The image of scientists


Carl Zimmer reviews A Flock of Dodos, and also brings up that worrisome issue, the image of scientists in this country. Cosmic Variance is talking about image, too. Scientists get called “inarticulate”, “high-handed”, “stiff” and “arrogant”. “Arrogant” is terribly unfair as a criticism—a bit of arrogance is a virtue, and is exactly what you need in someone who is going to stick his neck out…and the creationists from Gish to Behe have possessed a superabundance of arrogance themselves.

As for inarticulate, that’s not quite right either. Listen to a talk by a scientist, and while there are many who are wooden, there are also many who are enthusiastic and passionate and funny. I’ve heard Gould and Crick and JZ Young and Ted Bullock and Dawkins and Mike Land talk, and they were terrific; a good science talk is a good story with it’s own rhythms and rules. The problem is that if you put those same speakers in front of a lay audience, the listeners don’t know the language, and the speaker is deprived of a large chunk of their vocabulary. They can charge ahead and speak over the audience and get accused of arrogance, or try to gear down and struggle to explain basic words and concepts that they usually invoke simply by naming, and then they get accused of being inarticulate. Teaching undergraduates is helpful practice, but the majority of our hot, well-known scientists are famous for their research, and typically have light teaching loads. Those of us who do invest a lot of time in explaining things to freshman don’t often have the research clout to warrant the popular speaking invitations.

I sure don’t know where the answer lies. I do know that being a good communicator to people other than your peers or students has just about zero influence on promotion and tenure for scientists. Zimmer mentions the blank stare he got from scientists when ID was brought up, and there’s a good reason for that: it just isn’t an important focus for most of us.


  1. #1 Greg Peterson
    February 14, 2006

    Part of the solution is someone like Carl Zimmer, and like Chris Mooney. Folks who are well-versed in science and specialized in communications. As one of my editors once told me, when I was having to write on geotechnical fabrics (wha?!), “I’d rather try to teach a good writer the ins and outs of erosion control media than try to teach an erosion engineer how to write.” Uh. You get the point. There are talented communicators who can help fill in the gap. Science does have its superb communicators–certainly Dawkins and Brian Greene and Carl Sagan and Gould and, yes, Myers, among them. But some of the best service done to science literacy has come and will come from the person who is a communicator first, and has learned how to report on science issues in a way that appeals to laypersons. Scientists don’t have to be in it alone.

  2. #2 Eric Wallace
    February 14, 2006

    The communication gap is hardly unique to scientists. Ask your average economist, or engineer, to communicate a complex idea to a lay audience and you’ll see all the same problems. People are just bad at it. Or, to put it positively, it’s a real skill to be able to communicate well.

    I’m not sure what the answer is, but one problem I’ve noticed is that there seems to be some friction between “workaday” scientists and the few that actually are good at communicating with the public. Carl Sagan took a lot of flak from scientists for trying to talk about science with a lay audience. I saw not long ago, on this very blog, some quote from some scientist dismissing Dawkins as not an “important scientist”.

    So, maybe one thing some scientists can do is cultivate a better attitude toward those scientists and science journalists who are already doing this job.

  3. #3 Greg Peterson
    February 14, 2006

    I think some scientists are (understandably) afraid of analogies, which are always going to be imperfect, but they sure help me understand things better. The pseudoscientist ID clan gets this, with their Mount Rushmore and mousetrap. Just because it’s possible–even easy–to lie with analogies doesn’t mean that they should not be judiciously employed.

    Zimmer does something else skillfully: Puts on a freak show. Everyone loves a freak show. Pull’em in with zombie cockroaches, and you can tell a thrilling evolutionary story.

    Myers uses sharp rhetoric. EXPLOSIVE rhetoric. Backed up by difficult-to-dispute facts. This can be effective, too. Sometimes I listen to far-right talk radio, just to feel the outrage, and damned if sometimes I don’t have to admit they have a point about something or another. Pissing people off can sometimes have a salutary educational benefit.

    And people like Dawkins and Gould are just wonderful writers. People who might not care too much for science as science might be very willing to read something just for its entertaining, clear prose. They also bring that “Crocodile Hunter” gee-whiz, isn’t-she-a-beaut sense of wonder to their subject matter, which can be highly infectious.

