Chris Mooney- a man with his heart in the right place and absolutely no idea what do do after that. Don’t get me wrong, I like the guy. He’s a force for good when dissecting a scientific issue for the public. But Mooney has been trucking out this same “communication” bullshit for a few years now. As usual, nothing much is offered other than “listen to them”. I agree, communication is important, and scientists need to listen as much as talk. Ok….. then what? If, as he says, so many people only consider science as a small part of forming their opinions, what makes him think that they’re even open to changing their minds? By his own logic in the article, antivacc’ers are more interested in the science than the general public, yet impervious to sound interpretations of it. So are anti-evolution folk. So are climate change deniers.
Mooney: Listen the Fuck UP. Just because some segments of the population are interested in cherry-picking data doesn’t mean they have any interest in dialogue, in sharing information, in reformulating their opinions, in understanding the process of science, or in interpreting the data in light of the larger framework that they are willfully misunderstanding. This is true by your own logic.
Secondly- stop making the false dichotomy of scientists vs “the public”. Um, hello, we’re not always this misanthropic insular group that only shuffles between home and the lab by moonlight, shunning all interpersonal interactions. We have families, we take our kids to ballgames, we do our own sports clubs, we volunteer at churches and animal shelters, we go out on the weekends. Some of us engage in public outreach quite regularly, we tell the public about our research in a host of settings from evolution dialogues at colleges and churches to practical public health dissemination at dormitories. We answer questions and discuss the consequences of our research.
In fact, Chris, we are the public. Not every scientist is an expert outside their field. We rely on the news, Scienceblogs, Discoverblogs, SciAm, the NYT, and other popular outlets for our info and interpretations. We don’t always go to the primary literature for the same reasons “the public” doesn’t. When I need to know about global warming, I hit realclimate.org and The Intersection, because these sites distill the science well (btw thank you Chris and Sheril).
Mooney cites a Pew study that says the general public is generally positive on the scientific community, it’s the scientists who are wary of the media. Maybe if those in the media and popular press would stop treating us like a different species, “the people” who we don’t reach would feel less wary about trusting us when the data we generate challenges their preconceptions. Maybe if the media would stop treating everything like a “controversy”, and stop giving free air time for dissemination of misinformation, we wouldn’t have to spend our time debunking crap that was debunked 150 years ago (in the case of evolution) and could focus more on education. Here’s an example; anybody even remotely familiar with the “controversy” surrounding mercury and autism knows who Andrew Wakefield is. He gets mentioned in practically every article and gets the media’s “equal time” treatment, even though the guy is a total slime and we’ve known it for years. How many legitimate medical researchers, on the other hand, get more than a two-sentence quote? How many autism researchers fighting the good fight get profiled to the extent that Wakefield does? If you’re not in the field, can you even name an autism researcher on the other side of the line from Wakefield?
So what can scientists do? Well, we have to pull double-duty debunking misconceptions of the data and of scientists in general. Universities and especially tenure committees need to be more supportive of scientists devoting time to outreach, especially for those conducting the so-called “lightning rod” research. That means more settings where scientists take the practical side of their research and tell the public about it, before it becomes an issue (which admittedly is about the only thing Mooney lays out as a strategy, even though he doesn’t get into the nuts and bolts). Kids need to be made aware of how vaccines benefit them and the population as a whole. The general public needs to understand how evolution impacts their local ecosystems. We need to get out there and engage the public more, as scientists we’ve always fell short here. More scientists need to consider media-based careers, like Phil Plait. More scientists need to speak up in church if they hear bullshit getting peddled. More scientists need to sit on school boards. If you’re a scientist and you’re active in politics, find somebody like-minded in the opposing political party and organize a politics-free teachable moment where both sides of the aisle show up and see each other as human beings with common science-based problems that transcend their petty politics. Find ways to have teach-ins with legislators and staffers at the state and federal levels, if possible.
There, I’ve already done more than Mooney. I’ve made a couple concrete suggestions for how the problem needs to be addressed. Go check out PalMD’s blog post for a good response to Mooney’s article.
Let’s actually do more than just listen.