Pharyngula

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Abbie makes an excellent point on it the ongoing discussion of the Nisbet/Mooney paper: just how often do scientists get an opportunity to discuss their work to the public, anyway?

I have a few simple points to make.

1. Why are scientists being told so often that they’re bad at communicating? Because, like, we aren’t. Most scientists are awesome at communicating, just not on the terms dictated by Fox News.

Try grabbing some random person and telling them that they are expected to do a one hour presentation to an auditorium of 90 people on some specific, complex subject…tomorrow. Most will freak out — it’s the #1 example of social anxiety. That, however, is routine for your average college professor. Not only do we do it all the time, we enjoy it, especially if the subject is something we think is important. We also won’t waste the listener’s time with platitudes and filler—we’ll sit down and dig up real information on whatever we’re discussing.

I’m in a profession where I’m expected to get up in front of a large audience and talk formally and at length on complex subjects several times a week. I do not have a speechwriter; I have to generate my own analyses and explanations, and it’s not as if I give the same speech time after time. I teach 18 year olds. Now I know different professors have different styles and levels of effectiveness, and my own lectures vary in quality … but really, how many professions out there demand that kind of frequent exercise of rhetoric and public speaking? Why are we being singled out as a target for accusations of incompetence at communication? Why am I going along with it? I’m beginning to feel that we are currently the target of some malicious framing.

The problem isn’t that we’re bad at communicating. It’s that we’ve got people telling us to take our complex subject and squeeze it into a 15-second soundbite. While they’re at it, maybe they should also tell us to do it while standing on our head and juggling monkeys, so they could tell us we suck at that, too. Of course we aren’t going to look good when you try to shoehorn our expertise into a medium inappropriately. I bet da Vinci was a crappy tap-dancer, too.

2. Blame the media. Slamming the scientists is the wrong thing to do when the flaws are obvious and elsewhere.

Now we may suck at giving the attention-grabbing 15-second sound bite, but that’s not what we do. We are experts at explaining complex subjects which do not fit into the format expected of television news, but hasn’t everyone noticed that television news is utterly useless at transmitting substantive information? Instead of complaining that our culture’s class of experts at technical subjects aren’t sufficiently pithy for a dumbed-down, low-bandwidth, superficial medium, why aren’t we fastening the blame on the media for inappropriately using our experts’ talents?

Look at your television. Check out Fox, MSNBC, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS. How many scientists do you see? And don’t tell me it’s because we demand more than a few seconds for a soundbite; those stations will give plenty of indulgence to a Deepak Chopra on medicine or a Glenn Beck on global warming. How much time does Rush Limbaugh get on radio to just talk and talk and talk? My cable provider has dedicated several channels to non-step vacuous garbage: try watching a few minutes of the Trinity Broadcasting Network sometime. Am I supposed to believe that Paul Crouch and Benny Hinn are instinctive masters of ‘framing’?

A perfect example: the recent Anderson Cooper show that purported to be discussing the role of religion and science. What did we get? Ten minutes of animatronic dinosaurs, Ken Ham babbling, home schooling moms explaining that evolution is bunk, and the one token scientist gets two sentences. What if instead, he’d been given 5 minutes and the opportunity to explain why his favorite mammal fossil was important, and how it supported evolution? I guarantee you that it would be informative, interesting television in which the audience might have learned something that would make them think. But no…cue the Fred and Wilma Flintstone Memorial Museum and the lying con man who will promise you eternal life, if only you really believe Jesus created the earth in 4004 BC.

I’m wondering why I’m told to hone my media skills when the media would rather show a prancing, lying con man than a scientist, and when those brilliant media mavens are going to pare me down to a talking head saying two sentences?

3. I blame YOU. Yeah, YOU. Why aren’t you, the consumer of media, demanding better fare?

There is another part of the problem, the one that Abbie brought up: we rarely get to use those skills in public. Why not? When people call me and ask me to talk, I first check my calendar, and if the date is free, the second thing I do is say yes. We academics are easy. I’ve run the Café Scientifique in my town for the last couple of years, and every year in late summer when I ask, “Who would like to talk about their work in a public lecture here in town?”, I get more volunteers than I have time slots. And without exception, every talk has been excellent — tell scientists to talk about their enthusiasms in informal terms to an audience, and you get a good show.

I’m always told by those pious left-wing moderate Christians that they really, truly care, and that we shouldn’t judge them by the religious loons. Right. The churches in my town invite creationists to come speak at public meetings, and there are apparently some church representatives that skulk around campus and show students Kent Hovind videos. Does your church invite scientists to speak about the issues your congregation cares about? Do you tell your pastor that if he’s going to preach against evolution, abortion, and climate change, that maybe it would be informative to invite someone informed to come talk about real biology, reproductive biology, or the environment? It doesn’t happen in my community. It didn’t happen in the Philadelphia suburb where I used to live. The church circuit is a profitable network of lying incompetents who wander about making stuff up. Why not change that?

Have you told your local radio and television stations that they ought to try to tap into local scientific talent and get some short features on real science? Academics don’t mind at all; we’ll cooperate and help out. Just don’t ask us to do all of a huge subject like evolution in a couple of snazzy sentences — ask us to explain some cool subset of a bigger issue in at least a little length, and we’ll pass along interesting information.

There are a lot of dysfunctional issues in the transmission of science to popular culture and vice versa. Somehow, though, when it’s time to apportion the blame, everyone turns to the scientists, the ones with little clout, but the actual expertise and the willingness to contribute to solving the problems, and the real source of the problem, media and a culture with a negligible attention span, gets a pass.

I think the greater problem is not some failure of the scientists to accommodate themselves to the demands of an increasingly dumbed-down culture, but the inability of everyone to make a deeper commitment to understanding. I don’t believe that the path to that understanding should involve scientists surrendering their principles to pursue those of a PR flack.

Comments

  1. #1 Caledonian
    April 7, 2007

    The consumers of media DO speak their mind and demand that they be offered what they want.

    It’s why there’s so much garbage.

  2. #2 aweb
    April 7, 2007

    Clap Clap clap.

    Well said. What scientists are really being criticised for here is that they don’t attract large followings with simple platitudes. That should not ever be something to feel bad about.

    As for blaming the public..well…I can’t speak for everyone, but I get most of my information from internet sources these days. Here you’ve written 1300 words, which takes a few minutes to read, and isn’t really putting forward any complex ideas. But to read it aloud, it takes maybe 10 minutes. In a news format, it would be an entire half hour prgram, once the requisite pictures and images are put in. TV is only good when it makes full use of video to convey information, which is almost impossible wih most science (scientist standing in lab, working with testube doesn’t really tell you anything…)

  3. #3 raindogzilla
    April 7, 2007

    “I think the greater problem is not some failure of the scientists to accommodate themselves to the demands of an increasingly dumbed-down culture, but the inability of everyone to make a deeper commitment to understanding.”

    That’s the nail on the head, right there. However, seeing as those with that inability are comfortable with forming their opinions part and parcel from pulpits and talking heads- if they form opinions at all, doesn’t it make sense strategically that we need to become those talking heads and to assume those pulpits?

    Destroy the system from within and whatnot.

  4. #4 Caledonian
    April 7, 2007

    Here’s a thought: instead of demanding that the intelligent, educated segment of the population change in order to accomodate the least intelligent, uneducated segment, why don’t we expect the common people to reach out to the elites?

  5. #5 Christian Burnham
    April 7, 2007

    What a great post!

    The only cable news presenter I find tolerable is Keith Olbermann. Even he devotes less than half his program to actual news- the rest is showbizz gossip and he almost always has a feature on American Idol.

    Even the first 20 minutes of Olbermann, which contains actual news, is almost entirely devoted to horse-race political coverage. Almost no coverage of world news, and certainly no coverage of science.

    ———————————————————
    And I agree- it’s pretty easy to find world-class scientists to give up their own time and energy to give brilliant talks to the public. The public also seems interested in hearing those talks (the ones I’ve attended). Why is it so hard to connect A to B?

  6. #6 ERV
    April 7, 2007

    The church circuit is a profitable network of lying incompetents who wander about making stuff up.

    *snort* The worst church I approached paid a Creationist several thousand dollars to put on a weekends worth of seminars. Three thousand bucks in three days. Not even a name brand Creationist.

    I attended some of the sessions, and visited the church several times after that hoping to set up a time to do an afternoon/evening session for church goers to ask me questions about evolution. For free. After leading me on for a few weeks, they finally stopped returning my calls.

    *shrug*

  7. #7 TAW
    April 7, 2007

    Great post!

    I totally agree it’s not all scientists’ fault, it’s mostly the media/general public’s fault. However, I really don’t see this changing. People are lazy, and unless someone figures out a way to stop people from being lazy, this will only get worse.

    Fairly or unfairly (totally unfairly), it will be up to scientists to learn to communicate science better. That’s just how it is. I think ultimately, scientists will HAVE to basically turn into propagandists. Figure out how to get people to WANT to learn more (by being brief, oversimplifying, using a lot of fancy graphics, etc), and THEN go into the details. Otherwise scientists will become rarer and rarer, and because stupid people (creationists and such) ARE all about being brief, oversimplifying things, and fancy graphics (and no substance), people like that will just increase.

    There’s just no other way around it. When given a choice between visually appealing but completely substance-less shows and seemingly boring, longwinded shows, people choose the short one even if that means giving up real substance.

  8. #8 PZ Myers
    April 7, 2007

    I know. The only invitation I’ve received from a church to come talk to them about evolution was the Unitarians. I’m not worried about the UUs. If everyone on the planet but me was a UU, I’d regularly cuss ‘em out for that goofy belief, but I wouldn’t be concerned that they were going to create a hell on Earth.

    And you know, the churches don’t need to invite me to explain science to them — there are lots of friendlier, less ungodly biologists around who’d be happy to have a conversation with them.

  9. #9 PZ Myers
    April 7, 2007

    No, you missed my point. Scientists already communicate well. It’s just in a different style than the format preferred by mass media today.

    And I don’t think we should be propagandists. That would compromise our message.

    Here’s a suggestion: let’s have those appeasin’ Chamberlainin’ softies and progressive Christians be the propagandists. As I said above, the Christian left is always making excuses and telling us how supportive they want to be, so here’s the perfect job for them. They can start criticizing the fundie right instead of the atheists, they can play up science for us, they can draw the pentagram on the altar and summon the occasional fierce godless scientist to communicate with the congregation, and the can clean up the virgin’s blood and resanctify everything after we’ve been dismissed.

  10. #10 kellgo
    April 7, 2007

    Oh My, you seem to think having a useful opinion about a complex subject requires time and study. Who elected you the No Fun Sheriff?

  11. #11 TAW
    April 7, 2007

    Oh don’t get me wrong I completely agree that scientists communicate perfectly well in their own environment, I’m just saying that if scientists want to get the message out in today’s world, a world which in all likelyhood won’t get any better (in that respect), they will have to do so in the terms of the general public.

    I think you CAN be brief, oversimplify a bit, and use fancy graphics to get the message across without compromising your message. You just have to make it clear that you’re doing so.

    I frankly am not sure if I would want to major in biology if I got a long, technically correct speech every time I wanted to figure something out. That’s how education works- you first oversimplify, and you gradually get more specific and correct.

    And yes, that’s a good suggestion :P however, they’re not scientists. I’m SURE that if progressive Christians started trying to play up science and stuff, you would be complaining about how they only focus on the charismatic animals and whatnot. … I’m sure because you’ve done it before :)

  12. #12 BlueIndependent
    April 7, 2007

    PZ,

    I definitely see where you’re coming from. I think your expression in this post is similar in spirit to a question I’ve been asking lately, that being the one where the media (and thus the public as sheep) parrot the line about scientists occupying the so-called ivory tower.

    This charge usually comes in close proximity to what you are talking about, i.e. the lack of media-savvy speaking expertise on the part of scientific visonaries and leaders. My question in response to this charge is, what ivory tower? Did anyone honestly ask for the scientists’ input, of make a charge in their absence because they did not appear like a genie from a bottle to answer a sincere question on the spot?

    What about pastors and their ivory pulpits? Nobody is allowed to question them (lest it be with regard to molested children) on anything. Perhaps it is the demeanor and deference pastors are entitled to use (and that some actually have and practice) as shepards of their flock. After all, who would want to trouble a simple man in a robe that does the Lord’s work every day, regardless of what he preaches?

    Nevertheless I think the lesson the media is conveying – but is not appropriately wording at all – is that scientists need to figure out a way to get this partiicular job done. As has been made quite obvious to me in the cowing of the once almost unassailable Democratic Party, if you do not speak at all, someone else will speak for you.

    Thus, I totally see your point PZ, and agree that it’s a stupid situation that many ignorant people promulgate with abandon. But the ugly reality that must underpin the response is, if a plan to get the truth out isn’t devised, the truth will in fact die. Fifty percent of the work resides with the scientific community, and the other fifty with the consuming public.

  13. #13 Dennis
    April 7, 2007

    Sorry to say it but scientists are lousy communicators. They are trained to communicate very technical information to fellow experts who use the same very specialized terminology, and peculiar stylized writing developed for scientific journals. It is part of the “in-the-club” kind of writing. For many years I have worked in technical writing (before I went to UH and got a degree in Geophysics) trying to make the kind of goblety Gook engineers write understandable. They also suffer from “in-the-club-itis”. All engineers think they write well, and maybe so to each other. But not to managers, administrators, or even technicians; people who make acquisition decisions, funding decisions, or even repair a system. They need a translator badly. The difference here is even more stark. At least the people the engineers are trying to reach have some technical background. Scientists need badly to reach people who have no basis from which to understand them. No math, chemistry, biology, physics, or science.

