Mike the Mad Biologist

Before I start, let me say that I have no personal animus towards Chris Mooney: my limited interactions with him have been civil, and I agree with him on many things. But this beating up the victim has to stop. Sure, I agree with Mooney that many scientists need to learn how to communicate with the public better (although Randy Olsen really needs to stop setting up straw men to knock down). But many scientists do communicate with the public, in one form or another, to the extent they are able to do so.

If a reporter contacts me, I always try to make time to speak with, usually to the detriment of getting things done that pay my salary (more about that in a bit). Many scientists do this: the problem isn’t an unwillingness to communicate (or an inability to do so), but that nobody contacts us. Professional societies and advocacy groups could do much more to help scientists reach the public.

Which brings me to what I think a major, and mostly unmentioned source of the failure in Swifthack: professional environmental groups.

Where were they?

They, as have the pro-choice organizations in the healthcare debate (i.e., Stupak-Mills), have gone completely AWOL. I bring them up because most scientists are already too busy–and some of that busy includes public outreach. But as Abel Pharmboy points out, there are no incentives for outreach–for many of us, outreach is not our job, nor does it accomplish what needs to be done to pay the rent.

As someone who has worked at a non-profit whose mission included public outreach and education, it’s a full time job*. Rapid response to industry propaganda is not something you can do well (or at all) part-time, or as a hobby. Yet the organizations that chop down dozens of trees annually to send me solicitations asking me to help them protect the environment and stop global warming have been completely absent (they’re certainly not being quoted in news stories). Where are the counter-ads? Where are their professionally-trained (one hopes) spokesmen going on television and radio?

To blame some junior faculty member who is trying to survive in an academic research and teaching system for these failures is absurd. And many, if not most, of these overworked faculty would be willing to talk to the media, but they need help forming the contacts and good message points from professionals–and they we aren’t getting that.

Believe it or not, Mooney and I share the same goals. But he needs to stop lecturing scientists, and start asking them what we need to do this the right way.

Stop blaming the victim.

*Having seen what works, and more important, what doesn’t work, if you are serious about how to build advocacy organizations, contact me (email in sidebar).

**Most non-profits are cash-strapped. In reality, their primary mission is to keep the doors open. Too many focus on this, and not communication (which usually is a money sink, not source).

Comments

  1. #1 daisyfae
    January 3, 2010

    individual scientists spend their careers focusing on a generally narrow portion of their discipline. to expect them all to be able to speak eloquently on the ‘big picture’, advocate effectively with the precise forensics required for intelligent public debate is generally asking too much…

    with the best of intentions, trying to promote interest in science, researchers often can muddy the waters — painting a scientific discovery optimistically, raising expectations (ie: metamaterials). PR, advocacy, education are the proper domain of the professional societies.

  2. #2 Jason F.
    January 3, 2010

    I haven’t really weighed in on Mooney’s arguments here at Scienceblogs before, but his WP article I think deserves a response.

    Mooney really, really, REALLY misses the boat on this.

    See, I’m a biologist, and I recently had the “pleasure” of having something I work on get picked up by the media. We had a feeling it was going to be a relatively big story, so we spent over a month working with outreach people, putting together talking points and Q&A sheets. Then the AP calls and I do a 20-30 minute interview with the reporter, going over all sorts of nuances and doing my best to make sure our message gets out.

    So what gets in the article? Two sentences that relate to the political controversy, and nothing about the biology.

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/34468988

    Now, it’s not necessarily a bad article, but my point here is that Mooney is focusing his criticism on the wrong people. As scientists, we have very little control over media content. We can do all those things Mooney suggests but if the editor or producer decides to make the article or show about some “controversy” rather than the science, what can the scientist do? Once we give the interview, the content, message, and overall focus is completely out of our hands. If 95% of what we say ends up on the cutting room floor, how is the subsequent lack of communication our fault?

    Perhaps Mooney would be better served to chastise his colleagues in the media for focusing so heavily on controversies–real or manufactured–and so little on actual scientific content. Of course the reality is that controversy sells and science doesn’t. I know that, the media knows that, but Mooney seems rather oblivious to it.

