Boredom, sensationalism, and toxic idiocy: Is there any good way to talk about science with non-scientists?

Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon put up a post about gender essentialism that starts by citing this post at Mixing Memory on how people's representations of homosexuality affect their attitudes toward homosexuality. Because Chris's post cited my two posts (initially sparked by Jessica's post at Feministing), I came in for some criticism from Greensmile in this comment at Pandagon. As I believed these criticisms to be based on a misunderstanding of my position, I responded. Greensmile then was kind enough to read my posts and to respond that we seem to be having "the most violent agreement", given that Greensmile has also mused on the the science on sexual orientation (in two thoughtful and detailed posts that you really should read) and has come to substantially the same conclusion I have, that "how we treat gays should not depend on what science eventually understands about that collection of behavior paterns".

Can I tell you, before we go any further, that I really like how these new technologies make it possible for us to track down what other people are actually saying in order that we may discover where we are in agreement? When people gnash their teeth and say that cyberspace is hosting the world's largest shouting match, this is just the sort of counter-example I like to have handy.

Anyhow, I do think there is one smallish point of disagreement between me and Greensmile that ought to be noted. But then, I want to turn my attention to a larger issue Greensmile raises in another comment at Pandagon:

Research is not conducted in public. And in fact, publicly funded research can be jeopardized by dimwitted popular misconceptions about the subject of the research...ultimately to the disservice of all. So discussion of research in public may be a matter where discretion is advised. Chris commented that to do otherwise is naive. That may be so. But as this little tempest of unrecognized agreeing has demonstrated, discussion travels far and fast nowdays. So I stick by my guns: scientists and people who follow and defend that way of knowing the world are going to have to deal with toxic idiocy anyway, lets just get good at it as well as, or instead of, trying to avoid it. As I commented back to Chris:
"naive": Thats me all right. But I do not go back and forth much: dissemination of ideas is virtually impossible to control in this day and age...unless you can make it sound boring [which was Jessica Vallenti's original faux pas: she sensationalized a routine scientific paper] If senationalism and instant dissemination are here to stay, then we just have to keep learning and calmly explaining what we have learned...and calmly refuting from our facts the distortions others reach from their assumptions and fears.

To boil down the larger issue to a question: What is the best way for scientists (and others) to talk about scientific ideas and findings with non-scientists?

First, let me get the smallish point of disagreement out of the way: what's wrapped up in our notion of "natural"? Greensmile describes it pretty well:

Natural is not the same as "typical" or "normal" and it is the idea of being "normal" that carries the heavy load of socially constructed stigma. I use "natural" as the opposite of "unnatural", ie natural means NOT behaviors learned or otherwise imposed contrary to the inclinations of the organism. Humans make that distinction hard to elucidate because they are so darned reprogramable. If 8 or so percent of human males turn out to have genetic variations or effects of fetal exposure to cortisol and other hormones which can be shown by instrumentation to leave them functioning with unconscious arousal responses to other males that IS natural, just not typical. [and clearly, not well understood either]

I don't have a quarrel with this usage, but I'm not convinced that identifying behaviors or traits that are not learned or otherwise imposed contrary to the inclinations of the organism is sufficient to guarantee that the behaviors or traits are not identified as problems with natural origins. "Errors of metabolism" (like PKU) surely fall in this category, as do cancers with genetic bases. They are at once natural and problems to be solved (with science). And, as I noted earlier, it's not clear that there's anything wrong with this approach to conditions that by their nature could kill us or otherwise get in the way of doing whatever it is we have to do to lead meaningful human lives.

Where we draw the line that separates natural-and-fine behaviors and traits from natural-and-pathological ones, of course, is the problem. Cancer seems like a pretty easy call. But, in our society, it's not a big leap to imagine the love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin crowd being reborn as the respect-the-diseased-person-cure-his-disease lobby.

Now, though, let's get to the big issue: If we stipulate at the outset that scientific knowledge can't tell us what to value (or, for example, that we ought to be decent to people with trait X because trait X has a biological basis), how ought scientists to proceed when discussing their findings with non-scientists?