    The worst excuse I hear is the “I gotta dumb-down” argument. These people aren’t stupid, just not trained. I wouldn’t hire a carpenter to do your job anymore than I would hire you to do his. Does the fact that you can’t cut a sraight line on a 2X4 make you stupid? No! But neither does his inability to genotype fruit flies (yes I read your blog). But that is not the issue, the issue is to get the carpenter to follow your thoughts and convince him you are right, even though he has no background from which to judge the information. It takes a great deal of skill and technical understanding to write complex ideas so that a non-expert can get the overall concept. Forget trying to make him understand the science behind it, it’s beyond his grasp, and his interest. Thats for grad students and highly motivated undergrads.

    The secret is to state interesting conclusions, unfortunately without all the painfull backup data, something you are trained not to do, and what you enjoy most. You can refer them to more detailed discussions like “see my picture of Hagfish eggs” etc.. The idea is to hook them and get them to look for more information about the interesting conclusion.

    What is being called framing is what I call targeting the audience. The IDots are doing that. They know their audience is not scientifically savy. Wells can write very general statements, some very misleading or wrong. He knows the audience is not going to research him, or understand the reference material even if he supplies it. To his benefit you or someone else will write a very well researched rebuttal, with citations and all the scientific jargon that his audience can’t understand. He just passes it off to a dissagreement between him and another highly respected scientist in his field (feeling the pain yet?), which his audience buys. Even better, you do it on your blog, which provides him with publicity in an audience (yours) that he couldn’t otherwise reach. Bad publicity is better than none, and his audience doesn’t read you anyway (feeling more pain?).

    You get why it’s important to be able to target his audience. It’s to break the dynamic he has set up. You have to be able to rebut him on his terms, in his audience, in a language they can understand. I know this is like teaching a pig to talk – just fustrates you and pisses-off the pig. And, nobody listens to a pig anyway… except maybe other pigs. It’s vitally important!

  14. #14 complex_field
    April 7, 2007

    A problem, but not the only one, seems to be the popular stereotype of the “scientist”: nearsighted, hunched over, socially maladroit, speaking incomprensible arcana in an exaggerated Austrian/Freudian accent.

    A great part of the solution could be social networking (in the real world, not that MySpace junk). After all, we are supposedly separated from any given individual by something like five other people.

    One could start with a local coffee shop and invite the public to come see a scientist talk about…something. Print and distribute flyers with an appropriate teaser line.

    Then work at spreading the news. Get other scientists to talk about their areas.

    The problem with getting people to let a scientist speak at an essentially unfriendly venue is the fact that the venue is, well, unfriendly. Use a neutral venue.

    Getting people to show up is not rocket science…just social science ;)

  15. #15 Richard Simons
    April 7, 2007

    I think the situation must be better here in Canada. This past week the CBC had four 20-minute segments on the effects of global warming on its national evening television news – and essentially no questioning that it is indeed happening. There are several other programs that treat serious issues responsibly, both on television and radio. Every Saturday morning there is a 50-minute science program (Quirks and Quarks) directed at intelligent lay-people.

    I had never thought about it before but you are right to say that many scientists consider an hour-long presentation to be routine. What I enjoy about scientists (and other experts) talking about their work is their obvious and infectious enthusiasm.

    For me, nothing has been as traumatic as the first course I delivered. I was basically tricked into giving a course (animal eco-physiology – I was told they wanted basic ecology) that was well out of my area of expertise (agricultural botany/statistics) with no realistic option of backing out as the students had to have the course and the few other available people were even less capable of giving it.

  16. #16 Opisthokont
    April 7, 2007

    Part of the problem, I think, is that when a scientist talks, s/he expects hir audience to listen. Scientific communication is all about being concise and direct (which is part of why scientific literature is so difficult for the layperson to understand: there is a lot compressed into a very small space). Laypeople expect things to be fed to them slowly.

    I come to this conclusion after trying to watch televangelists (you know, the whole “know your enemy” thing). It was excruciating. They took ages to say anything! And then they repeated it. And again. I know that the old preacher’s adage (“Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Then tell it to them. Then tell them what you told them.”) has some merit (I have heard it advised for giving scientific talks, even), but this was just outrageously slow. They draw things out. They talk slowly, and they pause more than Captain Kirk, and then they talk slowly again.

    I would have regarded this as peculiar to the televangelists, but right-wing talk radio hosts (more of the “know thy enemy” thing) do the same thing. They do it without the amusing speech impediments, but they still do it. The real clincher came from my mother, who was surprised that watching something intense and thought-provoking meant that she had to pay attention; she could not just lapse in and out like she could with her soap operas.

    In other words, people expect to learn by osmosis. By this I mean not the sort of osmotic learning that comes from shadowing an expert and picking up their habits, but by having some noise on in the background that feeds them their information subconsciously. Scientists, I suspect, have little patience for that sort of information dissemination. (I know that I certainly have none!) If nothing else, it is impractical; one cannot describe a long logical argument if the audience is not following along.

    In other words, science is about complex things, and that requires attention. I suspect that what turns people off from scientific discourse is not so much the length of time that scientists ask of their audience as the amount of concentration. Scientists probably can put something useful into a thirty-second blip, but if it is to have any substance at all, it will be an impressively concentrated blip, well beyond the expectations of easy background absorption of the average American.

  17. #17 PZ Myers
    April 7, 2007

    Sorry to say it but scientists are lousy communicators.

    No. Some are, but you are generalizing too much — that’s my complaint with this recent line of criticism.

    Really — ask us to put together a presentation for 12 year olds, or for seniors at the retirement center, or the Rotarians, or a science conference, and we can do it. We’re not idiots. We do try to tailor our talks to our audience, giving appropriate levels of background and avoiding the usual jargon. We do it all the time. But we’re rarely asked.

    This whole framing business seems to be about what scientists should do when some Fox News guy sticks a microphone in our face and tells us to explain evolution in 10 seconds. We should refuse. We should say, “Come to my talk at the town library tonight, I’ll explain a basic overview in under an hour and let you ask less stupid questions than that. And if you’re really serious about learning more, here, read this book or take my course at the U or watch this nice documentary on PBS.”

    This soundbite mentality is a mind-killer. Let’s stop it.

  18. #18 thwaite
    April 7, 2007

    Sayeth PZ sagely: Most scientists are *awesome* at communicating, I agree but must add: communicating information. But communication between people, as between other animals, can also be about (and almost always retains some subtext conveying): affiliation; dominance; dependance …
    I mean, this blog has some information content (invaluable in some cases) but mostly it’s about affiliation. What I’m still confused about in general is, what determines who wants to affiliate with whom… this can lead, unhappily, to Cal’s perspective.

  19. #19 llewelly
    April 7, 2007

    Scientists are the ‘targets’ because Mooney and Nisbet know scientists will listen, and try to improve. That cannot be said of most media, or most consumers.

  20. #20 Ed Darrell
    April 7, 2007

    Damn straight. P.Z., this one’s a home run.

    Let me know anytime you’ve got a couple of hours in Dallas, I’ll find an audience for you.

    In the meantime, you’ve laid out a clear plan of action for the rest of us. Not an easy one, but a clear one.

    Off to work on it.

  21. #21 JamesR
    April 7, 2007

    I fully agree. To discuss science effectively a person must know the specific discipline and be engaged in it in a dynamic way. The news never will convey science the way this blog can and does. The trap is that some will try and in turn fail at bringing some of the good that science does into the living rooms of the very people who need it most. My opoinion is that school is the place to start and we must do what the xians have done and take over the school boards and fill the schools with real science first.

    I get most of my news online and very little on broadcast TV. I am also exposed to more news this way and can be informed in less time. we must be sure that the internet is kept free to use and that we have access rights without giving in to censorship.

  22. #22 Stuart Coleman
    April 7, 2007

    I think the ones to blame are the people who willingly remain ignorant. They don’t care to learn, which is why everyone caters to the lowest common denominator.

  23. #23 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 7, 2007

    And I don’t think we should be propagandists.

    I agree with this part. However, some of the post seems to be beside the point of the ‘framers’, that when scientists do communicate on social issues the would be competitive by using frames.

    I think the post is great otherwise. As someone noted, scientists are experts in quite a few fields, communicating in seminars being one of them. Asking for more will detract from the other stuff.

    But I do think scientists should participate to some extent in social issues debates, and especially suggest good frames. Perhaps it could help assuage a common complaint, that the media frames the science badly.

    So yes, we can blame the media. If they think scientists have boring messages that can’t compete with others, the main problem is probably with media incompetence.

    One can also note that when media presents science (or technology) that seems interesting to the public, they have often overstated the case. (Which often translates to having picked the wrong frame.)

    Why aren’t you, the consumer of media, demanding better fare?

    Um, Joe Public here – I can only vote with my feet. Why do you think we read your blog nowadays?

  24. #24 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 7, 2007

    And I don’t think we should be propagandists.

    I agree with this part. However, some of the post seems to be beside the point of the ‘framers’, that when scientists do communicate on social issues the would be competitive by using frames.

    I think the post is great otherwise. As someone noted, scientists are experts in quite a few fields, communicating in seminars being one of them. Asking for more will detract from the other stuff.

    But I do think scientists should participate to some extent in social issues debates, and especially suggest good frames. Perhaps it could help assuage a common complaint, that the media frames the science badly.

    So yes, we can blame the media. If they think scientists have boring messages that can’t compete with others, the main problem is probably with media incompetence.

    One can also note that when media presents science (or technology) that seems interesting to the public, they have often overstated the case. (Which often translates to having picked the wrong frame.)

    Why aren’t you, the consumer of media, demanding better fare?

    Um, Joe Public here – I can only vote with my feet. Why do you think we read your blog nowadays?

  25. #25 Carlie
    April 7, 2007

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Not only do most scientists communicate well, they can do it in a variety of ways at multiple levels. Most of us are not like the “I’m not a scientist but I play one on TV” characters, parading around in either a white lab coat or tweed jacket (for the physicists and mathematicians) spouting gobbledygook. Instead, we’re pinging around between teaching general education classes to students who barely know what science is, training grad students, and communicating with colleagues, often all in the same day. We slingshot between explaining the same concept using terms as different as “evapotranspiration” and “sucking like through a straw”. Any half-decent scientist can give you a two-minute summary of his or her work in understandable terms, (often with references to common household objects), it’s just that people tend not to ask or listen.

  26. #26 Saint Gasoline
    April 7, 2007

    We are demanding better fare. This is why we’re flocking to the internet, where we can have access to real scientists and real information. (Although the fifteen second sound byte is common online, too, to be honest.)

    Sometimes they do have in-depth discussions on these topics, but they are usually on channels that no one watches, like the book channel or something.

    The solution is for more scientists to have big breasts and celebrity flings. Just think, PZ…if you made it with Paris Hilton just once, 98% of the world would instantaneously know who you are and pay attention to you.

  27. #27 Ted
    April 7, 2007

    PZ, even if scientists shouldn’t have to serve double duty as propagandists, i find organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists do a remarkably ineffective job of representing science and scientists. Obviously i say that having only been introduced to them via the filters that the media use, but still, i can name you a half a dozen organizations who are anti-science and what their major beef is (illegitimate as it may be), and i can’t think of corresponding pro-science organizations. Now mind you, that’s due in part to the fact that pro-science organizations tend to defend all of science, and as such tend to put out fairly tepid defenses on any particular issue.

    Science does run the risk of propagandizing, but, frankly, that’s the level of ‘debate’ that’s taking place. You’re not going to be able to raise or change the level of discourse, because doing so would require the willing participation of both parties. The best thing i can figure to do, is make the other party look absolutely ridiculous. This is the strategy that the Daily Show has been successful with (hell they even did a series of ID shows that i bet most of PZ’s readers have seen).

    And doing this isn’t that hard. The example from my personal experience on the college campus i graduated from is the following:

    There is a group (which i’m sure is still out there visiting universities) of anti-abortion protesters who showed up at the Ohio State University every two years. Their modus operandi is to claim that abortion is a form of genocide. As such, they set up a 3 ringed set of steel fencing, which housed a series of posters which showed aborted fetuses, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, an actual picture of a black man strung up to a tree in the Jim Crow South, the Twin Towers burning, pictures of Emperor Akihiro and many more i haven’t bothered remembering. They spend a week set up on campus yelling at students as they pass by.

    The first time i saw them on campus, i watched as the Planned Parenthood club on campus gathered together a bunch of girls to counter-protest, which resulted in the passer-bys and bistanders not just avoiding the abortion protesters, but also avoiding the planned parenthood girls as well. They had turned off their brains, and were doing their best to run the gauntlet to get to class. Seems a shame, and pretty ineffectual.

    Two years later, i, being better prepared, rhetorically speaking (hooray education), pulled out a piece of poster board, and wrote on it in big block letters the following: “Americans Against the Improper Use of Analogy” and wandered around the perimeter of the anti-abortion loonies. The thing that was so remarkable to me, was that people really did react differently to me than they did to either the Planned Parenthood posters or the genocide posters. You could actively see people avoiding making eye contact with either group. I’d at least get a smirk out of people who passed by. And just with a smirk you can tell that you’re reaching people.

