Mike the Mad Biologist

Blogging and Communicating Science

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but something Huntington Willard said in that science blogging article published in Cell about how senior scientists have been trained to communicate science got me thinking.

Modern biology (the article was in the biology journal Cell) has made tremendous breakthroughs in the last half century. Yet we have not been that successful in communicating those results to the public. After all, Thursday night, three out of ten Republican candidates for president were not embarrassed to admit that they did not ‘believe’ in evolution. In fact, it might have helped them. Granted, there are many factors that have prevented the widespread acceptance of evolution in the U.S. But some responsibility has to be laid at our feet.

So onto Willard’s statement (italics mine):

Huntington Willard, director of Duke University’s Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy, said that blogging is “antithetical” to how scientists–at least those of his generation–have been trained. “I am a scientist and my opinion actually does not matter a bit. It is the data that matters and my interpretation of the data,” he said to his audience. “To scientists [blogging] is a tough jump to make and yet one that hopefully an increasing number of scientists will make in order to share our educated viewpoint on some science issue and have that be one of several mechanisms we use to try to engage the public.”

“Most scientists are not comfortable with blogging,” says Myers. “The training we get is to separate opinion from evidence, but blogs blur the difference.” Myers says on occasion colleagues have criticized him for “taking something objective and turning it into something personal.”

An impersonal focus on the data is appropriate when communicating with other scientists. Not only is it more direct, but often removes bias from analysis and assessment of data. But I don’t think that’s the appropriate way to communicate with the general public. A couple of months ago, I had a meeting with a senior staffer on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee. Early on the conversation, said staffer asked, “So do you think we can do anything to stop the spread of antibiotic resistance?”

Ok, freeze frame. The ‘data focused’ approach would have responded with citing a study or data. And that would be the wrong answer. Instead, drawing on my infinite reserves of stupidity and obnoxiousness, I replied, “Yes. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here, taking up your time.” He laughed, and I ended up getting about 30 minutes more that I actually thought I would.

Now, this isn’t just an anecdote about personal communication skills. Many of my colleagues, particularly senior ones, who are very good, or even brilliant, researchers would have mangled the response. At least when I was in academia which ended only a couple of years ago, there was a significant portion of faculty who had disdain for those who spent time on non-research activities–it wasn’t viewed as serious science. The popular communication of science, as well as ‘applied’ research was held in low regard to the point where students were actively discouraged from pursuing these activities.* Unfortunately, that close-mindedness has led to a very restrictive vision of what science is (note: I am not accusing Willard of harboring this attitude).

It is unquestionable that basic research (and the consequent style of communication) is essential to the enterprise we call ‘science.’ It is absolutely necessary. It is also not sufficient for science to thrive:

I ‘do’ science (I’m an NIAID/NIH funded researcher). But that’s just one component of what I do for my job: public policy and outreach are integral parts of what I do on a daily basis. That public function is not only informed by my research, but it also leads to the design of certain projects. Dealing with the public is not something I do in addition to science; that is science. In other words, ‘doing science’ is much more than just basic research. If there is a failing in our graduate education of scientists, it is that the all of the other skills needed, such as basic communication and management skills, are completely neglected (granted, many faculty members, having done nothing other than academic science, are spectacularly unqualified to teach these skills). Somewhere, the communication of science to the public became something mostly separate from science. The evolution sociopolitical controversy illustrates the consequences of this attitude.

We need scientists who apply the findings of basic research–and also those who ‘twist’ their basic research into something applied. We also need scientists who can communicate effectively to non-scientists of all sorts. To do that isn’t just a matter of communication (or framing, if you prefer…). It also involves a different way of approaching science. That’s why the style adopted in blogs should be as one of several necessary modes of scientific communication.

*Happily, there were other faculty who would respond that those doing applied and communications oriented work were actually “doing something useful.”

Comments

  1. #1 Janne
    May 5, 2007

    We need scientists who are also great teachers for undergraduates. We need scientists who are great mentors for doctoral students and newly minted postdocs. We need scientists who are great at communicating with the media. We need scientists who are great populr writers. We need scientists that are great TV personalities.

    But it is unrealistic to expect every single scientist to be great at any one of these aspects in addition to being a good scientist; if you do you will lose some great scientists. And it is absurd to expect even a small fraction to be good at most (or even all) of these skills in addition to being good scientists.

    Realize that being a good scientist is the core competency. Whatever else you may be able to bring to the table is great, but it’s not what ultimately matters most.

  2. #2 Rev. Scott
    May 5, 2007

    Mike, thanks so much for this post… it’s vitally important to the health of science as a discipline, IMO.

    It’s important to remember that scientists don’t come to our education as finished products. Not all of us started out as good writers, but it’s expected that we’ll learn this skill. My hope is that the world of science will realize that its effectiveness depends partly on its ability to influence the larger human world. I think it’s been a huge mistake for science to ignore its social influences, but that seems to be something that is shifting.

    I wish we’d hear more from scientists about just this concern… living in a bell jar has not been to our benefit.

  3. #3 Abel Pharmboy
    May 5, 2007

    But it is unrealistic to expect every single scientist to be great at any one of these aspects in addition to being a good scientist…

    …which is why each scientist should be valued by their institutions and disciplines for the ‘other’ qualities they bring that advance science in the public realm. Successful businesses do not expect every member of the team to have the exact same skills; they tend to focus on the strengths of each individual (beyond their core competencies) to make the whole stronger than the sum of the parts.

    Good on you, Mike, for doing your share.

  4. #4 Grady
    May 6, 2007

    Well, think about this:

    These “scienceblogs” have become a front for overwhelming leftist, non practicing scientists to make their political and anti religious rants.

    To call them “science” blogs is misleading, at BEST.

  5. Grady,

    we’ve missed you. Once again, you’re off topic. Well done.

  6. #6 jordan 6 rings
    September 1, 2009

    I think it’s been a huge mistake for science to ignore its social influences, but that seems to be something that is shifting.I wish we’d hear more from scientists about just this concern… living in a bell jar has not been to our benefit.

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