Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney have a short policy paper in Science that criticizes scientists for how they communicate to the public. Mooney says that “many scientists don’t really know what they’re up against when suddenly thrust into the media spotlight and interactions with politicians” — I agree completely. We are not trained to be glib and glossy, and we simply do not come across as well as we could. We’re also not really that interested, generally speaking, in the kind of presentation that plays well in 3 minutes on a news broadcast. It’s more than a cosmetological failure, though; as Nisbet says, “scientists, without misrepresenting scientific information, must learn to shape or ‘frame’ contentious issues in a way that make them personally relevant to diverse segments of the public, while taking advantage of the media platforms that reach these audiences.” I can go along with that, too.
In the battleground I play in, the evolution/creation wars, I know that the majority of the public are victims. We share common values: they are promoting their particular beliefs not because they are stupid or evil, but because they care about living in a good society, because they want their children to grow up economically successful and personally happy, and they are convinced that evolution threatens their personal bliss. (They’re wrong, of course, because they’ve been lied to, but they don’t know that.) One effective tactic for our side is to hammer on those shared values, and point out that good science is essential for economic competitiveness, for medical progress, and to improve everything from agriculture to reproductive biology. People respond well to appeals to the health and welfare of their grandchildren. It’s fair to suggest that instructing the public in abstractions like genetics and molecular biology as wonderful and interesting for their own sake is going to have limited success, because very few will care, while many more will like to hear about the consequences of research in genetics and molecular biology on their well being.
Where we can, we should do a better job of fitting science into the appropriate context of public concerns, and I agree with Nisbet and Mooney that assistance from those better versed in the politics of communication should be welcomed. I appreciate suggestions for polishing. However, I think Nisbet and Mooney are so focused on how better to fit scientist’s goals to the public’s perceptions that they neglect another important function: sometimes we want to change the public’s ideas. We want to break the frames of the debate and shift whole worldviews, and accommodating ourselves to the status quo won’t do.
We are living in a country that has gone horribly wrong; more than 50% of the public reject basic biology, we see citizens denied civil liberties because of their sexual preference, and we’re mired in an unjust war, to name just a few problems. Nisbet and Mooney acknowledge that we’re seeing a hardening of anti-science attitudes along partisan lines. What they propose, though, is a strategy of taking on the problems indirectly, cozening up to people and winning them over on shared values, but basically avoiding contention on other angles that would cause people to shut down and ignore your message.
I disagree. We are a culture afflicted with bad ideas, and it is irresponsible to ignore them. One of our jobs must be to speak out plainly in opposition to bad ideas; sure, we should inform people that evolutionary biology is essential for basic research in medicine, and we should try to avoid boring them with technical details, but at least some of us have to confront deep-rooted social ills that have long damaged the effectiveness of scientific advancement. Asking that we always bow respectfully towards established societal norms is nothing but a demand for conformity, for the maintenance of the status quo, and sometimes we need change, damnit.
For a representative problem, take religion (you knew I’d be going in that direction, didn’t you?) The authors’ press release also makes an issue of it, though, in a conventional nod to the virtues of piety, which I detest.
The authors point out that when scientists discuss science-related policy questions in technical language, many members of the public tune it out. Moreover, even while continuing to employ traditional modes of communication, scientists themselves have come under increasing attack for being too atheistic, too self-interested and/or too liberal.
OK, let’s ease up on the technical language that loses us our audience needlessly; that’s a fair cop. The rest, though, buys directly into the conservative and religious framing (useful word, that) by citing atheism and liberal values as negatives. Why do that? The problem isn’t that scientists are too atheistic or too liberal. It’s that religious leaders are given unwarranted respect and allowed to lie to the public. That’s something we should try to change, not to which we should try to conform or accommodate.
They do it again in the Science article:
The evolution issue also highlights another
point: Messages must be positive and respect
diversity. As the film Flock of Dodos painfully
demonstrates, many scientists not only fail to
think strategically about how to communicate
on evolution, but belittle and insult others’
Examples of a religious belief are that the Earth is 6000 years old, that T. rex‘s sharp teeth were used to crack open coconuts, and that the Bible is literally accurate in its claim that the patriarchs were giants because we have pygmies and dwarfs today. Why the hell should I treat such nonsense respectfully? Why shouldn’t we point out clearly, loudly, and frequently that these ideas are irrational, contradicted by the evidence, and just plain wrong? Religion is more than a social convention to negotiate, it is the root of the conflict. This demand for respect for religious beliefs, unjustified except by the fact that people get offended when they are refuted, is precisely the problem — there are some ideas that we have to eradicate with sledge and jackhammer, and there just isn’t any delicate dodge we can use to work around them. Yes, it will hurt, and yes, people will whimper and weep and howl in anger, but running away from the risk of offending people cannot be the be-all and end-all of our efforts.
The major failure of Nisbet’s and Mooney’s vision is that they seem unable to consider that scientists are capable of or should even try to work for major changes in our culture; we are always to be the ones who must conform to the majority’s views, no matter how wrong they are, and we have to be the supplicants who are very careful not to offend and who always beg for scraps in the terms they dictate. Their suggestions are all about tactical poses and completely neglect any long-term strategy or consideration of greater goals than getting by for the day.
I can accept some of their suggestions, but not all. Most importantly, I would emphasize that the role of the public intellectual must be to challenge, not to conform. Yet all I see in their proposal is a policy of appeasement, and nowhere is there an understanding or acknowledgment that scientists must also stretch boundaries, or even break them.