    Most people aren’t frankly interested in the debate (whatever the subject is). They’re especially not interested in having either side force them to learn about it or change their mind when they’re focused on something else. Presenting a thoughtful reasoned counter point to claims that are ultimately baseless has it’s time and place (and should always be easily accessible), but also is horribly ineffective if your audience is not interested in hearing it at that particular moment (again, i’m sure this is something PZ, a college professor, is aware of).

    On top of that fact, the thing that’s most important, was that i wasn’t making any statement about where i stood on the substance of the debate. There are legitimate discussions that should be had about abortion. But the fact that such a discussion would never take place there is the major issue that should be laid bare. Again this is also the way the Daily Show functions. It’s a bunch of people who admit that they don’t know better than the experts. But they also make it really clear that a lot of pundits don’t know any better either. It’s not a debate on the merit of the facts (since that’s not what the anti-science crowd is interested in, and ultimately they can’t stand up on those particular points anyway).

    This is a propagandist’s fight, and it should be fought by propagandists. The question then is why aren’t there more effective science propagandists? And think it’s absolutely the case that scientists should not be expected to fill that function. I’d rather have scientists spend their time and resources doing more research (and i’m sure most of them would prefer that too).

  28. #28 kellgo
    April 7, 2007

    Sound bites are mind killers. They are mistaken for heuristics. I believe many scientists a great communicators. There are also a lot that can’t talk to anyone except fellow experts. I’m a retired mainframe software guy. The software field has many folks that can explain what’s going on to non-software folks and many that can only talk to themselves(and I think they even confuse themselves). I was usually regarded as one of the guys that could talk to the non-software folk, but not always. The folks I had trouble explaining things to split out several ways. 1) Folk with hare brained ideas. Not a lot of them but the most annoying. They really, really want the pretty moon. Not all that many but the most annoying. 2) People who don’t understand their problem. Asking good questions exposes their level of preparation, very threatening. They can be handled carefully as long as they’re not in a hurry. If they’re in a hurry they devolve into category 1. Most the troublesome folk don’t want to think about they’re problem at all. They want whatever it is they’re doing to work better, cheaper by sprinkling on some silicon fairy dust. I should have submitted a PO for fairy dust some time or another.
    The unifying piece seems to be a lack of respect for expertise. Expertise takes time and study. While I went to college and had a career in software my brother when into construction and had a career moving dirt with large yellow machines. It’s amazing how similar the argument we’ve had with folk that assume whatever we’re doing is simple.
    My rambling point the penalty for expertise is other folks will assume you’re being obtuse when you wish they’d do some homework.

  29. #29 Olive
    April 7, 2007

    I think there’s should be a holiday where everyone walks around wearing a sign that says something like:

    “Hi! I am A BIOLOGY PHD.
    Ask me about EVOLUTION.”

    Everyone could participate.

    “Hi! I am A FIVE-YEAR-OLD.
    Ask me about DINOSAURS.”

    “Hi! I am A CHEF.
    Ask me about NON-STICK PANS.”

    “Hi! I am CARTOONIST.
    Ask me about INTELLIGENT DESIGN.”

    And everyone would have to have conversations with anyone who asked them about their topic. I think it would be good for community, too. The nation could spend the day in coffee shops and bars.

  30. #30 Scott Hatfield
    April 7, 2007

    PZ: “Most scientists are awesome at communicating, just not on the terms dictated by Fox News.”

    That’s like saying “I’m a skilled musician, but I can’t show those skills on a four-minute pop song.” It’s true that the format of Fox News, and the LCD the media tends to serve, does not show the real strength of scientists as far as their communication skills go, any more than clapping on ‘Hey Jude’ shows the classical musician’s skill. So what? Real skill in either scenario depends not on what we might prefer the format to be, but on whether we are able to tailor those skills toward a desired end, independent of the format.

    PZ: “Why are we being singled out as a target for accusations of incompetence at communication? Why am I going along with it? I’m beginning to feel that we are currently the target of some malicious framing.”

    Incompetent is probably the wrong word: the words that come to my mind are unpolished, reluctance, intimidated.

    Unpolished: I talk for a living, and it’s probably the best of my skill sets. I’m keenly aware, however, that many of my colleagues in the public schools and the universities are not all that good. Lecturing is an efficient way of presenting information, but how many teachers at any level routinely critique their delivery, pacing, etc.? Most of them pretty much wing it, get used to doing it a certain way, and never refine those skills, many of which have nothing to do with the truth but which have everything to do with getting your ideas a fair hearing. Is it any wonder that when we depart the comfort zone of the classroom setting, many of us stumble badly?

    Reluctance: many scientists are working scientists first, and educators second: teaching or otherwise interacting with the general public is typically not their first love, or even their second love. No matter how skilled such folk are, they do what they have to for the sake of their position, but leave the jousting to others.

    Intimidated: even those who are good at communicating tend not to do anything to engage the public on any matter that is particularly contentious. As an example, there are three profs at my local university who regularly stick up for science education in the local paper. There is also, to the best of my knowledge, exactly one high school science teacher who does this as well (yours truly). That’s a total of four in a metropolitan area of half a million people. Of those four, three are retired. What does that tell you?

    Working scientists not only don’t want to take time away from doing science to defend it, they are worried about the price they and others might pay for doing so. I’ve talked to at least two current profs who’ve laid it on the line: they don’t want any of the local GOP scrutinizing their work or that of their department.

    PZ:.” Of course we aren’t going to look good when you try to shoehorn our expertise into a medium inappropriately. I bet da Vinci was a crappy tap-dancer, too.”

    In such settings, the role of the speaker is not to provide expertise, but to vigorously defend the involvement and judgement of the scientific community.

    PZ: “Does your church invite scientists to speak about the issues your congregation cares about?”

    It’s happened, but it’s not typical.

    PZ: “Have you told your local radio and television stations that they ought to try to tap into local scientific talent and get some short features on real science?”

    Yes, I have. No results so far. I’ll keep at it.

    PZ: “I don’t believe that the path to that understanding should involve scientists surrendering their principles to pursue those of a PR flack.”

    Um, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, most creationists don’t have any principles. Under the circumstances, I don’t feel the least bit of guilt in cultivating certain rhetorical strategies for certain occasions. Sometimes expertise and explanation have to take a back seat to winning, and you need good PR to win.

    As far as the charge of propaganda goes, we make a mistake in thinking that the majority of people require understanding of the issues to support science and science education. This is like the old saw “no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” What we need to do is pursue strategies that elicit their support and trust by appealing to common values and (by extension) exposing the betrayal of those values by the enemies of science.

    PS While I have reservations on strategy, I deeply appreciate everything you do for science education. You are the least intimidated, the least reluctant, the most engaged science educator I have ever had the privilege to correspond with…SH

  31. #31 drb
    April 7, 2007

    PZ is so right. Soundbite communication is of little value in science, since so much of what we are trying to explain is nuanced; it usually assumes at least some baseline knowledge of the subject at hand, and often must address aspects of data that are open to several interpretations. Generalizing about almost any scientific or medical subject to fit a 30-second time restraint is just asking for trouble. Your colleagues will groan over your simplifications, and your professional dissenters will jump all over the errors that result from superficiality. In short, if you (the media) have a question to ask, allow time for a proper answer, or don’t even bother.

  32. #32 kellgo
    April 7, 2007

    Olive,

    Great Idea! Should the holiday be annual or monthly? I kinda lean towards monthly say first Tuesday.

  33. #33 DrNathaniel
    April 7, 2007

    Dennis wrote,

    Sorry to say it but scientists are lousy communicators. They are trained to communicate very technical information to fellow experts who use the same very specialized terminology, and peculiar stylized writing developed for scientific journals.

    Come on now, Dennis. Yes, we write tersely anc concisely for journals. (Damned page count limits!)

    But any good speaker, lecturer, teacher knows to speak to their audience. As PZ said.. profs teach 18 year-olds. You want to me speak about my work? I can do a 1-hour technical seminar, 20-minute conference lecture, 1-hour undergraduate-level seminar, 2-hour public audience lab tour, 20-minute dinner party conversaion, 5-minute conversational summary, 30-second teaser, or 5-seconds for someone who really isn’t interested. Every single scientist has to explain what they do to their parents. Every single scientist has friends.

    I admit that I have trouble talking to people who don’t know what “physics” is… it’s a challenge.

    But it’s absolutely impossible to talk to people that don’t want to listen.

  34. #34 Christian Burnham
    April 7, 2007

    “This soundbite mentality is a mind-killer. Let’s stop it.”

    ‘Nuff Said!

  35. #35 Colugo
    April 7, 2007

    It need not be scientists doing the dirty work of communicating to a mass audience; science writers could do the job. Sure, they would screw it up a little, but scientists constantly accuse their own peers across subfields or rival schools of thought of getting it wrong anyway.

    Use a variety of models – Wildboyz, Family Guy, Jeopardy, Conan O’Brien – but, you know, more sciencey.

    Don’t get too hung up on the purity and majesty of science. Science, schmience. Communicate some ideas, generate some interest, do a little song and dance. If the lay public saw how science was really made – academic backbiting, grad servitude, grant scrounging, etc. – many would be turned off, like a fussy gourmet who accidentally wandered into a meat rendering plant.

  36. #36 Jim Harrison
    April 7, 2007

    I expect that profs routinely overestimate how well they communicate techical material to students because even in the cases where students do pretty well on tests, they are commonly just regurgitating what they heard. In math courses, for example, students will often memorize proofs and reproduce ‘em on exams without ever realizing that the proofs prove anything. In effect, the kids believe in the theorems on faith; and the derivations are simply some strange ritual, perversely meaningful to mathematicians.

    Friends of mine have been at workshops where scientists made presentations to professors in the humanities and the social sciences. Without exception, the scientists thought they were able to communicate the jist of important results though they were always afraid that their listeners would feel insulted by the dumbed-down versions of basic biology or physics. Also without exception, the nonscientists didn’t have much of a clue as to what they had just heard, as was revealed in postsession debriefings. (To be fair, the scientists didn’t get much out of the lectures of the humanists, either. When they heard a discussion of Moby Dick, for example, they assumed that the prof knew the correct interpretation of the book but didn’t tell ‘em for pedagogic reasons. Lyrics aren’t enough. You gotta get the melody.)

    Let’s start easy. Explaining evolutionary theory to the nation may be too big a first step. How about seriously examining how these ideas can be communicated to other educated people without assuming that (of course) we’re really good at it.

  37. #37 whomever1
    April 7, 2007

    So, do any of you watch or listen to Michio Kaku on Pacifica or the Discovery Channel? Here’s a scientist who does a pretty good job of explaining science stuff in layman’s terms–or getting other scientists to do the same. But all I can say is, if he happens to be on the radio when I’m driving around, I usually don’t turn him off unless he’s talking about something really boring.

  38. #38 Caledonian
    April 7, 2007

    But it’s absolutely impossible to talk to people that don’t want to listen.

    Quoted for truth.

  39. #39 Markk
    April 7, 2007

    Café Scientifique sounds awesome! Now, I could probably do a search to find this out, but what kind of response does it get from the public?

  40. #40 bigTom
    April 7, 2007

    I agree strongly with Dennis, and Opisthkant. We may be good communicators among ourselves, but our way of comunicating science presuposes that the audience has done, and is capable of, and willing to do some pretty tough homework to fully comprehend what it is we’re saying. We treat most audiences with the attitude that if you don’t fully understand all the nuances of Hilbert Spaces (or some other esoteric branch of mathematics), then you are unable and undeserving to have anything meaningful to do with my field. This is terribly offputting to people who can’t do that- or even those who are capable, but don’t want to put in a huge effort to uncover the couple of interesting insights about your field that they think you possess.

    So if we want to communicate science to the other 99% of the world, we have to figure out how to distill it so they are capable, without a herculean personal effort to get the key points. And so that they can be comfortable with your conclusions. This can oftentimes be a pretty difficult task, especially if we are trying to discuss not just facts, but the process of understanding how we have come to beleive in them, and the remaining uncertainties, and yes why objection X is meritless.

    The other failure I see is a vast ignorance of the fact that good science differs from good public relations, or political campaigning, or winning in the courtroom. A scientist strives to consider ALL of the relevant data. He is expected to discuss potential shortcomings of his hypothesis with his colleges. A Madison avenue advertising manager is
    expected to try to sell his product period. A lawyer is supposed to win his case, regardless of if he actually beleives his clients case is correct. A politician tries to convince his audience that he is the best and only choice for the job, and his opponents are seriously flawed individuals. When Rush Limbaugh attacks our professional integrity, we gotta fight back. We have to educate the public about the profound differences in the way we search for truth, and the way these more familiar areas of endeavor operate.

  41. #41 Mike Haubrich
    April 7, 2007

    Has anyone here watched the videos of PZ and other scientists explaining what gives them “inspiration” from their work? They are available from Seed. These are examples of very good communication from scientists that teach and entertain without dumbing down.

    In progressive Meet-Ups, Democracy For America pushed “Framing” as a response to the conservative mindset of America evidenced by Bush’s re-election in 2004. The main thrust was that the Republicans had successfully dumbed down American political thought to soundbytes using Orwellian techniques to attack liberal ideas. Yes, it worked. For the Republicans it succeeded in shifting the country for the right. But it is a propaganda technique that depends little on substance; and we struggled mightily to come up with ways to re-frame the debate in a progressive direction.