    And as far as evolution? Come on…there’s one reason and one reason only it’s even an issue here, and it has very little to do with scientists’ ability or willingness to speak to the public. The root of the denialism rampant in this country is the simple fact that evolution contradicts a plain reading of Genesis, with the most significant sticking point being that Genesis says we were created by God, separate from everything else.

    Oh sure, some prominent Christians can argue that you can read Genesis non-literally and still be a saved Christian. Mooney seems to think that a lot of conservative Christians don’t know that and…gosh, if only a scientist would team with a liberal theologian, these people would see the light!

    Trust me, I grew up in a conservative Christian environment and these people are fully aware of the “alternative” ways of viewing Genesis and evolution.

    What Mooney seems to miss is that in order for a person to change their position on such an important issue, they have to be open to change in the first place. It doesn’t matter how many books or TV shows are out there arguing for the compatibility of faith and science (and there are plenty of them, which also shows how Mooney is missing the point), if you’re not open to the message, you aren’t going to read it or watch it.

  3. #3 bioephemera
    January 3, 2010

    Very nice post, Mike.

  4. #4 Comrade PhysioProf
    January 3, 2010

    I like Mooney, but it really is troubling that he has such a tin ear for how his polemics–right or wrong–sound to actual scientists. He is telling scientists what their New Year’s resolution should be? For realz?

  5. #5 HP
    January 3, 2010

    I think that the mistake people make when discussing Mooney is assuming that his remarks are directed at scientists. It’s a reasonable assumption, after all — he says that his remarks are directed at scientists, so shouldn’t we take him at his word?

    But I don’t think that’s the case at all. He’s far too skilled a writer to screw up his message and alienate his audience so thoroughly time after time after time. The reason he has such a “tin ear” as CPP put it is that he’s not writing for scientists at all. Mooney’s core audience — the people he writes for — are editors and policymakers. That’s why he gets published in major newspapers, and why he gets book deals and speaking engagements and interviews. I don’t think Mooney is particularly concerned one way or another by the way his work is received by scientists, because their reaction doesn’t matter in terms of reaching his target audience.

  6. #6 MikeB
    January 3, 2010

    OK, so perhaps Chris Mooney is wrong to think ‘scientists’ have loads of time to take on the media, but his basic point is echoed in an article by Fred Pearce on Yale’s E360 http://e360.yale.edu/content/feature.msp?id=2221 – scientists often do an appalling job of getting their message out, and in the case of Climategate, there were few in the US or the UK that really stood up and hit back at the wave of stupidity that swept over the media.

    The second that story broke, there should have been scientists lined up around the block to explain than ‘trick’ did not mean fraud, that M & M are slimey little gits and they have the data anyway, and that we are all pretty damn sure that AGW is real and happening right now.

    Instead we got a vacuum, journalists running around asking stupid questions and huge amounts of damage to the credibility of all the scientists involved in climate change research. It took a couple of days before one or two close friends of Professor Jones got involved, and they did very well, but the response was late, patchy, and often seem to hide behind an ‘official enquiry’. It was also far too nice to journalists – the best response was David Kings reply as to whether all scientists believed in AGW (from the BBC!). He simply and firmly replied that the vast majority did, and did so in a tone of voice which made clear that it was a stupid question to ask in the first place.

    I’m with Mike that the various professional environmental groups were a complete waste of space, and that the next time they ask for cash, ask them what they were doing that day, and then put the phone down, but the reality is that five well respected climate scientists repeating the same simple message over and over again would have made a huge difference.

    Sometimes, if you want a job done properly, you have to do it yourself.

  7. #7 ponderingfool
    January 3, 2010

    I don’t think Mooney is particularly concerned one way or another by the way his work is received by scientists, because their reaction doesn’t matter in terms of reaching his target audience.
    *****************
    Of course, because his target audience are those that pay for his services. Everything else would be gravy on top of that.

