Mike the Mad Biologist

Since I’ve raised this issue before, and it doesn’t seem to have taken, the gloves are coming off.

Once again, we see the sorry spectacle of blaming scientists for policy failures–all scientists, not a subset (consider this foreshadowing). As always the ‘scientists’ are described as bookish nerds who bore policy makers and reporters with p-values.

This is as stupid as blaming a working ob/gyn for the lobbying failures of NARAL.

Let’s take global warming and the recent Swifthack affair. Where the hell were the professional organizations that kill many, many trees in order to ask me to give them money? They were completely AWOL. I agree with Kirshenbaum that a smooth presentation attached to a nice buffet is a good way to influence staffers and reporters. So why aren’t the professional environmental organizations doing this? It’s not like this isn’t the single most important biodiversity and environmental problem of our time. They might want to reallocate some resources–resources an academic or solitary scientist can’t even dream of having. Because this is a full time job:

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?

(An aside: This seems to be a general problem for ‘progressive’ groups–which probably indicates something about ‘progressives.’)

I’ve always maintained that translating policy into science is part of the larger enterprise of Science. But most working scientists are neither trained to do this nor do we have the time to do so. Ideally, there were people known as science communicators. Because they would be aptly suited for this kind of thing, if they were so inclined (in fairness, many see themselves as ‘translators’ of scientific findings, and that’s science too!). Because the rest already have full-time jobs.

I do research, others do research and teaching, others primarily teach. Regardless, we’re in the game. We’re doing our part. We’re doing science. But carping on other people’s supposed failures is not doing science.

Worse, by blaming generic ‘scientists’, as opposed to specific scientists or science-based groups, Kirshenbaum simutaneously misidentifies the problem, while reinforcing negative stereotypes. Win! FAIL.

So go fucking forth and do some science.

And stop blaming the victim.

Comments

  1. #1 Katharine
    April 19, 2010

    The sense I got from the Intersection article was ‘hurf durf well instead of being all full of facts and stuff and presenting actual data you have to ply us with food and pretty presentations and cruises and coddle us and throw money’.

    I mean, for goodness’s sake, it’s better to treat your audience like thinking adults than to treat them like children and do all sorts of stupid manipulative reverse-psychological stuff and manipulate them into going along with you.

    (It is for this reason, partially, that I have a deep and abiding hatred of businesspeople, marketers, and advertisers. They are not about ethics; they are about money and manipulation. At least, that is my experience.)

  2. #2 Douglas Watts
    April 19, 2010

    Good rant.

    Mooney and Kirshenbaum never even attempted to do original reporting of Swifthack when the stolen emails were first dispersed on the internet. They immediately retreated to concern trolling and ‘covering the coverage’ which basically meant cutting and pasting whatever they found in a 30 second search of Google News. They could have actually done some real science journalism by calling up and interviewing the scientists who wrote them, but apparently they perceive this to be above their pay grade, or there was no catered buffet at East Anglia.

  3. #3 Laura
    April 19, 2010

    I’ve been trying to make that point for ages. Progressive organizations are really dumb and defeatist about communication. Look at Obama as one stellar case in point. I had to learn from some comedian on late night tv that most Americans actually got a tax cut in 2009. The White House press office should be crowing about that night and day. And I wish edf and the like would stop with the direct mail already! I hate giving the meager $25 that I can afford just so that they can pay some right-wing print shop to send me overpacked envelopes full of glossy solicitations pleading for more contributions every month.

  4. #4 Jennifer Ouellette
    April 19, 2010

    I’m sympathetic to the underlying point of your rant: good, effective science communication, particularly when it comes to highly politicizes policy issues, IS a full-time job, and it is indeed a little unfair to place ALL the blame on scientists. But Kirshenbaum’s main point cannot be emphasized enough, especially this line, when she’s talking about the scientists who came to visit her when she worked on the Hill:

    “Most didn’t talk to me, but at me.”

    I, for one, recognize that scientists are incredibly busy and cannot, and should not, be expected to also shoulder the bulk of the work on outreach, communication and lobbying. But they can absolutely work to change their mode of discourse from one that is didactic and one-way (lecture mode), to one that is two-way and more discursive — actual communication isn’t unidirectional. That’s something that will benefit them in ALL aspects of their professional career.

  5. #5 Coriolis
    April 19, 2010

    Jennifer, the mode of communication depends on how informed both parties are. When I first explain something to my students for the first time, I lecture. When I expect them to start figuring it out, I ask questions and lecture if they cannot answer them. When I talk to other graduate students, or my advisor, on a subject we both know about it’s a discussion (or often, an argument hehe). When I talk to someone about something I am clueless about I get a lecture.

    You can substitute lecture with “explanation” if you prefer, there is no operative difference.

    To have a discussion you need two people at a similar level of knowledge on the subject, that’s all.

  6. #6 James Davis
    April 19, 2010

    Considering how hard it is to get a stable position, good pay, and tenure when you’re doing outreach or teaching, is it any wonder that those of us looking at scientific jobs have absolutely no interest in being “science communicators”?

    As long as research is considered the pinnacle of science, and teaching and outreach are (to use the word I was told once) ‘distractions’, there will be few people willing to do this kind of outreach and teaching work.

    Me? I’d love to concentrate on outreach and teaching, but I also want to actually have a job.