The general thrust of Greensmile's answer is that scientists need to stay on top of the task of correcting the public's misunderstandings of the facts and what they mean. And in principle, this is probably the right answer. In practice, however, it could be pretty challenging.

Scientists as communicators: Despite the stereotype lots of people seem to have of scientists as people who are better with numbers (or test tubes, or abstract models, or whatever) than they are with words, scientists need to be able to communicate to do science. Part of the undertaking is communicating your results to other scientists, whether on paper (in journal articles and such) or orally (at conferences and seminars). But in communications within the tribe of science one can assume a certain level of background knowledge, a familiarity with the background literature and standard methodological approaches to a given question. Even in communications across scientific disciplines, one can assume other scientists have a reasonable feel for what's involved in testing hypotheses, constructing a model of a real system, and drawing conclusions from limited data.

When talking to people from outside the tribe of science, you can't make any of these assumptions. In other words, to really explain a scientific finding to a non-scientist, the scientist might well have to start with a primer not just on the state of the art in her scientific field, but on the scientific method itself. Believe it or not, some scientists aren't very practiced at explaining how science works to non-scientists. Some of them aren't great at explaining it clearly. (The people they communicate with on a regular basis -- the other scientists -- don't need to have the scientific method explained to them, though, so it's not like this would get in the way of their ability to do good science.)

Plus, it's worth remembering that scientists usually get little or no professional recognition or credit for embarking on these attempts to communicate what they're doing to the general public. The communication that "counts", professionally, is in the form of (high impact) peer-reviewed publications, (high profile) professional presentations, and grant proposals that succeed in securing funding. Scientists may want to spend more time educating the public about what they are learning, but in many professional contexts these efforts are seen as cutting into the time the scientists ought to be spending on other things.

So, scientist-to-non-scientist communication is often difficult (because of how much background you need to explain to the non-scientist and how little practice you have explaining that background outside the scientific circles in which you travel), and it isn't rewarded professionally. And, the public seems so good at misunderstanding what a research finding might mean that once you start, you're committed to sticking around to correct every misinterpretation that pops up.

It's like weeding a garden. You are never done. Once you pull all the weeds you can see, more are poised to pop up. Every now and then, it makes you feel like just pouring cement and being done with it. (But weeds come up from the cracks in the cement!)

One way scientists (who are already pretty busy) might be less burdened here would be to have some allies who are good at communicating with non-scientists (even about technical issues) and who actually do get professional rewards for engaging in such communication. For example, good science journalists could help quite a lot here. But, science journalists are not simply translating the details the scientists think are important into language a non-scientist can understand. Science journalists also have to make the story interesting enough that the non-scientist will actually read or listen to it. (Here, let me point out that we shouldn't blame Jessica at Feministing for sensationalizing a routine scientific paper; she was responding to a BBC headline that was sensationalizing that paper. And, if the headline had kept the paper boring-sounding, who would have even paid attention? Why not kill the story in favor of World Cup reportage?)

A story is only successful if it finds an audience, but sometimes science journalists have to lure that audience to the story. One way to lure people into a science story is to play up its possible implications for things the non-scientists already care about. And sometimes, to the scientists' dismay, this means a story connects with readers because it connects, somehow, with their pre-existing assumptions and fears.

So now is it the science journalist's job to keep using the facts to correct the distortions and misunderstandings? Do all the science journalists have a sufficient grasp of the facts (and of the methodology used to arrive at them) to be up to this task? Will their editors have the patience to let them stay on this task when there are new stories to write? Will the scientists have to bug the science journalists about this? Will the scientists get frustrated and decide it's not even worth dealing with the science journalists? (There is no professional reward most scientists get for taking the time to work with science journalists, but they could well take a professional hit if they are the named scientist in a story that misrepresents the science.)

Why, if it's so much trouble, would scientists even want to communicate about what they're doing with non-scientists?

Scientists as clients (or beggars): A great many scientists get a good deal of their research funding from public monies. Those public monies include taxes paid by non-scientists. If scientists want to do research funded by the public, they need to be in a position to make a good case for the funding and to be able to share the knowledge made on the public's dime.