    MikeB I think you miss the point that MikeTheMadBiologist is making. To be able to respond to such attacks in the manner you speak, you have to have the time (and/or flexibility) to do that. When you teach, do time sensitive research, write grants, mentor trainees, serve on committees, etc. you don’t have the time to drop everything to hammer a message home on TV across multiple networks/programs. The other side has the resources to do just that. They have people waiting just for such on occasion to get on TV & spew whatever BS suits them. Those opposed to combating human induced dramatic climate change have the resources to have people who can at a drop of a hat get on TV and hammer a message, hour after hour.

  8. #8 llewelly
    January 3, 2010

    The second that story broke, there should have been scientists lined up around the block to explain than ‘trick’ did not mean fraud, that M & M are slimey little gits and they have the data anyway, and that we are all pretty damn sure that AGW is real and happening right now.

    There were over 3000 emails. Many of them require substantial expertise in specific (sometimes obscure) areas to understand. Many require one to have read several relevant papers. Understanding what was said – and, most importantly, the context – requires a great deal of time and effort. An immediate response would necessarily be either “I don’t know” or a lie. The denialists got the jump on the scientists because they lied outright. The widespread press decision to report the claims denialists rather than wait for the analysis of the scientists was a decision to report lies instead of truth. Most of these denialists have a long record of false claims – a record which can be easily found by google.

    The manufactured controversy over the theft of the CRU emails is yet more evidence that most of the press cannot be trusted to report global warming related issues with either honesty or competence. This should come as no surprise; they have a vested financial interest in the continued success of the fossil-fuel industries, which make up a huge portion of their advertising monies.

  9. #9 JThompson
    January 4, 2010

    @ponderingfool: Even that is kind of a moot point. Even if we had responsible scientists that were perfectly capable of dropping everything they were working on and spending weeks on TV trying to show people the actual science behind AGW, one huge problem would still stop them. They aren’t asked to.

    It doesn’t really matter how willing you are to make a vigorous defense of reality. You’re not going to be invited anyway. If you are invited and insist on calling out their “facts”, they’ll just cut your microphone off. The denialists have no such roadblock. They’re frequently asked on and catered to. No matter how much insane nonsense they spew they’re treated as reputable voices of authority.

    A red-faced imbecile screaming about how people have been lied to makes for much better television than a scientist that bothers to give evidence. Of course, that’s assuming incompetence rather than intentional misdirection and with at least two major stations that isn’t a safe assumption at all.

  10. #10 "GrrlScientist"
    January 4, 2010

    america is one of several first-world countries where intellectual laziness and loud know-nothingness is not only celebrated, but is rewarded hand$omely. until this simple fact changes, nothing else will change, either.

  11. #11 TTT
    January 6, 2010

    Over at Mooney’s blog I repeatedly asked him to stop acting like none of this would ever have happened if only more scientists had been just like himself. The arrogance is un-missable, and is the true message behind some veneer of crocodilian sympathy.

    There is no good way to respond to a massive email theft and selective, highly deceptive leak to partisan media outlets, just like there is no good way to recover from having your identity stolen. As soon as it happens, the bad guys win, because ANY response will require a tremendous diversion of time, energy, and expense from the victim.

    Mooney himself was already in business when SwiftHack occurred, and was he with his much-vaunted communication skills able to put an end to it? No.

    Like I said, I pointed this out on his blog several times, and he continually ignored it and just kept repeating himself, the same as he’s always done when criticized.

  12. #12 mark
    January 6, 2010

    My colleagues and I have also experienced the interview in which we provide a lot of information, but the media outlet takes out the briefest snippet of what we said. They seem to prefer to give much more time to the eccentric dowser or some other nutcase.

  13. #13 igor
    July 18, 2010

    This post and many of the comments that follow just prove Mooney’s point. Scientists just don’t know or are just unwilling to communicate with the public. Instead of complaining about “not having enough time” or pointing out that “the journalist only wrote two sentences about my research” or throwing out the classic “I blame the creationists!” line, why don’t ya’ll think about selling your message better? A lot of bitching and moaning about how the world should be instead of acknowledging how the world is. As for the complaint that “we were never asked”, does one need to be asked before one offers an opinion? If only scientists were smart enough to invent the Internet …
    Oh wait, scientists don’t have enough time to blog. I forgot.

  14. #14 Akon Freedom Album
    December 3, 2010

    Hay! i love your blog.