    Our workshops dealt with simplifying concepts and I thought that we had to give up some degree of accuracy in order to term liberal concepts in ways that would appeal to the populace. I lost interest because I started to think that instead of illustrating important concepts such as the economic necessity of Universal Health Care we had sunk to the level of ridiculing conservatives (which is fun to do, but ultimately does little to raise the level of discourse.)

    I have this naive notion that yes, indeed, people can be expected to learn complex concepts and that in the context of re-framing science in order to take back America from Creationists, scientists are very good communicators. It can be done without resorting to framing, but we laypeople need to join in expressing our enthusiasm for science. We need to help lay the groundwork so that our peers are more interested in learning complex concepts.

    Mooney claims that framing is not “dumbing down” but the way in which I understand what he is saying is that it may entail “glossing over” details in many cases in order to hold the general public’s interest.

    Science is fascinating to me, even if I am not actively engaged as a scientist, and I believe that more presentations such as the ones at the Seed Inspiration Festival will continue to make it more accessible to people.

  42. #42 Tex
    April 8, 2007

    In the past six weeks I have debated against creationists in a 3,000 seat lecture hall and an opponent of genetically modified crops on a radio show.

    Both times, the major strategy of the opposition was to lie, mislead, or otherwise play fast and loose with the facts. I knew it, and they knew it, but probably audience did not. The only way to point out their lies was to bring in boring, technical facts that a general audience may not understand. Even if the audience understood the details, the real facts pale in comparison to assertions that modern genetics proves all humanity can be traced back to eight people on Noah’s Ark or that Monsanto is trying to kill us all.

    As long as scientists have any integrity and feel somewhat constrained by the facts, we will always lose out to people who feel free to lie for Jesus, or Greenpeace, or any other idiotic, but popular idea.

    On the other hand, if I were comfortable just making shit up, I could communicate with the best of them.

  43. #43 dorid
    April 8, 2007

    I have to agree with bigTom when he says:

    We may be good communicators among ourselves, but our way of comunicating science presuposes that the audience has done, and is capable of, and willing to do some pretty tough homework to fully comprehend what it is we’re saying.

    but I have to go further. The audience may not need to do the tough homework (my daughter teaches Bio Lab for non majors, so I hear a lot about this, and I used to teach Physics lab) but they DO need to be willing to have their minds open at least a crack.

    Unfortunately, logic and information isn’t enough to pry open small minds in today’s society. No, we need someone loud, someone flashy, someone ENTERTAINING, because people really REALLY don’t want to think, they just want to have these extreme emotional experiences of the sort religion and pop media offers.

    There isn’t any coincidence that our kids science experiences revolve around Bill Nye the Science Guy and Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, because the PACKAGING is something they are used to swallowing. THAT’S where scientists are “bad at communicating”, because they (rightfully) put substance over appearance.

    Now I’ve seen some good science wrapped in some memorable packages (thank you Harry Fulbright, your first class in Physics 101 was/is the icon of the PERFECT science teaching!) but on the whole experiences that have BOTH are few and far between.

  44. #44 Ian H Spedding FCD
    April 8, 2007

    Science has become a form of magic practised by an élite priesthood whose members have been subjected to a long and arduous apprenticeship in secret arts and rites from which the layman is firmly excluded.

    Robin Dunbar, The Trouble with Science

    Since I don’t have access to Dunbar’s book at the moment I can’t check the reference but he mentions an experiment where one of the major scientific journals – it could have been Nature or Science – published a paper alongside a ‘translation’ of the text into simpler, less technical language. The reaction was interesting in that while scientists who were not specialists in that field found it easier to understand, the specialists found the translation was less comprehensible.

    So when you talk about scientists being good – or bad – at communicating science, you need to be a little more specific in order to make much sense. A Myers or Moran might be great talking about their fields to undergraduates in the lecture-hall but less effective to an interested layperson like myself and absolutely hopeless to the average Fox News viewer. You can sneer all you like at soundbite science but if that’s all that’s going to penetrate the consciousness of the average FNN viewer then that’s what you have to work with – if you want to communicate with such people at all, that is.

    The other barrier you have to overcome is the one encapsulated in that little quote from Dunbar’s book. They may not be able to put it in that way but I suspect that’s what a lot of ordinary people feel about science even if they aren’t fully aware of it. They are already wary – even fearful – of science and scientists, so aggressively atheistic scientists are maybe not the best way to win over people who may not be strongly religious in the fundie sense but who still have a faith of sorts.

    The other side of this coin, of course is that – in the US, certainly – scientists themselves are fearful, this time of the political influence wielded by well-organized and well-financed fundie Christian groups.

    The thing is, I don’t think I’m saying anything wildly original here. The notion that anger and resentment are born out of fear – and apply to both sides – is hardly new. Neither is the idea that if you want the other side to actually listen to and consider what you have to say, you have to find a way to get past that initial resistance. By all means, tell them to their faces that their beliefs are irrational and delusory if that’s what you believe, just don’t expect them to thank you for it or to change one iota as a result.

  45. #45 Scott Hatfield
    April 8, 2007

    Tex: I admit we’re at a disadvantage, but we’re at more of a disadvantage when we try to ‘reason’ with the audience. Sometimes, you just have to let your inner pit bull have a bite. In many cases, you don’t have to explain why they’re lying, you just have to call them or their source a liar. Repeatedly, in clear, colorful language that exposes their true agenda.

    For example, I was on a radio show about a year ago with a humanities professor and ID enthusiast who began parroting some of Jonathan Wells’ misinformation. The conversation went something like this…

    “ID Guy: In his book ‘Icons of Evolution’, Jonathan Wells talks about the peppered moth and–

    Me: You mean the REVEREND Wells?

    IDG: Ah—DOCTOR Wells, he–he shows that the moths were not, not—

    Me: Well, YOU can call him Doctor if you want to, because I believe he has a doctorate—in divinity. He’s a religious cultist masquerading as a scientist.

    IDG: That’s ridiculous. He’s a, a biologist—

    Me: He’s a phony biologist, preaching phony biology. There’s no original research in his book.

    IDG: Have you read his book?

    Me: Yes. It’s a tissue of lies.

    IDG: You seem pretty angry about it.

    Me: I’m a science teacher. The purpose of Wells’ book is to use a series of misleading claims to undermine science instruction. If you were a scientist, you’d understand why I’m angry. But, since you’re not, you don’t. At least I hope you don’t understand, because, if you do understand, (name), and you’re still using Wells as an authority, you’re just as much a liar as he is. And I’d rather think you were confused, instead of dishonest.”

    We were on for another five minutes in that vein, which is about all the time we had. I didn’t waste time debating science particulars. I went after the source, trashed it and (most importantly) made the connection that this was all part of an effort to undermine science education.

    In this kind of forum, it’s a waste of time to debate particulars like the peppered moth or the bacterial flagella, etc. The mere fact that they can rattle off details to unsuspecting laypeople gives them a patina of credibility. Don’t try to engage them in this kind of limited format. Instead, deny them their talking points. Go for the throat, interrupt them whenever you can, and paint them (correctly) as the enemies of civilization. You don’t need to make shit up, you just throw their shit right back on them.

    At least, that’s been my experience…SH

  46. #46 Jud
    April 8, 2007

    PZ recommends responding to reporters with: “…let you ask less stupid questions than that.”

    Unfair this stereotype of scientists as arrogant, unfair I say!

    What, I only took a “sound bite” out of what you said? Whaddayou think Fox would do? Unfair, sure. Who said life was fair? But we all need to cope with the world as it is. So work on your 12-second teasers that’ll make an audience want to find out more, and maybe the next time Discovery Channel or PBS has a show on evolutionary biology, they’ll be interested enough to watch.

    Those 12-second teasers ought not to be very hard at all – you do something very similar every time you title a blog post. One might almost call it “framing.” ;-)

  47. #47 Eva Young
    April 8, 2007

    Excellent points, PZ. TV news really fails us on this – and I think they underestimate the intelligence of their viewers.

  48. #48 TAW
    April 8, 2007

    Unfair, sure. Who said life was fair? But we all need to cope with the world as it is.

    Yes! EXACTLY! the general public is NOT going to get any less lazy. It might be possible to get more time out of networks by asking for it, and scientists should certainly try, but they will NEVER give you nearly enough time to explain anything to experts’ satisfaction. It is up to scientists, science writers, documentary makers, or anyone who wants to get their message across, to do so in a way that the general public listen to.

  49. #49 Lettuce
    April 8, 2007

    I blame YOU. Yeah, YOU. Why aren’t you, the consumer of media, demanding better fare?

    I don’t know, because after the umpteenth email between the NY Times and me (back when Okrent was patrolling the fences for them) about something bizarre (and false) Michiko Kakutani had written I realized I had to tune them all out or go insane?

    What about YOU, Mr. Science and consumer of media?

  50. #50 Dennis
    April 8, 2007

    PZ and DrNethaniel, and all others,

    The point is not berevity. Sound bites are not at issue. Of course you should respond with a thought out answer. It’s the audience thats the key to communication. Wells, Behe, and the rest of the ID crud tailor their presentations and writings to their audience. They can afford to be imprecise, misleading, or wrong. If you tailor a response to your scientific standards you loose their audience in the first few sentences. They already know your audience doesn’t accept their drivel. Your audience doesn’t matter to them, except that they get to use it to give them the appearance of respectability. Someone has to get their audience to falter. Then they have a problem. They win the controversy within their audience as soon as the audience looses the thread, gets bored, and hangs up. In that regard the rigorous scientific answer plays to their strength, their audience is heavily insulated, they win! Tailoring your response to their audience and playing it in their forum is absolutely required! If they don’t accept your comments on their blog, that gets difficult. In that case, you have to find a way to attract them to yours or some group blog “theocratic” that will let you reach that audience through posting call it “reverse evangelizing”. The facts or conclusions stated simply and clearly with an invite to learn more cool stuff – has to be interesting. Here you go: They don’t know fruit flies but they do know dogs and has anyone looked at all those breeds. If you were from mars would you belive that a pug and a great dane were the same family, thats called “VARIATION”. All dogs have 72 chromasomes. All dogs can interbreed and create viable offspring except you can’t breed a small dog with a big dog without unfortunate congenital defects thats called “SEXUAL DIFFERENTIATION”. Sexual Differentiation may lead to “GENETIC DIFFERENTIATION”…onward and so forth, set the hook. None of that may be rigorous since I pulled it out of my rump. The point is the Evangelical cowboy probably has a dog, a bad dog, who ate the neighbor ladies chihuhua and he can see the difference between those two dogs. Fruit flies are just to have their wings pulled off and tortured, zebra fish are great to impress girls with when you eat them in the bar.

  51. #51 RobW
    April 8, 2007

    The consumers of media DO speak their mind and demand that they be offered what they want.

    It’s why there’s so much garbage.

    I get the impression from this that you imagine that the “consumer” of the commercial media is the audience. Once more for the dummies: the consumer/customer is the person who pays the provider. Who pays for commercial media? Advertisers. The audience are the product; you get the programming you get because advertisers want a dumb, consumerist audience, preferably with money (so if they are pandering, they’re pandering to a middle class audience – don’t go blaming the trailer trash). This is why bugging the media about their crappy science reporting (and every other kind) will have zero effect. It is not the job of media to inform the audience – at best the job is to keep them entertained long enough so that they’re there when the ads come on. While your media is profit-driven, this problem will not go away.

  52. #52 Luis
    April 8, 2007

    The whole issue with soundbites is this: some time ago, Steven Pinker was invited to the Colbert Report, and he was asked to summarise brain activity in four words, on the fly. Amazingly, he managed (“neurons fire in patterns”). Which is correct, concise, and to the point, but it just sits there. It’s like giving you the title of a book without telling you anything else about the book. That’s the problem, I think: a soundbite might be true, attractive, interesting, laughable, whatever you want, but in and of itself, it is meaningless. The only way in which it can mean anything is by adding extra information -and that might take minutes, which is what you won’t get on a news program.

  53. #53 Bob O'H
    April 8, 2007

    This charge usually comes in close proximity to what you are talking about, i.e. the lack of media-savvy speaking expertise on the part of scientific visonaries and leaders. My question in response to this charge is, what ivory tower?

    Exhibit A:

    This whole framing business seems to be about what scientists should do when some Fox News guy sticks a microphone in our face and tells us to explain evolution in 10 seconds. We should refuse. We should say, “Come to my talk at the town library tonight, I’ll explain a basic overview in under an hour and let you ask less stupid questions than that. And if you’re really serious about learning more, here, read this book or take my course at the U or watch this nice documentary on PBS.”

    Which can be summarised as “You travel to my ivory tower and I’ll talk to you: I’m not interested in travelling to meet you”.

    Whilst it would be nice if everyone was sufficiently interested to want to take in lectures, the reality is rather different. If we, as scientists, want to communicate about our science effectively, then we need to recognise that we have to work within the rules of the medium we’re trying to communicate in. PZ doesn’t want to play by these rules, but wants to impose his own. But that simply won’t work: the TV stations will just ignore him and find someone else to talk to, someone who can be effective in their medium.

    Bob

  54. #54 Kristjan Wager
    April 8, 2007

    Which can be summarised as “You travel to my ivory tower and I’ll talk to you: I’m not interested in travelling to meet you”.

