The Mad Biologist, like 80% of ScienceBlogs, is mad at Chris Mooney:
Here’s the problem: you keep coming to evolutionary biologists with a problem (the perception of evolutionary biology), and you don’t have a solution. Do you think there’s a single evolutionary biologist who is happy with public opinion regarding evolution and creationism? But you’re not giving us concrete solutions.
Between teaching and research, along with all of service obligations expected of us (including public outreach), we have too much to do. When we are then told that we need to somehow organize a pro-evolution movie production (which we have no idea how to do since we’re scientists, not movie producers), that’s not helpful.
Many of us also don’t have the time, or, frankly the contacts, to engage in the activities you’re suggesting. Just as you don’t have the training and the professional network to conduct science, most scientists have no experience organizing public policy meetings or political campaigns. As I’ve learned from personal experience, political networking, if not a full-time job, is a huge drain on time. I don’t know a single scientist who isn’t overcommitted, and if something doesn’t appear to have a significant payback, we simply can’t devote time to it. And we certainly don’t need meetings or white papers (while I was visiting DC, I mentioned this to a colleague who is a paleontologist–and who does a considerable amount of public outreach–and he was not impressed. He called meetings and white papers “a necessary evil, at best, when they lead to something.”)
Mooney can speak for himself, if he chooses, but this whole rant seems misguided to me, in a way that partakes of a common fallacy. I don’t think that Mooney and Randy Olson and others are saying that scientists need to become movie producers or political organizers, but rather that scientists need to recognize that there are problems in those areas, and do something to address them.
The things that need to be done are not things that can be done by every scientists. But there are people out there who have the specialized skills needed to do those things– hire them.
Very few scientists are going to have the skills needed to be good movie directors or producers. Asking scientists in general to become moviemakers would be foolish in the extreme. What scientists need to do is to support and encourage people who do have the skills.
Very few scientists have the skills and connections needed to be effective political organizers. There are people who do, though, and they work for money. In fact, they’re famous (or infamous) for working for pretty much anybody who will pay them. What scientists need to do is to recognize the need for their services, and make use of them.
I realize that scientific training inculcates this sense that you need to do everything yourself, (though I hadn’t thought it was as bad in the life sciences as in physics), but that’s just not true. You should do the things that you’re good at, and have other people do the stuff that you can’t do.
Look, I watch a lot of movies and television, but I don’t know the first thing about making movies, and I doubt I could learn to do it well. I’ve got a reasonable facility with prose, though. So, I maintain this blog, and am writing a book, and I’ll happily contribute money to other people to make movies, because that’s what I can do that will help.
The basic problem with the Mad Biologist’s post is the same thing you run into with a lot of anti-environmental arguments. You’ll hear people say that it’s totally unrealistic to expect everybody in the country to drive a hybrid car (for example, I can barely wedge myself behind the wheel of Kate’s Prius), and it wouldn’t fix the emissions problem even if we could. So, they claim, there’s just nothing that can be done about environmental issues, and we should all give up.
That line of argument is crap, though– it’s true that we can’t get everyone to drive a Prius, but just because you’re a big guy like me and can’t fit in a hybrid doesn’t mean that there’s nothing you can do, or that it’s ok to do nothing. You can’t do everything, but you can do something.
The key point is, as they say, that first you need to recognize that you have a problem, and need outside help. That’s what Mooney and others are trying to do, and that’s why they keep harping on about it. Too many scientists continue to pretend that there isn’t a problem with communicating science to the public. Too many others pretend that there is a problem, but it’s a problem that can be solved with just a few minor tweaks.
The image problem that science has isn’t a small problem, and it’s not going to be solved by a few individual scientists making minor changes to their personal behavior. It’s going to take a community-wide recognition of the problem, and a concerted effort to improve the state of science communication by encouraging and rewarding those who are good at it.
What about the Mad Biologist’s call for “concrete suggestions” from Mooney et al.? To be honest, I find it annoyingly reminiscent of the students in my intro class who complain that I didn’t give them any in-class example problems that were identical to the questions on the exam. But here are some moderately specific suggestions for small things scientists can do to start to improve the state of science communication:
- If you have colleagues who do public outreach activities, reward them for it. Support their tenure cases, not in a tepid “even though he does this outreach stuff, he’s still a good scientist” way, but strongly: “She has done a fantastic job advancing the cause of science through communication with the general public.” If you’re at a place that does merit reviews, push to have public communication considered as a positive factor for merit raises.
- Identify and encourage people with a talent for communicating to the general public. That grad student down the hall, the one with the slick animated PowerPoint slides who posts little videos to YouTube when he thinks nobody’s looking? Encourage him to channel that in a useful way– don’t say “You! Get back to work!” say “Hey, have you thought about making science videos?” If you have students who write well, encourage them to write general-audience stuff for school papers or local media.
- Seek help where you need it. If you find yourself in a position where you need to participate in public politics, get help. There are people who do this for a living– most big universities have schools of communication or some such. If you need to go to the local school board and argue that it’s critically important to teach evolution, get some advice about how to craft your message to reach them most effectively. At the very least, find some brutally honest friends who aren’t scientists, and rehearse your presentation on them.
- When all else fails, send money. Pick an organization that works to promote science, and give them cash. Everybody likes cash. Support the NCSE, give money to the outreach efforts of your professional society, contribute to the campaigns of pro-science candidates. Tell all your friends to do the same.
None of those steps will fix the problem overnight, but then no individual action is going to change everything all of a sudden. Change will come only through a huge collection of small steps, with everybody in the community moving in the same direction, and doing what they do best to help out.