Indeed, for those who think that the only sensationalism about science happens in headlines from the popular press, you might want to look at a grant proposal or two.

In the competition for a finite pot of research money, proposals not only have to present projects that look likely to be successful, but they must also make the case that the research will contribute some important piece of knowledge or solve some important problem. The measure of "importance" here is not what the scientists in a given field would regard as important. Rather, there is pressure to solve problems the non-scientists care about: cure a disease, make an effective missile-shield, etc. The people's representatives seem to have a taste for mocking problems that scientists choose to study if they're not closely linked to some "worthwhile" goal, and justifying "basic research" to the public is a perennial challenge.

The problems in communicating about money here are related to the problems we've already noted: non-scientists don't always have the framework for understanding what it is the scientists are even trying to do, or what their findings might mean once the research is completed. The public asks "So what?" Even though there's usually an answer to that question that would satisfy another scientist ("We learned a little bit more about how system X works, and more knowledge is progress."), that answer doesn't always do the job for the non-scientist ("Why should I care about system X and how it works? How is this knowledge going to make my life better or solve my problems?).

Unless the non-scientists are getting some good out of the research, it's hard to make the case that they should have to put up money to fund it. So, if the scientists want this money, they have to communicate with the public.

Scientists as sources of reliable information: From what I've said so far, it might seem like the stuff scientists study is completely divorced from the interests and concerns of non-scientists. It isn't. There are scientists who are researching things they thought were really cool before they were scientists (dinosaurs! explosions! sex!). There are also scientists whose studies may have been prompted by everyday assumptions or fears. However, part of doing science is subjecting assumptions to rigorous tests. Furthermore, the way science works is such that each research project usually contributes only a small piece to the larger story we're trying to work out. What seems like a simple question to a non-scientist may spawn dozens of precisely formulated sub-questions for the scientists.

Even if we'd prefer simple answers to our questions, the world can be a pretty complicated place. Careful scientific research attempts to do justice to such complications -- and this means science can't guarantee simple answers.

But the answers actually do matter, and not just to scientists. As much as non-scientists might complain about some of the research funded by their tax dollars, they'd freak out if all the scientists suddenly closed up shop and moved someplace else. Non-scientists want to have access to people who have the knowledge and the skills to tackle hard problems and answer burning questions.

In other words, because non-scientists count on scientists as a source of reliable knowledge on a whole range of issues, non-scientists have a stake in improving communication with scientists. This means part of the burden of improving this communication falls on the non-scientists. They have to listen to what the scientists are trying to explain. They have to ask questions when things aren't clear. Perhaps, they even have to try asking questions of the sort science can answer, rather than the broad questions to which science can hardly ever provide a simple answer.

There's still a lot of work for the scientists to do here. But the non-scientists have to start being active participants engaged in a dialogue rather than a passive "audience" waiting to have the relevant facts poured into their skulls.


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That clinches it. I'm writing a proposal to study exploding dinosaur sex. Co-PI's will be Hugh Hefner and the Mythbusters guys.

"A great many scientists get a good deal of their research funding from public monies."

This is the key point of the whole discussion. If science were not funded by public money, there would be no need to justify it. Since it is, there is a need, and a legitimate one. Probably the ideal solution would be to have legislators and a president (or legislators and a governor) who understand that basic research is valuable whether it has any obvious practical appliations at the moment. Then they could simply fund the science and serve as a shield against the rest of the public. Of course, we do not have such people in government. Instead, some legislators try to paint basic research as ridiculous and wasteful, thus tainting science in general. They also use science and public perceptions and prejudices for political gain - consider teaching of evolution, or stem cell research. This tends to lead me toward the idea that the best place to apply some communication skills might be at the governmental level. But, I suppose that a person gets a much shorter hearing if he's asking for money than if he's offering it.

By Mark Paris (not verified) on 13 Jul 2006 #permalink

Phew long entry, but I've got to disagree on a one point (which like most philosophical arguments, probably comes down to definitions) and agree on another.

"Scientific knowledge can't tell us what to value"
A)Scientific knowledge can tell us what we value (different but important.
B)Scientific knowledge can tell us what we SHOULD value.

