we’d all love to do more of it, but if it’s between that and keeping an increasingly rare position in academia, well…

    so two immediately available solutions seem to present themselves: 1. the scientific system (i.e. dept/institutions/etc) needs to change to facilitate scientists’ increased participation in broader communication and public/media interfacing; this may also include the inclusion of attainable objectives in the NSF/NIH ‘public outreach components’ (which are typically included and prioritized more than in the past, you’re right Chris…but sadly they act as well-intended lipservice to funding agencies just as frequently), to avoid benign statements and inspire real action taken on these objectives. how this hurts basic research lacking immediate applicability is another issue altogether, and one that i’ll vigorously defend.

    2. we need more scientists or science-friendly advocates to do much of this communication for us. maybe we should argue for a separation of church and state, i.e. if the bench scientific environment can’t facilitate this w/o a massive reworking (and an extra day tacked onto an already-packed week), let’s turn to other available resources. chris and others have been fantastic and timely stewards that have championed the rational, fair interpretation and use of science. perhaps what we need is to infuse more levels of govt, policy, even the media, w/ such people. aren’t they around? can’t we recruit ex-scientists, science policy specialists, even active scientists or just science-savvy intellectuals? but then i suppose we’ll also need people willing to assume those roles, which necessitates a public that’s quite science-friendly. catch 22.

  11. #11 James Annan
    March 12, 2007


    You ignored my other questions…but regarding “stupidity”, the message is a fairly complex one and arguably the IPCC reports (which I certainly do not claim to fully understand and have not even read) oversimplify a bit. I can’t believe you really think the public needs to understand this stuff any more than they need to understand quantum mechanics – and also, that on understanding it, they will all vote for a specific policy (which you have not enunciated). I don’t want to get all Pielkian on you but this seems hopelessly naive. I don’t know with confidence what is the right thing to do, and given that I work in the field I can’t imagine that as much as 5% of the population will ever understand it as well as I do. In fact in my particular niche most of the other scientists don’t understand it as well as I do :-)

    A new post here comments on the sort of ethical assumptions that seem necessary to underpin strong mitigation…

  12. #12 Chris Mooney
    March 13, 2007

    Point 2: I appreciate all the praise I’m getting in this post, but I am *not* speaking to the entire American public. I can’t reach everyone who needs to be reached (er, not yet anyway). That’s a whole different ballgame. To communicate on this scale, you really need massive resources–resources that the scientific community *could* bring to bear.

    James: sorry if I reacted to your post negatively, but it really makes me uncomfortable when the public gets belittled by scientists and their defenders, and I thought I heard that in what you were saying. Maybe I overreacted.

    Anyway, the public can’t and doesn’t have to understand all the complexities, but the public does need to get the big picture, and right now they think global warming has something to do with the ozone hole. Who do we blame for this? There’s lots of blame to go around, but let’s not solely point fingers at the skeptics, the media, and the public itself….I am arguing that scientists, too, have a greater responsibility.

  13. #13 Ed
    March 15, 2007


    Getting back to the quest to have scientific consensus manifested in public policy; there are roles for scientists and journalists (and, hey even us bloggers) alike.

    First, if I may, I’d like to propose a bit of a role reversal. What would you say to a top jourlanist leading a research team or endeavour. It may be alright – particularly if this fellow/madam had a scientific degree/background prior to his/her entry into journalism. But I suspect, if the research is very critical, one would expect an experienced and dedicated scientist to lead the work and the journalists to report it. I doubt the journalists would even be considered for peer review.

    All I’m really trying to emphasise is that there are roles for everyone here. And my expectation is that the scientists be allowed & encouraged to push the science, drive the discovery and develop the consensus.

    Then I look to the journalists to report/communicate that consensus to the public and policy makers in a manner that makes it easy for both to understand what the consensus is, the relevance and importance of the issues at hand, what the outlying opinions are and their respective relevance.

    As you’ve pointed out, significant improvements are needed in the ‘balance’ of media reporting. As a fellow Aussie notes here science reporting is not political reporting and there is danger reporting it as if it were.

    I see value in working to highlight/expose the manner in which science is reported [and I acknowledge and appreciate your efforts to do this]. As you see from the link above there are others who notice the problem and agree.

    These embers should be stoked by scientists, engineers, technophiles, and techno-journalists alike.

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