    And finally, some people, like Chris Mooney, help to show that these are not purely academic matters–that the real-world consequences of getting the information right can hit our pocketbooks, impact our children’s health, or influence whether we have a fulfilled life.

    Things are far from hopeless. Between the matter and the art, there are multiple opportunities to engage and enlighten even the hardheaded. Different bait might attract different fish, but there’s some way to get everyone on board. I think we just have to recognize how critical it is to do so.

  4. #4 Janne
    February 14, 2006

    One basic problem is that as scientists, we are interested in science (wait – go with me here). What I mean is, the people that become scientists do so because they are both intensely fascinated by some aspect of the natural world, and have the talents to be able to study it in depth. Sure, you need a lot of skills as well, but you’ll have a hard time learning those skills without any talent, and you won’t have the patience and drive to slog through the training without a deep interest.

    The same goes for other fields, of course; a successful artist is an artist because they find their art compelling to do, and they’re successful because they’re good at it. Likewise economy, surgery, fine carpentry – and communication. To be a good communicator too, you need to have an interest in it, and have a talent for it.

    Having both a keen interest in and a good talent for something is not all that common, however. And having it in two rather separate areas with little overlap is rarer still. On one hand you have people happily spending months deep in the Amazon hunting leeches by sticking their own unprotected limbs in the water; or spends weeks engrossed in sorting fossilised bone fragments; or sits nights and weekends working on a computer simulation of neuronal pathways. On the other, you have people intensely interested in _people_, that want to talk with them, interact with them, reach across to them. These are not naturally overlapping skillsets.

    I think many people have met, or know about, scientists that are perfectly competent, even great, in their field, but that are an absolute disaster to let in front of any kind of hapless audience. You sit and watch the lecture unfold like a slow-motion car wreck, not knowing whether the defenseless undergraduates or panic-stricken lecturer is suffering the most. This is not strange, or weird; it is only natural that only a few people in a given field are really good communicators; most will be indifferent to bad, and an unlucky few will be a disaster looking for a place to happen.

    It is not realistic to expect scientists in general to be good at – or interested in – communicating. We do not require it of most other professions, and we should not do so here either. Every inept, bumbling performance by a good scientist that is a lousy communicator cancels the good work the likes of Zimmer and Dawkins do so well. Instead we should do what other fields do: leave it to those in the field who do have an interest and ability; and delegate it to professional communicators (journalists, writers) by making sure they do understand the issues and can make a good case.

  5. #5 Inoculated Mind
    February 15, 2006

    We need several things. There is a diverse array of people out there. There’s no decision to be made between a Dawkins and a Miller, nor should we decide between a journalist dabbling in science and a scientist dabbling in journalism. Granted, your typical scientist may not be able to communicate to the general public very well, nor could the typical journalist tackle scientific issues very well.
    I’ll wager that there are just as many scientists who can communicate well as there are good communicators by trade who can write about science. We need Zimmers to paint graceful pictures with his typing fingers, but he’s only relating the discoveries of others. We also need scientists who can express their passion for science. I dunno, it seems to me that when you’ve got some old scientist raving about the life of Darwin and his perspective on evolution from his research, you know his mind has been there and you want to come along, too.
    People respond to different approaches. Some people need to make light of discoveries and joke about them to get interested, and some people may also crave the details of discoveries, and we need that too.

  6. #6 Sastra
    February 15, 2006

    I suspect a good part of the problem is that science, unlike pseudoscience, fails to reinforce the view that “everything happens for a reason” — you. Astronomy vs. Astrology. Physics vs. chi energy. Evolution vs. Special Creation in the Image of God.

    As far as I can tell virtually every pseudoscience eventually reduces to some sort of evidence that we are special. They’re forms of flattery. Nature cares, and physical laws bend under those higher cosmic laws which reflect and satisfy our endless need for comfort.

    In a self-absorbed culture, it’s hard to get people to care about facts which don’t directly relate to people’s lives. If these facts counteract beliefs which reassure, it’s bound to be tougher.

  7. #7 Steve LaBonne
    February 15, 2006

    Sastra nailed it. Most people simply won’t hear communication of even the highest quality if it doesn’t flatter them or promise to help them live longer, because with regard to anything else they have stuck their fingers in their ears and are humming as loudly as they can. Is that a counsel of despair? Yes, because I have not the foggiest idea what can be done about it.

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