  7. #7 ponderingfool
    April 19, 2010

    But they can absolutely work to change their mode of discourse from one that is didactic and one-way (lecture mode), to one that is two-way and more discursive — actual communication isn’t unidirectional. That’s something that will benefit them in ALL aspects of their professional career.
    ***********************************
    Are scientists really all that different than people in other professions in this regard? Ever been around a group of teachers talking about teaching? Lawyers about the law? Doctors about medicine?

    A nice laid out testimony in front of Congress requires time that many working scientists frankly do not have time for. Lobbyists on the other side have the resources to do that.

    Side note, should we really be surprised by Mooney and Kirshenbaum? To do the kind of analysis Mike suggests would require a greater critique of our current society than either one is comfortable with. Mooney routinely criticizes those leftists and liberals who vote for anyone but Democrats. Kirshenbaum has made repeated calls for non-partisanship/bi-partisanship. At the end of the day, they come across as Clinton/Obama Democrats, i.e. centrists.

  8. #8 Gaythia
    April 19, 2010

    I think that Jennifer Ouellette makes some good points about discursive communication. James Davis’ point about actually wanting to have a job is also well taken. Science journalists also have the job availability issue.

    We need to keep in mind that we really are up against some very wealthy and powerful special interest groups. I don’t think that it is correct to blame the environmental groups either (although they too certainly do have room for improvement). I’m sure they’d love to be quoted in news stories. But they don’t own the media outlets! Neither do we.

    We all need to do what we can. It would help if we would listen to each others advice rather than pointing fingers back and forth.

  9. #9 ebohlman
    April 19, 2010

    his seems to be a general problem for ‘progressive’ groups–which probably indicates something about ‘progressives.’

    Markos Moulitsas sort of emphasized this in one chapter of Crashing the Gate. Too many progressives have a disdain for anything “commercial” which includes, apparently, trying to sell ideas, and paying members of activist groups enough to make a living. As a result, on the first point when we try to persuade people, we act like they’re in school and we’re their teachers: we give them homework assignments. But that only works if the people you’re trying to communicate with are being graded by you, or if they have an intense passionate (“geeky”) special interest in the topic at hand.

    On the second point, activist groups wind up with staff who either 1) Are youthful idealists; that’s not a bad thing, but by the time they really come up to speed to the point that they can be really effective, they’ve also hit an age where a roommates-and-ramen lifestyle ceases to be attractive, so they leave and the organization is deprived of their learning; 2) young to early middle-aged people who rely on trust funds or inherited wealth to support themselves. Again not a problem to have some of them, but they may have a narrow range of perspectives; 3) people who are, shall we say, a little eccentric, often very narrowly focused on very specific issues but with little ability to interact with others.

    Conservatives, on the other hand, seem to think that working in one of their activist groups is something you ought to be able to support a family doing. I’m not saying that people should view activism as a way of making money for its own sake, but at the same time I’m saying it shouldn’t require taking vows of poverty.

  10. #10 bob
    April 20, 2010

    You used the f-word. I’m sure you are now considered part of The Problem by M&K.

  11. #11 ponderingfool
    April 20, 2010

    Markos Moulitsas sort of emphasized this in one chapter of Crashing the Gate. Too many progressives have a disdain for anything “commercial” which includes, apparently, trying to sell ideas, and paying members of activist groups enough to make a living.
    ***************************
    Might be that they adopt such a culture because they have to. They don’t have the same resources that a corporate backed group would have. In such a group you don’t have the resources to hire often nor do you have the resources to pay well. The people you are going to hire will favor those that do it because they are passionate and/or need a job.

  12. #12 a bureacrat
    April 20, 2010

    There is also a structural issue. Congress literally has thousands of independent, nonpartisan social scienctist effectively “on retainer” at the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Government Accountability Office. The degree to which they listen to them is questionable, but they are there and they are regarded as experts.

    What these people do (and I’m one of them) on a regular basis is analyze and distill complicated information so that Member of Congress and their staff can understand it. We aren’t always great at it. Lots of it is boring and dense.

    If a Member of Congress or their staff wants to consult a nonpartisan, nonidealogical expert on VAT taxes, performance budgeting, or how the Postal Service is run, they make a phone call and it will happen.

    When a Member of Congress or their staff uses those same resources to consult on global warming, they aren’t going to get a scientist. They’ll get people who’ve talked to scientists and reviewed all the relevant literature. They may even get someone who has been following the policy debate for 30 years.

    For tech stuff, they used to have the Office of Technology, but that was abolished like a decade and a half ago. I don’t know that there has ever been anything like that for science.

    One reason I think is that you can do research as social scientist at CRS, CBO, or GAO. That’s part of what we do. I don’t think there is a model of being an actual “hands on” research scientist and serving Congress at the same time.

    @ ponderingfool — A nicely laid out Congressional testimony that consists of more than the five minutes they get to speak where the person testifying is well briefed on all the supporting material and ready to answer questions takes a good two weeks to put together.

  13. #13 ponderingfool
    April 21, 2010

    @ ponderingfool — A nicely laid out Congressional testimony that consists of more than the five minutes they get to speak where the person testifying is well briefed on all the supporting material and ready to answer questions takes a good two weeks to put together.
    *************************
    Which is what I thought. That is more time than most scientists at research universities/institutions have to give, especially if those scientists want to have some life outside of work. And lets face it, if your goal is for scientists to be able to communicate to the general public they need to do the latter.