While no amount of knowledge trapped in an ivory tower can change our opinions; facts presented to us hopefully can. If we ignore religion for a second, I would hope that most people would make their decisions based on a kind of hedonist utility kinda view point: activities which increase to total pleasure to man kind are good; those which increase the total benefit the most (at the least cost of suffering) are the best. Working in religion gets a bit more complicated; but one can still do it. Importantly, only carefully produced science can find out ways to maximize out pleasure and can tell us what causes us pleasure, displeasure and at what cost.

If scientists want to do research funded by the public, they need to be in a position to make a good case for the funding and to be able to share the knowledge made on the public's dime.
Moreover, they should be doing the research that truly benefits the public. That's why I got angry at a entry at the Nature Neuroscience blog "Action Potential" when they said "Protests by animal rights activists are unfortunately nothing new". If the majority of the public doesn't want animal research, then it should not be a)funded publicly and b)carrier out in that country. Protests like this spark public debate and give scientists and opportunity (that they nearly always ignore) to voice their side of the story.

Your post reminded me a of long-held idea of mine: There should be people trained in science and in communications employed by research institutions. Their jobs would not be to write press releases or newspaper articles, but to take on much of the day-to-day job of communicating scientific results with the public, interfacing with ongoing discussions, and responding to questions/misconceptions, etc. raised by news stories. Maybe they could even troll the blogosphere.

I have more than one comment to make here but first of all, thank you for so kindly dealing with my outbursts and thank you especially for so throroughly laying out the many problems scientists have in communicating with or more generally dealing with the world that provides their funds and needs their discoveries.

My thoughts on the very hard question of how to make science interesting enough to gain an audience without pandering or distorting: We cannot compete by pushing harder because the audience is already saturated by every hyperstimulating gimmick producers and advertisers can get away with. I'd argue it would be better to teach science as if it were on a par with the 3R's and see if we get an audience that pulls in the science and is informed enough to be critical. I dream perhaps since that sounds like deep culture change.

This whole series of communications looks sensible under your microscope, Dr. Stemwedel. I am not sure I deserve such kind treatment for my part in it.

I agree that the traces and records in the age of "she blogged, he blogged" are quite valuable. In commenting to a recent post by Cotunix on the topic of how science gets so mangled in this media, I likened it to a bad game of telephone.

After making a big stink on Pandagon and Mixing Memory, I realized that what I was reacting to was a paper on homosexuality I had already blogged about two weeks ago. What happened? I and too many others write to get attention. Its a bad game of telephone careless bloggers play:
1 Bogeart publishes latest findings on relation between sibling birth order and sexual orientation.
2 BBC publishes a "punched up" headline under which to run their report of the study.
3 Jessica Valenti ups the sensationalism with an alarming slant and word choices to report and then question consequences, not of the finding but of the reactions to potential misrepresentations.
4 Dr Freeride ruminates on that concern
5 Chris considers the validity of Dr. Freeride's worries.
6 Amanda quotes the worries in an otherwise solid post.
7 I jump all over the quote.

Nothing but our own courtesy and professionalism will save us from reacting to or passing on misimpressions. You, Chris and Amanda come off well in that regard. The rest of us in that chain wreck can take a bit of blame. I don't fault Jessica for having a new take, or forseeing a consequence to be considered, just for her alarmist tone. At the very least, one rule which I learned on slashdot always helps: RTFA.

Oops, I misspelled Jessica's last name there, I beg pardon.
[spell check can't save me, I am doomed]

regarding the smallish difference: I agree with the concern that variations with socially negative esteem or economically negative impacts could be categorized as diseases. Our different views here may hinge on WHO is doing the categorization: a well informed and impartial panel of doctors or a congressional funding committee with two of its ranking members sounding like Sen. Inhofe. Your position is more realistic. When I positted the notion of "organic behavior" in my posts on homosexuality, I confess I was vague in allowing that only "predetory and antisocial" proclivities needed to be policed.