    Or it could be summarised as “I don’t want to travel to your ivory tower only to have my statements distorted, instead I am inviting you to one of the many venues where I am trying to explain what we have found out.”

    In other words, the scientists have left their ivory towers, and are inviting the journalists to do the same.

  55. #55 factician
    April 8, 2007

    WIth only one exception, the best scientists I know are also the best communicators. You need to be able to do 3 things to run a research lab: design experiments, write papers, and give good talks. The most successful scientists are fabulous at all 3.

    The fact that communicating honestly with all appropriate caveats doesn’t fit into soundbites for the media is hardly an indictment of scientists.

  56. #56 Lynet
    April 8, 2007

    Our local newspaper used to have this “ask a scientist” column. People could write in questions and they would get a local scientist to write in a reply. It worked quite well. It’s a good idea because it involves laypeople in the process, makes it seem more like a dialogue.

    Kids’ science programs are a good idea, too. I can remember this TV program where they interspersed explanations of scientific topics with regular crazy inventions. I particularly remember this one about how soap works, not sure why. It would be helpful if such programs explained how scientists were figuring these things out. That way children would gain some understanding of the scientific method. Stay off the controversial topics, just get the sense in there that science can provide answers.

  57. #57 Anja
    April 8, 2007

    I´m a frequent visitor of your blog. You often make me laugh, nod my head, shake my head and generally enjoy myself.

    This post also touches a nerve with me. Yes, many scientists are excellent at communicating to their own field, or to a group of (somewhat) interested youngsters or general audience. I am not as sure as you are, that they are as good in communicating to the general public. I however fully agree with you on the framing, blameshifting issue. The media has a lot to answer for. One could argue, in a free market people can choose but if the offerings are all so similar the choice is not really free. Of course, I do not live in the USA, so I have to rely on American friends´ description of the state of their media. So mine is a second hand opinion, at best. I cannot say I´m delirious at the state of the media and science in the Netherlands either, for instance there seems to be an atmosphere of denial hovering over our broadcast world.

    In the general internet media it´s also difficult to find amusing or engaging science. One exception that I always listen to on my morning commute, is the Naked Scientists (podcast and UK radio). It not only fully holds my attention but also others who do not have a scientific background. I wish there were many more similar shows, this show has developed a very appealing format for a broad audience while not compromising on the quality of information. I really hope that many more scientists will see this as a good communication channel and try their hand at podcasting. I would certainly be happy to add them to my subscriptions!

  58. #58 Mary
    April 8, 2007

    There’s always Science Friday with Ira Flatow on Talk of the Nation… despite its imperfections.
    NPR isn’t quite as accessible as the television news; even still, I know a lot of fans of that particular radio show who, I think, would be quite open to more serious-ish science reporting in other media.

  59. #59 Nescio
    April 8, 2007

    A probably not entirely original thought for the wolves:

    Most people really don’t care about evolution, global warming, or whether the earth is flat. They’re happy to accept whatever their leaders say about such without question. Thus, as long as a significant segment of America’s religious, social, and political élites espouse creationism, so will a big chunk of the masses.

    I was moved to this thought by a guy who rejected anthropogenic global warming on the grounds than leftwingers believe in it, and leftwingers are babykillers. Thus, no decent human being can believe in AGW.

  60. #60 Greg Laden
    April 8, 2007

    PZ:

    I agree with you, as you know, because we’ve had this conversation, in a way. See “Why Scientists are NOT AS GOOD as Creationists” here:

    http://gregladen.com/wordpress/?p=398

    What IS our fault is that we say again and again that we are not good communicators, I think as an excuse for our failure in the fight for rationality.

    I see now that I have to read this paper everyone is talking about … damn, I was hoping to go kite flying today..

  61. #61 Caledonian
    April 8, 2007

    While your media is profit-driven, this problem will not go away.

    I’ve seen the BBC’s science reporting. It’s dumbed-down, streamlined, inaccurate, and tending towards grossly-oversimplified but popularly-embraced misrepresentations of the actual science.

    As long as your media is subject to political correctness and the desire to offend as few people as possible, this problem will not go away.

  62. #62 PZ Myers
    April 8, 2007

    I also agree with your point that communicating to the public is regarded as a second-rate activity, Greg, and that most of us are discouraged from engaging in it. That is a problem for which scientists should accept the blame.

  63. #63 makita
    April 8, 2007

    Well, I agreed wholeheartedly with you. That scientists can communicate just fine, and it is simply a question of the public tuning in and paying attention for more than 15 seconds. My husband, however, believes that scientists often speak in mysterious jargon accessible only to those who are familiar with the topic. Yet he stands in front of college classrooms every day, bringing his topic to groups of undergraduate students, and fairly effectively at that to judge from course evaluations. The responsibility to learn is with the public, it is our responsibility as scientists to make sure the information is out there, available, accessible, and easily readible.

  64. #64 Chris Mooney
    April 8, 2007

    Hi PZ,

    Just for the record, I think I’ve done as much as anyone to criticize bad reporting on science, going back several years:
    http://www.cjr.org/issues/2004/6/mooney-science.asp

    So has my colleague Nisbet; here we are defending evolution in the face of bad reporting:
    http://www.cjr.org/issues/2005/5/mooney.asp

    Indeed, I’ve been defending science against the ravages of politicians, reporters, etc, for some time….so, to now suggest a role for scientists in helping to address this ongoing communication/knowledge translation problem seems to me just the next logical step.

    Science regularly gets misused by politicians, misrepresented by journalists, even suppressed by government agencies. This is bad, bad, bad. You, I, and others get really ticked off when it happens, and rightly so.

    But at some point, I feel like we need to get beyond just outrage, and start thinking about what we can do on our end to bridge this science-society gap. It’s from that vantage point that Nisbet and I call for a rethinking of communication strategies. Let’s face it: Has the old “just the facts” model really worked? Are we really getting anywhere when it comes to broadening acceptance of evolution, for example? Or is that creationist slab of the public still unmoved, failing to budge?

    In response to Endogenous Retrovirus–I’m sorry that Abbie isn’t getting invited to talk in Oklahoma, and no, I haven’t been invited to talk in Oklahoma either. But this is bigger than either of us. The scientific community as a whole has the resources to reach a broader public in a strategic way, if it wants to use them–no matter what communication challenges individual scientists or science promoters may face.

    Thanks a ton for your airing of this framing debate, even if we don’t agree.

    CM

  65. #65 chris
    April 8, 2007

    I have nothing to add but Michael Tobis might:
    http://initforthegold.blogspot.com/

  66. #66 CalGeorge
    April 8, 2007

    TV:

    You have 30 seconds. Quickly. We’re running out of time. We have to go to commercial.

    The goal of commercial T.V./Radio is to serve up advertising. Think about how appalling that is. It’s glorified brainwashing.

    Networks are run by people who don’t care about history, don’t care about science, probably majored in “communications” or business, and decided early on in their careers that their goal in life was to make money.

    They treat viewers like roaches to be sprayed with ever more potent quantities of advertising (as some ad executive once put it).

    Your only hope:

    Take over the media (not likely)
    Reform the FCC (not likely)
    De-corporatize, Re-fund PBS (somewhat more likely after 2009)
    Exploit alternative media (you’re doing it).

    Put more of science lectures, series, talks up on the web. Make it multimedia and streaming. Do more things like:

    Stanford on iTunes:

    http://itunes.stanford.edu/

    Make your campus an ecampus – streaming intelligent science media to the world.

    Require students to take a science PR/media production class. It can’t be easy to do what David Attenborough does, but we need more people to do it. Produce media savvy students and let them loose on the world to do good.

  67. #67 Richard
    April 8, 2007

    If 30 seconds is all, you have, then I think you make the best of it.

    You can’t get close to an adequate explanation of a complex topic, but as in good sales technique, you provide one or two insights to provoke the audiences curiosity.

    Once hooked you have some follow-up content available to them online. Many news stories now take exactly that approach … “For more information visit fox5dc.com and click on the links”. They like it as it’s a way of engaging their audience (and selling more banner advertising).

    What those insights might be … just about everyone visiting this blog is better qualified than me … but perhaps an analogy they can understand for the accumulation of small changes over very long timescales might be a small river creating the Grand Canyon. Then perhaps something that affects them directly such as emergence of new forms of viruses.

    Any attempt to engage a creationist directly on their rhetoric and lies will look to the audience like someone wrestling a pig in knee-deep mud. Marginally entertaining but not likely to produce a clear victory, for anyone other than the pig.

  68. #68 Thony C.
    April 8, 2007

    “I bet da Vinci was a crappy tap-dancer, too.”

    But he did a really good soft shoe shuffle!

  69. #69 lydia
    April 8, 2007

    I second CalGeorge at #65! (I knew if I scrolled down far enough, somebody would finally mention that TV/radio are ADVERTISING vehicles, not particularly geared toward being informative. Also, good science often flies in the face of the products being advertised!)

    I think podcasts, real science articles, and intensive K-12 teaching of critical thinking are the way to go. I notice that the longer I’m in science, the more I’m pissed off by books that don’t cite sources. It’s a long-term problem…

  70. #70 Greg Laden
    April 8, 2007

    Wow. I read the “framing science” ‘paper’ …

    First, it’s not a paper.

    Second, the authors totally don’t get the “frame” thing. This ‘paper’ makes two or three valid points which float helplessly in a sea of wrongness.

    I’ve written an extensive analysis of the paper:
    http://gregladen.com/wordpress/?p=667

    I pretty much agree with PZ’s comments above as well.

  71. #71 Splash
    April 8, 2007

    One problem is that public relations techniques that have long been dominant in the media are inherently anti-science; that’s the whole point. In fact, they were developed specifically to obscure scientific truths and push alternative narratives (“global warming is a hoax” ; “tobacco doesnt cause cancer”; or, as was famously stated by Rampton and Stauber, “Toxic Sludge is Good for You.”)

    Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber have written several excellent books on the public relations industry; the best in the context of science perhaps is “Trust Us, We’re Experts.” Learn the techniques that corporate shills use to discredit science and half the battle is won. For example, rather than addressing an argument, they attack the person(s) making the argument – a tactic that can be exposed as an effort to avoid the merits of an argument. Another technique that is still rich for deconstruction is “third-party advocacy”, where they form a good-sounding group like “Citizens for Sound Science” or whatever that sounds neutral but gets funding from industry or right wing think tanks, which of course is not disclosed to the audience. A powerful tactic would be to expose such stealth funding when presented with a question from such an opponent.

    There is no reason why scientists cant use some of the same techniques, esp. the ways in which you can discredit an opponent without necessarily answering their arguments on
    the merits. Obviously there has to be argument on the merits but I guess Im saying that’s just not enough – you have to also go after your opponent’s credibility and present morally-framed arguments as well (Gore’s quite brilliant sound bite, “Global Warming is a moral issue”, is a perfect example of that.)

  72. #72 mark
    April 8, 2007

    One other problem:
    People like quick “yes” or “no” answers, oftentimes when the answer depends on many variables not made clear in the leadup to the question.

  73. #73 anon
    April 8, 2007

    You need a rock band, some actors to re-create the principle you are trying to explain ,some cool pictures for the screen behind you, a personal anecdote about how this helps a random person in their life, some dancers with ribbons, and fifteen minutes for your message….

    Oh- wait- that was church ………..

  74. #74 Blake Stacey
    April 8, 2007

    PZ saith:

    We are experts at explaining complex subjects which do not fit into the format expected of television news, but hasn’t everyone noticed that television news is utterly useless at transmitting substantive information?

    Excellent point. Step back a bit from the evolution and global warming issues, which are probably topmost on everybody’s minds, and what do you see?

    You can’t learn about atheism from watching Paula Zahn, you can’t learn about psychic frauds from watching Larry King Live, and you damn sure can’t learn economics from In The Money.

  75. #75 Gerard Harbison
    April 8, 2007

    Scientists who do a lot of teaching are usually good communicators; the others, not so much.

    I’ve been noticing for a long time that the scientists who have to lecture 3 – 5 days a week usually give much better presentations at scientific conferences than those who work in industry or government labs.

  76. #76 Blake Stacey
    April 8, 2007

    All discussions of “framing” (a poorly understood and often misapplied word, as Greg Laden points out for us) are about strategy, but I’m more concerned with tactics. And among the tactics we don’t employ often enough is the following:

    Expose the leading creationists as the lying bastards they are every opportunity we can.

    Seriously.

    How many people here read Bob Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians? OK, remember where he lists the factors which caused fundamentalists to “lose their faith”? One big factor was, ironically, the emphasis their churches placed on Truth. When wayward youngsters discovered that they weren’t being given the Truth, all that respect built up in them turned around and shook their faith to the ground.

    (Ever hear Michael Shermer talk about his days as a born-again? I think there’s a lesson in what he says which Shermer himself hasn’t fully learned. The born-again movement grew (at least in part) out of dissatisfaction with the old churches and all the problems evident with them. Well, now that they’ve become what they despised. . . .)

    We can provide all the fair play in the world once we meet people in an honest playing field. At the moment, the rhetoric is set by the people who will wear any mask and tell any lie to get the power they want, the people who will call their enemies Nazis while in their hearts kowtowing to a cross which has long since assumed the aspect of a swastika.

