The Intersection

Today I asked Randy Olson, the documentarian behind the wonderful Flock of Dodos, what he thought of the recent article by Matt Nisbet and myself in Science. I did this because along with my conversations with Matt, watching Olson’s Flock of Dodos was one of the catalytic events that got me obsessed with the science communication problem. I’m now posting in full Randy’s reaction to our piece:

Nisbet and Mooney are taking on the odious job of being the messengers of the new era for the world of science with their excellent essay in Science this week. I’m afraid they will be greeted with plenty of resistance, but the times are achanging.

This past December I endured a day of clunky talks by scientists at AGU in a special symposium mislabeled as, “Communicating Science Broadly.” Not one, but several of the scientists spoke openly and proudly of “the inertia” of science communication — saying it is a correct and necessary part of the science world. They said that the
slowness of science communication is simply a handicap that must be endured — a price that must be paid for accuracy.

Well … today there are a lot of people with anti-science agendas who are enjoying taking advantage of the ease with which the lumbering giant of the science establishment can be out-communicated.

And its not just the science world. Newsweek had a major article in February about how the U.S. military is experiencing the same problem in Iraq — losing out in the “info-wars” because their style of communication is so slow, out-dated and … suffering from inertia.

So what’s the science world going to do about it? Get mad at people like Nisbet and Mooney who shed light on this dilemma? Or maybe come to the realization that there is a price to be paid for complete and absolute precision (or at least the appearance of it).

I know this is heresy — the authors have the audacity to chide some readers for, “sticking safely to the facts,” but its also the truth of today’s world. Cold and ugly.

And what are you going to tell me — that scientists have an obligation to be 100% truthful? These guys aren’t the first ones to agonize over this dilemma. Go read Medawar’s papers from the sixties (“Is the Scientific Paper a Fraud?”). He was troubled by it, but it’s the sad truth — scientists are forced to live in a world of humans, not robots.

Meanwhile, another welcoming reaction comes from Dietram Scheufele over at Nanopublic:

People’s views on emerging technologies are heavily influences by the interpretive schema they use when trying to make sense of these issues. As a result, an ideal public debate should offer a wide variety of frames, i.e., of ways to integrate complex scientific issues into what we already know. This is what framing is all about: offering different analogies, comparisons, and interpretations. And ultimately citizens will make up their own mind.

Framing is not about pushing simplistic and potentially one-sided frames, but it is about making sure that people are exposed to all sides of the debate and to all possible ways of making sense of these issues.


  1. #1 Adrian Clement
    April 6, 2007

    I saw a little of Matthew’s research on Framing on a power point presentation. This may be a good thing.

  2. #2 Adrian Clement
    April 6, 2007

    sorry about the irrelevance, but do you get to see how many people visit your blog?

  3. #3 slgalt
    April 6, 2007

    Is there anyway that us regular folk can get access to the article?

    Part of the challenge of anyone who understands the deeper meaning of framing, is to effectively communicate that to others (to frame framing). Perhaps the science crowd needs a bit more convincing that framing is complex and studied by cognitive SCIENTISTS and not just just a matter of media messaging.

    I look forward to reading the whole article. I am so grateful that you guys are talking to scientists about this.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    April 10, 2007

    It is interesting that you were initially inspired by Dodos. We had a showing here with the producer, as well as Myers and some others making commentary (I was a mere audience member). The discussion after the film went into communicating science to the public. This has always been an interest of mine, but it is in the context of that discussion, at the Bell Museum Ford Theater, that I got inspired and jumped up and ranted for a while about how scientists actually CAN communicate well … because we DO IT all the time, but for some reason we don’t do it enough, etc. etc.

    It’s a good film.

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