I typo'd my statement of what we agree is a key stipulation. I meant to say, "Ask 'why?' in church. Ask 'how' in the laboratory". You are absolutely right that science does not find values, it finds mechanisms. It can predict consequences. That is why the scientist reporting a mechanism, or even a correlation has to respectfully and cautiously point out consequences. To these consequences, the larger community then applies its value schemes. Interpreters for science like the BBC copy editor are NOT what I would call cautious. Niether, IMO, was Jessica. The hazard of a cautious explaination is lenghty lists of qualifications, noting of exceptions, constantly re-explaining what "falsifiable" has one hand tied behind its back.

...Despite the stereotype lots of people seem to have of scientists as people who are better with numbers... Surely the scienceblogs put this falacy to rest ;?)
In truth, though I like explaining things, I fail miserably at respecting a goodly portion of those who are outside the tribe. Never mind that I am defensive about disrespect they may have for science, communication works best between equals and that is just a hard thing to pull off.

I could not agree more heartily with all the rest of your post. When you say that some of the burden falls on the nonscience community, I think the way to get that ball rolling is, as I commented above, a much higher cultural valuing of science instilled in k-12 curricula.

[...]There should be people trained in science and in communications employed by research institutions.[...]
I hope you're far from the ONLY person (besides myself) who thinks so, - I think I'd just about consider trading some of my redundant organs (and perhaps portions of the non-redundant ones) for a job like that. Enjoyable and a chance to do some social good.
Besides, considering how rare it is to find people who are both scientifically and technically informed who are also able to communicate coherently with more typical folks, if I were successful at it the notion of "supply and demand" implies that it'd pay a wage that was at least comfortable.
(Personally, when I start publishing scientific papers, my intention is to also write a "So what, who cares" essay to go with each one, so as to be able to explain to anyone with a reasonable education what the point of it is - an at least give a general idea to those less educated.)

Janet wrote:

There's still a lot of work for the scientists to do here. But the non-scientists have to start being active participants engaged in a dialogue rather than a passive "audience" waiting to have the relevant facts poured into their skulls.

OK, so here is my question. As an individual non-scientist, what can I do? What would you, as a scientist, like to see someone like me do?
Who am I? I am a non-scientist who has a keen interest in the scientific world. I am a computer graphics artist/3D animator/video editor/DVD author. I can do a lot with moving images using computer graphics technology. I have a keen interest in science and technology ever since I was a kid. I feel I have a decent understanding of science in general as a layperson. But, I am completely out of my league when it comes to actually being able to understand the vast majority of the scientific literature. I do read a lot of stuff in popular publications such as Scientific American and popular books such as by Brian Green and Richard Dawkins but, that is where it ends for me.
I may be pretty easy compared to the large majority of the population here in the US. I feel I do have a basic, albeit, incomplete understanding of how science works, what scientists do, what constitutes a scientific theory, etc (thanks in no small part to Sb btw). However, what about my mother-in-law, the woo-woo queen of all time? What about my sister-in-law, the "There is no objective reality" liberal arts graduate? What about my father, the conservative, Catholic, retired from the business world philanthropist who feels there it not enough God in the classroom? -- All of who have almost no concept of what science is or how it works beyond what they see in the movies and on TV. How do you reach them? What would you like to see them do to participate?
I personally think that science is the greatest intellectual endeavor humankind has ever undertaken. More has been learned and accomplished with science than any other methodology humans have ever used. Yet, to take a pulse of the general population in this country right now, you would almost think that scientists are a pariah, that science is "so yesterday." I see a very serious disconnect between the importance of science in our world and how people perceive it. In a way, the Discovery Institute's Wedge strategy has already succeeded in imparting a seriously negative image of science as Godless, cold, materialistic, without morals or ethics, something to not be trusted. You find this attitude permeates pop culture, media, and politics
So, Janet, what would you suggest, as a scientist, we non-scientists can do to work with scientists to reverse this tide flow away from science and toward anti-science, anti-intellectualism? How can we work together to make science something that is cool and viewed positively again?
I have a real reason for asking this btw.