  77. #77 melior
    April 8, 2007

    Maybe if we lead off with teh sexx0rist scientists we can find, clad in skimpy clothing, and then sneakily segue into more substantive content…

  78. #78 Phi
    April 8, 2007

    I also vote for Olive’s idea! Can I have several different signs, and change during the day?

    As far as the who’s a good communicator and who’s not, I think it’s key to remember that we don’t need all scientists to be spectacular communicators, anymore than everyone at the State Department needs to be a great speech writer, or everyone at 3M has to do TV interviews well. There are, however, lots of scientists who are really good at communicating complex ideas, and they are all too rarely given the opportunity to convey their ideas in a manner that suits the importance and complexity of the material. (Sadly, the same applies to politicians who want to move past the sound bite. Al Gore had to make a feature length film out of a PowerPoint presentation to get any significant number of people to hear his message.)

    If we all don’t demand better, and help those around us understand that they need and deserve better, we ain’t gonna get better. And that may well be catastrophic in the not so long run.

  79. #79 daenku32
    April 8, 2007

    I see the audience as made of different levels or varying thickness (with the pun intended).
    1st, there is the average American who only has 10-second attention span on a news item, unless it’s about property taxes or some nut-case going postal. They only have time for a 10-second summary; a sound bite. And quite frankly, that is all they really need to sway their opinion.
    2nd, there is the “interested” American who does their personal best to stay informed. Unfortunately this has meant reading all material at AiG or a book by C.S. Lewis. They take some 10-second sound bite by an scientist as arrogant insult, a quick ‘cowardly stab’ from the ‘ivory tower of secularist science’ against their own personal ‘thoughtful research.’ They need more than 10-seconds to sway.
    3rd, there are the organized anti-scientific organizations like DI. They purport to give both 1st and 2nd group of people with sound bites or arguments to get them swing to their direction. They have resources all across the country and allies in high positions in government and churches. To counter these people (swaying them is highly unlikely because they are already aware of the scientific publication, but have simply decided to ignore it all) we need more than 10-second sound bites or even a 30-minute (less commercials) lecture. It requires direct head to head interaction with a moderator that doesn’t take any crap for an answer. Since their current propaganda involves projecting real science as what we know they are–corrupt, countering them will require restoring the frame in which evolutionary science (and GW science too, it seems) lives, and telling people that this same frame also contains all the other sciences they often take for granted. Like gravity.

  80. #80 Andy Groves
    April 8, 2007

    I haven’t read all the comments, so apologies if this point has been made before. Sorry to be a contrarian, but in my opinion, most scientists are crap at communicating in every way our profession demands of them.

    I say this as someone who has reviewed over 100 manuscripts for peer reviewed journals, sat on grant review panels for the NIH, NSF and charitable research foundations, sat through (and given) twenty years of seminars and lectures and witnessed first hand the almost uniformly mediocre lab management skills of my colleagues.

    One can point to many different reasons for this, but if I had to put my finger on a major one, it would be that scientists tend not to be very empathetic. Most scientists cannot put themselves in the place of their audience – whether that audience is for a lecture, a seminar, a grant proposal or a research manuscript – and cannot appropriately match the content and delivery of their information to the level of the audience. I think the very things that attract people to science also tend to select for poor communicators. There are exceptions. But most of us are crap.

    Sorry.

  81. #81 Michael Tobis
    April 8, 2007

    I love the idea of Olive Day. Anyone reading this in Austin? If any place can pull this off it is us.

    Regarding the rest of the conversation, I am on Nisbet and Mooney’s side, and I think the point is being misunderstood. See this post on my blog (which predates me knowing about N&M) among others.

  82. #82 Colugo
    April 8, 2007

    “but if I had to put my finger on a major one, it would be that scientists tend not to be very empathetic. … I think the very things that attract people to science also tend to select for poor communicators.”

    I think that there is something to that. To put it simply: autism spectrum. High functioning autism, Asperger’s, and sub-clinical manifestations of Asperger’s like syndrome (nebbishy, nerdy, awkward, eccentric…).

    In addition, academic scientists live in very insular worlds with a small number of peers and beholden sycophants (grad students). This may have a disinhibiting effect in some, as they learn they can get away with mannerisms and behaviors that would be unacceptable anywhere else.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/04/opinion/04conniff.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=slogin

    Look at the way scientists and the like are portrayed in Bones, Criminal Minds (Spender Reid), Numb3rs, House, and CSI: nerds, Asperger’s candidates, or jerks. And it’s not completely divorced from reality.

  83. #83 Colugo
    April 8, 2007

    “Spender Reid”

    correction: I meant to write “Spencer Reid.”

  84. #84 llewelly
    April 8, 2007

    The following is my long reply to Chris Mooney (cross-posted to his blog), so , ‘you’ refers to Chris.

    The irony is that PZ uses frames more aggressively than any other science-oriented commentator I’ve ever read. People have been framing the creationism vs evolution struggle as ‘War on Deception and Stupidity’ for a long time. (Arguably, it started with Huxley.) But PZ does it with more colour, and more flair, than anyone I can think of.
    PZ’s posts on liberal politics are consistently framed as ‘War On Brutality’. If he writes a post on abortion, he will tell the reader, in no uncertain terms, that legal restrictions on safe abortions are an act of brutal oppression.
    It is possible, from time to time, to read as much as half a PZ post thinking ‘this is just cool science facts, no framing …’ until PZ pulls in some anti-creationist or anti-oppression barb, and relates the facts to one of the above frames.
    There is a great deal of worry that these frames alienate people who might otherwise be allies, and harden the fanaticism of those opposed to his views. I think those are valid fears, and I share them to some extent.
    But a primary problem that science-interested folk, rationalists, and liberals all share, is that most of us are actively disinterested in any kind of vigorous political action.
    PZ is often accused of ‘mobilizing both bases’ … but the opposing base is already mobilized, and has been loudly casting scientists as Dr. Strangeloves, and atheists as Hitlers and Stalins, since long before he was born. I went through a long part of my life where I was much too busy to pay attention to the various science wars, and during that time, I found it comforting to believe that if only loudmouths like Dawkins and PZ would not be so rude, perhaps these myriad foul mischaracterizations of scientists would lose popularity.
    Then I realized:
    (a) A favorite attack on any scientist lecturing about evolution was to cast them as a Nazi. This was regularly applied to Asimov, Gould, and Sagan throughout the 1980s and 1990s. During most of that time, Dawkins was practically unheard of outside of the science-interested minority – meaning anyone so ignorant as to accept Gould as a Nazi would most certainly have never heard anything Dawkins had said. There was a period of over 10 years, where the public face of science was people like Sagan and Gould, who were unfailing polite and diplomatic. Yet Reader’s Digest still published articles implying they were Nazis and Stalinists.
    (b) By far the most successful anti-science commenters were the most aggressive, and the most of abrasive. People who regularly make rhetorical remarks that stray close to threats of murder and other violence.

    You and Nisbet are telling PZ ‘just the facts’ isn’t working. But that isn’t what PZ is doing. That isn’t what Dawkins is doing either. They are using frames you are afraid of. Frames you fear because these frames alienate some, and harden the fanaticism of others. That is a real cost of the aggressive frames favored by PZ and his allies. But PZ has a mobilized following like no other science-oriented blogger. Similarly, Dawkins has a mobilized following like no other science-oriented writer. And that is precisely where the old ‘just the facts’ was most devoid of effectiveness. It did not mobilize the science interested folk. Whatever their faults, the frames favored by PZ do mobilize people.
    Our popular culture overwhelming favors chaos and aggression. I think this needs to be changed – but if you’re going to advocate that science communicators work with what is here and now, well, chaos and aggression is what is here and now. If the media can’t find a scientist who appears to be a cross between Dr. Strangelove and Osama, they’ll invent one – out of whole cloth. They are welded to the freight train of gladiatorial reporting, and they’ll never try to disembark.
    Someone like Dawkins has enough verbal colour and aggression to make the media think they can cast him in that role. (If PZ ever gets popular enough, they’ll cast him the same way.) And so far, most of the news media thinks they are successful in portraying Dawkins as the atheist scientist equivalent of Osama Bin Laden. Many are (justifiably) afraid this will taint the reputation of all scientists. But the sleeper is that Dawkins will never live up to the Death Threats and Terrorism and Nazism frame they’ve put him. TGD is selling like mad, and interested people everywhere are finding out that the popular depiction is wholly imagined – the real Dawkins is a pacifist.
    PZ is already using frames, and if he gets sufficiently popular, typical reporters will put more frames around him. Much like the frames placed around Dawkins, they’ll be far more negative than anything he actually does. You fear that PZ’s frames, largely similar to those of Dawkins, will strengthen the credibility of the frames drawn around Dawkins. But the fact is that neither of these people are anything like such mischaracterizations.
    We don’t yet know if this yet-another-example of the gross intellectual dishonesty of most reporting will make it to a wider public. But if it does, you’ll have to admit Dawkins and PZ have stumbled on to a superb sleeper strategy.
    In the short term, I see no reason to believe typical reporting can be altered to prevent them from depicting some scientists as monsters. But I do see reason to hope that if they continue to draw that frame around people who will never match that depiction, the truth will leak out, the falseness of the framing will be exposed.

  85. #85 TAW
    April 8, 2007

    holy CRAP you just nailed my personality there colugo… with the exception of “beholden sycophants” lol.

    How depressing.

  86. #86 Ed Darrell
    April 8, 2007

    Working scientists not only don’t want to take time away from doing science to defend it, they are worried about the price they and others might pay for doing so. I’ve talked to at least two current profs who’ve laid it on the line: they don’t want any of the local GOP scrutinizing their work or that of their department.

    This is a bigger problem that most people realize. In the last round of biology textbook fights here in Texas more than one world-renowned scientist asked that I keep his or her name out of the fight completely, for exactly that reason. A great or good university in a small town may have special problems that way (no, Waco was not one of the small towns, ironically). There is also an issue that some universities get special aid from their legislatures to attract big name guys — Nobel laureates, for example. These people are sometimes fearful of irritating the group that has their purse strings (though one I fellow I spoke with thought it would be a great fight for the newspapers; can you imagine, he asked, the headlines if a legislature ran a Nobel laureate out of town, to a competing state’s university faculty?).

    And there is this: The U.S. Justice Department, in violation of the First Amendment if you ask me, investigated Texas Tech University for insisting that kids who ask for recommendations to medical school know the substance of biology courses they take, especially those involving evolution. The Justice Department was claiming a religious right for students to be ignorant, so far as I can tell. (Shouldn’t a creationist physician have to post warnings to patients?)

    Of course, in that case the university sorta backed the prof involved.

    But evolution teachers face discrimination and official (though illegal) sanction.

    Find the cost of freedom.

  87. #87 daedalus2u
    April 8, 2007

    The point of scientists being on the autism spectrum is completely correct. There is a reason. As Asperger said “It seems that for success in science or art a dash of autism is essential.” I think the social isolation of the ASDs is a “feature”, that by producing social and cultural isolation, allows ASD individuals to abandon incorrect paradigms of science and culture.

    Thomas Kuhn, in his “the structure of scientific revolutions” made this point. What he called “normal science” can only be done in the context of paradigms, and that sometimes those paradigms need to be abandoned.

    For example, there is no way to “frame” the Earth going around the Sun with the prevailing view at the time of the Sun going around the Earth. Similarly, relativity cannot be “framed” in Newtonian physics, or quantum mechanics in classical physics.

    I think that the mirror neurons (which are disrupted in ASDs), are what make it so hard for NTs to abandon things that they believe to be true. How many young women became pregnant because they believed the lies that some young man told them? A reproductive “feature” for both of them. Believing lies told by a good lier is a “feature”.

    NTs only believe stuff that is told to them by people they “connect” with, by virtue of having a robust mirror neuron system. They can’t believe what a scientist tells them because the scientist doesn’t have a compatible mirror neuron system.

  88. #88 Bunjo
    April 8, 2007

    Guys, PZ is right to say that many scientists are good at telling interested people detailed information. He is misleading himself (in my opinion) to think that they communicate well with disinterested people.

    Communication is two way exchange of facts, feelings, emotions, ideas and questions – and as long as scientists believe comunication is merely “facts from my brain to yours” then we are not addressing the real issue of getting the significance of science into the public domain.

    The media don’t help because there is a general drift away from factual reporting into dramatising feelings. It is really easy to present science as an evenhanded debate between pro and anti positions, even when one side contains only kooks and nutcases. Need I mention evolution/design, MMR vacination, global warming as examples of the triumph of emotional responses rather than rational debate?

    Our good friends(!) the DI are well aware of this – they stick with the ‘if it looks designed then everybody can see there must be a designer’ sound bite, and don’t dilute their message with lots of boring research and facts. I believe that they would not mention any scientific proof in a public debate (even if they had any) as it would detract from their message.

    You want to get science across to people who have other concerns on their minds? Give them sound bites, explain why it matters to them and their families right now and then you will make headway. By all means back up such ‘communication’ with good web sites, books, films, TV programs – but make it matter to them first.

    Another personal example, for some time I had heard and read about the rapidily increasing number of species going extinct, and how ‘scientists’ thought this was A Bad Thing. It took me some digging to find out why this was so, and I was an interested pro science person. How much better to tell me first how my life would be affected by these extinctions – as it was it came across as a load of experts wanting more money for more research (ie scientific self interest).

  89. #89 Kit Stolz
    April 8, 2007

    Sound bites can serve to shut down conversation in ways helpful to those who don’t want issues like climate change discussed…but some scientists and advocates can communicate in that form. For example, Bill Patzert, who can get across complex scientific ideas in TV language (“El Nincompoop,” “La Nada,” and more).

    http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-patzert29mar29,1,5364838.story

    Framing is a part of a larger discussion, and sometimes helpful, although surely it’s not “the answer” to the difficulty scientists have with the public, nor a science in and of itself.

  90. #90 Kagehi
    April 8, 2007

    I’ve talked to at least two current profs who’ve laid it on the line: they don’t want any of the local GOP scrutinizing their work or that of their department.

    In other words, the city is burning down, but its safer to stay inside and hope it rains than risk being blamed for it, or accidentally arrested as one of the morons burning it down. This is a mentality that drives me nuts. Years back, I watched dumbfounded as thousands of people in LA “prayed” in churches, while probably less than 50 others tried to burn down or rob their own neighborhoods. All I could think was, “You fracking outnumber the nuts doing this, why they hell are you not out their taking a stand?!” Same here. I have no doubt that the number of real scientists far outnumber the small number of ID people and even the main stream evangelical preachers. If you add in the fools that follow them *then* the scientists are outnumbered. If you count only the people that truly matter, the liars, the politicians, etc., scientists outnumber them by a huge margin. So, what do scientists and people like me do? Obviously huddle around the Bunsen burner under a table when the mob arrives to burn the college down right?

    That is the key problem. Its fear of the mob and belief that no single person can make a difference, because no one else will stand beside them. It doesn’t matter if the mob is 50 people in a city with thousands or if its millions following one nut around like fracking sheep. We are *sure* no one else will stand up and support us, because they are just as scared to death as we are, and we know what happens in the wolves get at us while we are alone. People need to grow some spines. No offense to the local cephalopods. lol

    On a lighter note, one of the authors of articles in Skeptical Enquirer has suggested that maybe Ann Coulter is actually writing books to parody ID and right wing thinking, sort of like Alan Sokal did with Post Modernism with his fake physics article:

    http://www.livescience.com/othernews/070407_coulter_hoax.html

  91. #91 Sonja
    April 8, 2007

    This reminds me of my last job where I was the only woman, only atheist, only college graduate and only democrat on a technical staff of male, evangelical, young-earther, uneducated right-wingers.

    A little background — I have tons of experience communicating complex issues to people on the opposite side of arguments. As a former canvasser and campaign staff, it was experience gained in the trenches. Also, I’ve had large op-ed pieces published in the newspaper, etc.

    Several times I was pulled into the manager’s office regarding lunchtime conversations (which I did not start, by the way). The conclusion of my manager was that I had poor communication skills and should sign up for one of those business courses about how to improve my communications.

    I had a similar response to PZ’s thesis here: “Why do I need to improve my communications skills?” My coworkers best means of communication was farting or throwing a nerf ball around the office.

    It was an interesting response by the manager because it was obvious to him that I was the one who was different. His logical conclusion was, therefore, that I was the one that needed to change.

    However, it was impossible for me to change because I was being called upon to unlearn what I knew — both about the subject matter AND the skills I developed about how to talk to people on the other side of issues.

    Reading between the lines, what he was really saying was that he didn’t like my opinions, not my “lack of communication skills”.

  92. #92 Scott Hatfield
    April 8, 2007

    Blake Stacey (post #75): Expose the leading creationists as the lying bastards they are every opportunity we can.

    Hatfield (post #44): Sometimes, you just have to let your inner pit bull have a bite. In many cases, you don’t have to explain why they’re lying, you just have to call them or their source a liar. Repeatedly, in clear, colorful language that exposes their true agenda.

    My fellow OM, we appear to have been separated at birth. I’m with you, brother!…SH

  93. #93 Colugo
    April 8, 2007

    Members of the science community certainly enjoy beating each other up. Sometimes these big debates are about theory:

    Sociobiology Wars, which is an aspect of the longstanding…

    Orthodox vs Unorthodox conflict (AKA Ultra-Darwinian vs Pluralist, Adaptationist vs Structuralist, Reductionist vs Emergentist …)

    Sometimes these conflicts are about the philosophy and sociology of science:

    PoMo Science Critics vs Scientists (AKA 90s Science Wars)

    And recently, it’s about how scientists ought to present themselves and science to the public:

    Militant Atheists vs Appeaser Atheists

    The Science Spin, I mean, “Framing” Wars

    Let the arterial spray continue.

  94. #94 Blake Stacey
    April 8, 2007

    Scott Hatfield (#90):

    Want to collaborate on a book titled Creationism: The Unholy Lie? I thought of that title the other day and immediately started wondering if it would sell. . . .

  95. #95 Spaulding
    April 8, 2007

    P.Z. wrote:

    Really — ask us to put together a presentation for 12 year olds, or for seniors at the retirement center, or the Rotarians, or a science conference, and we can do it. We’re not idiots. We do try to tailor our talks to our audience, giving appropriate levels of background and avoiding the usual jargon. We do it all the time.

    And that ability will also serve you well if your communication venue requires and allows little more than pithy soundbites. Yes, it’s a dumb, shallow format. Yes, TV news is not effective in conveying nuanced subjects.

    Tough. Deal with it. (Try to change it, of course, but don’t “lose” an edited, broadcasted argument just because you didn’t want to play the game.)

    The DI is exceedingly good at PR, they’ve got money, and lots of people WANT to believe them. That’s all they’ve got. We’ve got astounding amounts of evidence, enough from any of several disciplines to crush them like a landslide. But they play the PR game better, and they win minds as a result.

    I am tempted to compare Republican and Democratic campaign and PR strategies.

    Is it worth losing, just because we don’t like the way the game is played?

  96. #96 coturnix
    April 8, 2007

    Somewhere in thiese multiple posts/threads PZ stats something along the lines “I don’t want them to believe in evolution, I want them to understand it” and it is a noble fantasy, but it is exactly opposite of what this entire debate is about. You cannot even start teaching science unless the audience already believes YOU, i.e., that you are to be trusted with correct information. Half of this country, currently, does not. All the examples you give are examples of teaching the willing audience. Framing is about persuading the unwilling audience that you are the authority and that what you say is The Truth. This is about politics, not about science education.

    I have updated my original post to add a number of good blogospheric responses, as well as my own response to criticisms of Matt and Chris.

  97. #97 Splash
    April 8, 2007

    “This is about politics, not about science education.”

    Yes yes yes! This is the most critical point of all, definitely.

    Sorry to be redundant but: any scientist communicating with the public should read the superb works of John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, who expose and dissect the techniques by which public relations firms enhance the credibility of their clients and trash the credibility of their clients’ opponents. Their works include “Toxic Sludge is Good for You” and “Trust Us, We’re Experts.” There is framing, and much much more.

    There IS a science to it, and Stauber and Rampton can help guide the way very effectively, or at least provide an effective, realistic framework to go from. Their website is worth a visit: http://www.prwatch.org …. they have a great weekly e-newsletter called the Weekly Spin.

    How does the saying go? “Know thine enemy?”

  98. #98 TAW
    April 8, 2007

    Wow. I just told a friend to read this post http://tinyurl.com/2csynz (four short paragraphs) and look at what he said (again, wow.):

    “If you ever think that I will read something that fucking long without being forced to, you’ve got a problem.”

    This just goes to show what we’re up against. I’m losing hope by the second.

  99. #99 coturnix
    April 8, 2007

    Where did my HTML skills go…

    Let’s try again:

    my updated post

  100. #100 Pierce R. Butler
    April 8, 2007

    PZ Myers: …we’ve got people telling us to take our complex subject and squeeze it into a 15-second soundbite.

    It’s complex – and it can’t be reduced. Hmmm…

    According to the published experts on that sort of stuff, this couldn’t have occurred randomly.

    Someone is responsible for scientific expertise being in this condition. Sic an irresistible media force (say, Rivera or Couric) on the case, and sit back to wait for it to be exposed & discredited on the first interview.

    Got any other problems that need solving?

  101. #101 Colugo
    April 8, 2007

    Some general suggestions:

    When attacking creationism/ID, don’t tell the public that the whole thing is ridiculous because “Science has already proven that God does not exist.” Rather, emphasize that creationism/ID is not science. Keep God out of it.

    A big problem, with both stem cells and climate change, is overpromising.

    Don’t promise that the paralyzed will be leaping out of their wheelchairs. Every year that does not happen further immunizes the public against the claims of the benefits of ESC research. Rather, say “Why not give sick people every possible chance?” (Aw-shucks appeal to fairness.) And call them “early stem cells” rather than embryonic stem cells. Call the other kind somatic stem cells rather than adult stem cells.

    Stop saying some permutation of “The earth is going to suffer catastrophic ecosystem collapse within years.” Maybe it will, but every year it doesn’t hardens opposition. Rather, say that “Man-made climate change will hit you and your kids in the wallet” and explain why, from storms to fishing stocks.

  102. #102 Andy Groves
    April 8, 2007

    Guys, PZ is right to say that many scientists are good at telling interested people detailed information. He is misleading himself (in my opinion) to think that they communicate well with disinterested people.

    I would modify your statement – scientists are very good at communicating with other scientists who are experts in the same field. Outside that, scientists are usually awful at communicating with non-experts (even other scientists), interested or not. I cannot tell you how many awful seminars I have sat through in which sometimes very senior scientists simply cannot understand (or cannot be bothered to realize) that an audience of scientists is not necessarily intimately familiar with everything the speaker has published.

    I frequently have to critique talks by people in my lab. One of my stock phrases is “if I can’t follow you – and I’m you’re boss – how do you expect other scientists to follow you?”.

    Similarly, I have attended and spoken at meetings where interested and motivated lay people make up the audience, such as families with a history of hereditary disease. It’s heartbreaking to see these people be confused and bewildered by a badly prepared talk from a scientist, and heartwarming to see their response to a speaker who has actually taken the time and effort to see their subject matter through the eyes of a lay person. The first group vastly outnumber the second.

  103. #103 PZ Myers
    April 8, 2007

    Andy, one key difference is that you’re at an institution that is focused primarily on research, while I’m at one where teaching is the first priority. Everyone at this place is used to giving several lectures a week, and getting evaluated on the quality of their teaching. I’ve got friends at research universities who might give two lectures a semester, and no one gives a damn what they say as long as they’re bringing in the grant money.

    I would not say that all scientists are great communicators, but we do have a broader base of talent in that direction than most professions. We’re getting these blanket statements that scientists can’t inform, and I simply don’t believe it is true in the slightest.

  104. #104 RBB
    April 9, 2007

    Wow – great discussion here, and I’m pretty late to the debate. I think that some of PZ’s initial post kind of misses the point of the Science article. Framing is decidedly not about “dumbing down” science or coming up with “sound bites” for describing scientific theories. Although the word “framing” isn’t commonly used, the concept is a fundamental one in science education research. So PZ – this isn’t just about politics, it is about science ed!!

    If you’ve ever read How People Learn, probably the best summary of science education research out there (published a few years ago by the National Research Council), you know that it summarizes lots of research that shows that people have pre-existing concepts – frames if you will – that they bring to any conversation about a scientific topic. Sometimes, maybe often, those concepts are hopelessly wrong. But they are not irrational or inappropriate – they are simply the ways that people make sense of unfamiliar phenomena. Good science education starts by taking account of those pre-existing (and scientifically inaccurate) concepts and then brings students around to a better and more scientifically accurate understanding of the phenomena in question. It is a constant struggle (as anyone who teaches science knows) to shake out student’s pre-existing ways of thinking about things, but it is a necessary part of education.

    The article in Science is (maybe badly) applying this well known science education reality to a conversation about how to communicate about politically controversial science-intensive topics. If we don’t understand how people’s frames color and condition their understanding of science, we can’t hope to get them to change their minds. This is particularly true in politically controversial areas, where there are LOTS of available ways of framing the discussion that can be used by people interested in preserving their political power and derailing any move for progressive reform.

    PZ – as llewelly points out above, you already frame many of your arguments on this blog as being about something OTHER than simply the science concepts you discuss. The call to think about framing is a call to think about the way people’s brains already work, to address the biases and conceptual understandings that people already have as a FIRST STEP to bringing them over to a new way of thinking about science-intensive problems. The right does this quite well – although for a nefarious purpose. What this article is saying is that by attending to frames, scientists can improve the power of their communication. Maybe you need a post where you try out the effort and get a community dialog going about framing…

  105. #105 Cubist
    April 9, 2007

    I agree with Scott Hatfield and Blake Stacey that “these people are bloody LIARS!!!” is a woefully underused weapon in our arsenal of rhetoric. I would like to recommend, as a perhaps-helpful enhancement to this weapon, that we don’t just call Creationists “liars”; rather, we should hammer on them for “bearing false witness”. Since the Creationist target audience is approximately 99.44% God-fearing Christians, I believe the “they’re bleeding LIARS!!!” message will sink in more easily, and affect that target audience more strongly, if it’s couched in terms which remind said audience that the Lord they allegedly follow *really* didn’t like liars and decievers. Such as…

    “[insert Creationist weasel here] is a Commandment-breaking disgrace to the faith he professes to believe in.”

    “It’s the Ninth *Commandment*, not the Ninth *Suggestion*!”

    “I don’t understand how [name of Creationist weasel] can call himself a Christian, when his actions mark him so clearly as a follower of the Father of Lies.”