[...]But the non-scientists have to start being active participants engaged in a dialogue rather than a passive "audience" waiting to have the relevant facts poured into their skulls.[...]
The difficult part about that is that non-scientists (at least in the U.S., though I suspect it's true in much of the rest of the world as well) are convinced that science doesn't concern them. People who don't have a natural interest in science only see examples of science that seem strangely specialized and irrelevant. Because of this, non-scientific people (as a group) just plain don't see any reason to do the intellectual work required to understand.
I think we[1] need to make the initial efforts to get non-scientific people interested, at least until there are enough of them to start shouldering their fair share of the burden.
[1] - I may be merely a student (for an embarassingly long time now) but since I actually "do" science willingly, beyond what's strictly required, I don't think it's unreasonable to count myself as "one of us"...

Your last two paragraphs imply that "active" participation on the part of nonscientists involves asking good questions and listening to the answers. I think that's definitely a form of participation, but I wouldn't call it active participation.

What do you think of citizen science efforts, such as in the urban environmental justice movement, that aim to put the tools of science into local residents' hands so that they may gather (and sometimes interpret) their own data?

For example, what are nonscientists to do when faced with corporate polluters who can conjure up some "scientific" data and prepare glossy reports to cover up their wrongdoing? What if citizens think an EIR is flawed? Is there some way they can ratchet up their level of participation in science (perhaps guided or advised by trained scientists)?

As a nonscientist, it's not that I don't value science. As an (almost!) Ph.D. in the humanities, I can certainly locate scientific papers and make a tiny bit of sense out of some of them. I can usually identify other trustworthy resources on science. But if a corporation put some kind of chemical plant near my neighborhood and my neighbors and I suspected environmental contamination, how would we go about measuring pollutant levels if city officials decided to look the other way?

I'm just wondering how laypeople can get more involved with science in a hands-on kind of way.

It's frustrating that so much basic research must be justified as a means of curing cancer, even when it is only tangentially related.

Scientists have a valuable skill to bring to discussion of public issues: they are used to framing questions about "how big?" and "how important is this mechanism?" in a meaningful, quantitative way. For example: global warming is obviously bad. But what should we do? Scientists need to translate the scientific literature into answers to questions like these: What combination of strategies could we use to reduce CO2 emission by roughly half? Roughly what change in temperature would that reduce? Numbers are powerful, if they are translated into digestible knowledge.

Indeed, you can't push knowledge on people. Instead, you need to lead them to it, and make it accessible to them. The Web has done a great jobs with accessibility, but outsiders need to be drawn in. And yeah, leadership as such is a key, as is standing up against abuses of science.

As far as "science can't tell us what to value" -- that's hardly right! Even if we don't get commandments emerging from the equations, nor decrypted from DNA -- still, science has a great deal to teach us about value. Science has told us that the true bounty of nature is what we haven't taken over or pissed on, and that if we destroy that through carelessness or shortsighted greed, we will never get it back. Science tells us that practically every lifeform on the planet has to deal with issues of cooperation versus conflict, mediated by committment and trust. And the very practice of science teaches us of the importance of honesty, humility, patience, and integrity in general.

By David Harmon (not verified) on 14 Jul 2006 #permalink

Thanks for the helpful feedback, folks! Just so you know, I'm trying to formulate a rather more detailed post focusing on what the non-scientist can do to improve communication with scientists, turn back the tide of anti-intellectualism, and generally make the world a better place for everyone. I'll try to have it posted sometime this weekend.

How do I - a non medical person - get my research to those who would like to make a difference? I've been giving my research - free of charge - over the past 5 years, to many in the medical field - I'm told that my research is insignificant.

I had similar neurological symptoms to a neurological illness in livestock. Our sheep were diagnosed as with a neurological illness. I experimemented with the treatment - also for human use - which suppressed and over time, eventually reversed most of the symptoms - I now have reasonably good health - most of the time. My research found that these symptoms cross over many illnesses and conditions in humans.
Similar symptoms - why not similar treatment?

I believe this treatment may give better health to many - regardless of diagnosis or cause - and may even put stem-cell research in the bottom draw if I'm right. I think that I am, as I'm not the kind of person to go to all this trouble to make a fool out of myself, if I thought otherwise. Several people, with all sorts of illness and conditions, also said that they had better health while they were taking what I suggested.

I wonder if anyone has any suggestions as how to get this information to those who care.