    And so on, and so forth, absolutely *hammering* those SOBs *without mercy* for their appallingly frequent, appallingly consistent dishonestly. Whether or not religious belief is a good thing, it *exists* and it’s a *very* strong influence on many people’s thinking… so if there’s any aspect of religious belief that we can exploit to our benefit, *why not*? And I’ll bet this tactic works even better when it’s applied by the Scott Hatfields and Francis Collinses of the world, than by, say, the PZ Mieyearszes and Richard Dawkinses…

  106. #106 jbw
    April 9, 2007

    I disagree, the media is great at presenting complex information. And the public seems perfectly capable, even eager to follow along. Evolution? Global Warming? No, don’t be silly. I mean Anna Nicole Smith and OJ and Jon Benet Ramsey. Arcane details of evidence and law, complex arguments, many perspectives compared. What more can you want?

  107. #107 Scott Hatfield
    April 9, 2007

    Blake: I love that title. What I would *really* like to see done would be a expose of creationism and certain creationists, specifically targeted to Christians.

    In particular, I would like to go around the country and do what Lee Strobel pretended to do, but did not in fact do in his book ‘The Case for the Creator’. If you haven’t suffered through this tome, it’s a particularly egregious example of double-speak.

    Strobel, as is his habit, pretends to be sympathetic to the side he wishes to pillory, interviews a hand-picked group of ‘experts’ (all, coincidentally, employees of the Discovery Institute) and then provides them with straw men to argue against and softball questions for them to ‘hit out of the park’, the effect being to selectively debunk only side’s arguments while maintaining an appearance of objectivity.

    What I’d like to do is interview some of the ID mavens again, but also interview a wide spectrum of working scientists, especially folk who aren’t willing to let falsehoods go unchallenged, and do so in a context wherein the misleading tactics can be clearly exposed to Christians who care about ethical conduct.

    Now, getting a publisher for something like that might be a little difficult, but wouldn’t it be a gas to actually put something together that would hit the liars where they live, in the churches?

    Why don’t you drop me a line off-thread (epigene13@hotmail.com) if you’d be interested in pursuing this or similar efforts? I’m sure that I could benefit from your counsel and experience….SH

  108. #108 MikeTV
    April 9, 2007

    3. I blame YOU. Yeah, YOU. Why aren’t you, the consumer of media, demanding better fare?

    Me? Don’t look at me. I get all my news from Pharyngula.

  109. #109 Madhu
    April 9, 2007

    Great responses, both of yours, to that Framing article, which has roiled up quite the debate around here. I’m late coming to this party, and it took me a while to digest the various blog posts and comments flying around. But I’ve finally posted a rather long piece of my mind on this topic over at Reconciliation Ecology, which might interest you and readers here – I hope.

    Thanks for providing the inspiration, as always, PZ!

  110. #110 Greg Laden
    April 9, 2007

    I have read a pile of literature sent to me by the authors, and it’s been interesting. While it has not changed my view (expressed earlier) it does give me a bit more to say.

    I am convinced that Frame Analysis is a valuable and powerful tool, but in it’s earlier, not it’s current, incarnation. I also don’t necessarily think it is our way our of the political mess we are in. But it is fun (for an anthropologist).

    See:
    http://gregladen.com/wordpress/?p=669

  111. #111 Beren
    April 9, 2007

    But PZ, this blog is one of the main media outlets I actually pay attention to :p I don’t own a television, and I don’t visit web sites such as cnn.com or even Google News. I follow the news I care about by paying attention to specific sites tailored to the sort of news I want to read: blogs, tech news sites, and so on. To my mind, Anderson Cooper is “that annoying media shill who crowded up the Barnes and Noble when I was hunting for something new to read.” I have heard more about him from this blog than the rest of my life combined.

    I think it’s a great idea, though, to have town-hall-like lectures for the layperson on various areas of interest. Any town that has a college or university ought to provide them, and advertise them on radio and TV. It’s even better to broadcast them on radio, TV, and the Internet, so those who will never get off their duffs to go to a lecture can still see them. Why not just start posting these things to YouTube?

  112. #112 Andy Groves
    April 9, 2007

    PZ, I’m sure that the quality of teaching at UMM in general, and your lectures in particular are exemplary. Nevertheless, I wasn’t basing my comments exclusively on my experience at research-heavy universities. It may have been that the lectures and seminars I’ve sat in on at teaching universities and community colleges were freakishly awful. But I doubt it.

    Point of discussion: What is a “scientist” anyway? Is it someone who does experiments, someone who thinks about science, someone who teaches science or a combination of these and other things?

  113. #113 Ford
    April 9, 2007

    Someone who’s really good at communicating science to the public can get a lot of information into 90 seconds. I’ve posted an example (an “AAAS Update” on my research) on This Week in Evolution. I don’t know how many radio stations carry these stories, however.

  114. #114 Tony Heller
    April 9, 2007

    The general assumption here is that the root cause of disagreement is ignorance or lack of education.

    Have you considered the possibility that some highly educated people disagree because they view the “science” as flawed?

    Arrogance and condescension impresses no one, and neither do declarations that “the argument is over.” It just makes it obvious that you are not secure in your views.

  115. #115 Steve_C
    April 9, 2007

    Evolution is a fact. Argument over. Don’t blame the scientists. I’m not one.

  116. #116 Keith Douglas
    April 10, 2007

    Pardon the self-promotion, but there’s a role for philosophers here too (and any language people who also care to learn some science). I think that some of us are useful for “big picture” stuff and also for the hard to pin down connections between science and human experience as a whole. Something like Sterelny and Griffiths’ Sex and Death is very useful, though even there I think it would be hard going without my decent background. (That’s what I find so appalling – my background really is fairly minimal, on paper, but I keep up with things, I talk to people in many fields and I like sucking it all in.)

    Olive: A “what do we know day”? It sounds interesting, if, alas, utopian. In all of these things I get mired in bootstrapping problems.

    Jim Harrison: Or, put another way, science communication should be studied scientifically, to eventually turn it into a technology (in the broad sense).

    Bob O’H: But what does one do when the medium cannot work?

    There’s another possibility that might be useful to implement. Some philosophy graduate programs (from what I hear) allow students to elect “teaching philosophy” as a subject matter to be an expert in (with the usual 1-2 other areas selected as normal). Perhaps making that available in other fields would help. (I’ve mentioned this idea previously, so please don’t mind the repetition.)

  117. #117 Andy Feeney
    April 25, 2007

    Many of the comments in here seem to assume that if the doggoned mass media will only permit it, the people the scientists want to communicate to are open-minded and/or rational in the way they seek out information, process information and understand information. As a one-time student of communications theory (although I was a lousy one) I think there’s evidence this assumption really isn’t true.

    Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance holds that whenever you’re trying to communicate some fact or theory to people that they don’t want to receive, they’re going to avoid you in the first place, misunderstand what you say if they have to listen to it, and selectively forget & remember what you said afterwards. You’ve challenged their beliefs or threatened to, and it’s irksome for nearly everyone to jettison old beliefs and develop new ones, and so in one way or another they’ll unconsciously try to screen you out.

    The example someone here provides about being willing to explain evolution to church audiences and never getting a call from the churches is the perfect example of this.

    This is only natural, I submit, and not something for honest scientists to deprecate, but only to learn from. Back in the 1920s, thinking about the communication of very different kinds of information from pure scientific research, the radical Italian intellectual Antonio Gramsci (father of Eurocommunism, among other things) suggested that for the average person in the street — for the “common” person confronted with a member of the scientific elite — this strategy of selective attention and psychological denial probably makes sense. Indeed, it may be essential to the mental health of the person doing the selective attention and the denial.

    To the average person, Gramsci noted, it’s pretty clear that he/she doesn’t have the intellectual background to debate effectively with the experts — politicians of the left or right, scientists of whatever background, economists, theologians, or whoever. It follows that if said average person is relatively open- minded and willing to consider what the experts say more or less dispassionately, he or she runs the risk of having to adopt a different opinion every 3 minutes or so, based on the views of the very last expert encountered.

    This is dysfunctional for the average erson, “maladaptive” as the biologists would put it, and therefore said ordinary person is going to adopt a somewhat dogmatic stance on a whole range of different questions, and will stick to the dogma for as long as possible. At least until presented with very cogent and urgent reasons to change.

    One of the conclusions that Gramsci drew from this is that when intellectual elites, whether scientific or political or whatever, wish to communicate new ideas and new factual information to non-elites, getting heard is simply going to require a great deal of repetition, just for starters. And it’s not clear that the most arrogant intellectual elitist in the scientific community (or the political left, in Gramsci’s case) would want the common citizens to be different, because if they’ll instantly accept your view on some controversial question, they’ll also accept Mussolini’s (or Lysenko’s, P.T. Barnum’s, etc.)

    This recalcitrance of the intended audience, assuming the media will let the honest scientist communicate with the intended audience, puts the would-be communicator of new information in an obvious bind. However, communications professor Peter Sandman (my graduate school advisor) has suggested that it may be possible to employ Festinger’s Theory of Cognitive Dissonance to get past the bind. Possibly, if the scientist can use the media to communicate real but somewhat abrasive truths to the average TV viewer, and if those abrasive truths provoke the viewer into doubt about his or her own position, said viewer will be jolted out of intellectual laziness and motivated to engage in an “information search” to determine the answer to questions in dispute (e.g. global climate change). Ideally, the aggravated and motivated TV viewer who’s been goaded into looking for new answers may then beome better informed about the real science.

    I wonder if this offers scientists some possible insights into how y’all might use your appearances on even biased and shallow media outlets (Fox News, CNN or whatever) in order to provoke the audience — not into instant understanding, but into further information search and useful thinking.

  118. #118 Mark Powell
    May 3, 2007

    Talking about science to non-scientists

    Yikes, there’s a great fog in the blogosphere as science advocates eat our own. All over how best to talk about science to non-scientists. Blogfish has an idea…let’s stop arguing and talk about what we can do to move forward together. Duh, let’s try some experiments. Here’s my first draft at designing a productive experiment.

    1) Can we agree on why we’re talking about science to non-scientists? If not, then different goals are a key part of the argument.

    My assumption: we want to talk about science to non-scientists. But what do we want the audience to do? Once we’ve answered that question, we can state the hypothesis. Here is a first draft of our options. We want the audience to…

    A: Listen (hear & understand the material).
    B: Learn (be able to repeat the essence).
    C: Be persuaded, change their minds (agree).
    D: Change their behavior (e.g. vote differently).

    I think this is a bit of a sequence or hierarchy, and I put the highest value on the end, C and especially D. I assume we all agree on this, but it’s worth exploring. If some place the emphasis on A or B and not so much on getting to C or D, then at least we’ve identified that we’re really arguing about goals.

    2) Can we agree on who we’re trying to reach? If not, then audience selection is a key part of the argument.

    My assumption: we want to talk to a wide audience of people with basically open minds. This excludes the unreachables (dogmatic, anti-science types), de-emphasizes the converted (scientists and others already pro-science), and emphasizes the reachables (basically open-minded, but not already pro-science).

    3) Can we agree on what scientific subjects we want to talk about? If not, then we’re really arguing about what subjects we should emphasize.

    My assumption: we want to talk about science basics like how science works, how science can inform our decision-making & public policy, and how to deal with imperfect knowledge.

    4) Starting with my assumptions 1-3 above, here’s a draft hypothesis that we should set about testing. These options a-d are not exclusive, they represent different emphases. Apologies to those cited here for what will likely seem like caricatures of their views.

    The best way to talk about science to non-scientists is:

    a) “Explain the fruits” of science in non-scientific terms (PZ Myers apple analogy).

    b) Show “we’re in this together” by connecting with people’s values first (Nisbet & Mooney’s framing science).

    c) “Stick to the facts” of science, and stay away from PR and spin (Greg Laden’s framing of framing).

    d) “Educate the masses” to build science literacy (Larry Moran’s no apologies approach).

    5) Measure the effectiveness of hypotheses a, b, c, d. To do that we need some way to measure effectiveness. Somehow, I think this is the key. I think much of the debate revolves around different measures of effectiveness.

    My personal experience as an advocate emphasizes getting people to change their behavior, as measured by involvement in public policy debates (citizens) or actual policy decisions (decision-makers). When I use this measure, it’s clear to me that hypothesis b) is the best way to go. Obviously, others disagree. I think I’m in the minority, in fact. Much has been said on this issue, and much is highly credible. For now, I’ll focus on one key example. PZ Myers emphasizes option a) and he says it works based on his experience in teaching. I think he’s right in getting people to learn, but not in getting people to change their behavior.

    So here’s the Blogfish bottom line: Nisbet and Mooney (Framing Science) are right if we actually want to change people’s behavior. They’re wrong if we want to focus on learning and stop there. Some will argue that learning is the basis of changing behavior, but I disagree. I think connecting with people is the basis of changing behavior, and framing is basically about connecting with people first.

  119. #119 Great White Wonder
    June 7, 2007

    “Instead, deny them their talking points. Go for the throat, interrupt them whenever you can, and paint them (correctly) as the enemies of civilization. You don’t need to make shit up, you just throw their shit right back on them.”

    Unless of course they are students in a classroom in which case that sort of behavior is “useless” or “counterproductive.”

    Why should that be the case? I have no idea. But I distinctly remember Scott making such statements in the past. Go figure.