Some More Thoughts About Unscientific America: What Are We Trying to Communicate?

One of the parts I liked about Unscientific America was the recognition that many scientists need to be trained in communication--and as importantly, this training requires funding, so universities have a financial incentive to reward scientific communication and outreach. Mooney and Kirshenbaum also think that non-profit organizations should and will play a critical role in communicating science: not only do we have to train people, we need to actually pay them to communicate. So that's all good (TEH RELIGIONISMZ!! AAAIIEEE!!!).

One example of the non-profit model is Rick Weiss, who is an excellent science reporter, and currently writes for Science Progress, which is an online journal hosted by the Center for American Progress. But this example led me to consider a pretty basic question--and one that I don't think is directly raised by Mooney and Kirshenbaum:

What exactly are we trying to communicate?

This isn't a trivial issue. Scientists have been pretty unified since 2000 for the basic reason that the conservative movement, led by Little Lord Pontchartrain, launched an unremitting war on basic reality (something Mooney described in The Republican War on Science). It's pretty easy to remain unified against people who deny basic reality. But what happens when they stop doing so, and instead, engage on policy terms? (an aside: For the last eight years, I have been amazed that, rather than killing progressive initiatives through policy details, conservatives have flat-out denied that the problems even exist. Of course, if no one calls them on the lying--the bad behavior is rewarded--why should they stop?).

At what point do we switch from defending scientific observations to subjective art of making policy? There's nothing wrong with scientists arguing for policies--why should this be the sole purview of laywers and economists? But it's not science, it's public policy advocacy. Take curbing CO2 emissions: there are lots of plans out there. Some of them might work well, others will have little or no effect. It's not enough to convince people to do something--that something has to work.

Should we advocate for more funding for science? If so, how should we pay for it? Deficit spending? Higher taxes? Program cuts elsewhere?

Thanks to the Hizbollah wing of the GOP, we've had it pretty easy. Holding the line on budget cuts, not to mention the acceptance of basic reality, I would argue, is a broadly held consensus among scientists. But there are a lot areas where we don't agree. One example is the nomination of Francis Collins. Leaving aside the shrieking about TEH RELIGIONISMZ!, scientists disagreed about whether he was the right scientist for the job--should a genomics person be running the NIH?

For me, the unresolved issue is that there is, according to Unscientific America, this thing Science that we scientists et alia are supposed to communicate to the public-at-large, but I'm not sure what that is. There are plenty of good educational fora (although more, particularly on television and the video intertoobz couldn't hurt). So, assuming our political discourse regains a modicum of sanity, what are we supposed to be communicating?

More like this

In an earlier post (with the strikethrough eliminated--weird, it didn't show up when I looked at the preview; it's been fixed), I mentioned that it was hard to determine what Mooney and Kirshenbaum want scientists to actually communicate. One commenter pulled this from Unscientific America: After…
I'm currently working my way through Unscientific America, and I have the sneaking suspicion that I'm going to wind up agreeing with ScienceBlogling Janet's assessment (actually, it will probably be harsher). But speaking of Janet, I want to take exception with one thing in her review: her…
As I've been preparing my formal review of Unscientific America I've been struck by the question: who was this book intended for? Clearly it was a critique of science communicators to be sure (more on that later) but as I realized in going through my notes, Mooney and Kirshenbaum's strongest…
Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum tries to make several different points. The central framework of the book, on which all the arguments are hung, is that science has a status, a place, in American culture, politics, and…

Even the comments are struck-through.

Madness!

By Captain Obvious (not verified) on 21 Jul 2009 #permalink

What I don't get is what Mooneybaum thinks is going to be changed by scientists trying to communicate "science."

The free market isn't everything, it's true, but surely we should pay attention to the fact that to a great degree we get from the media what we want. If we want wall-to-wall coverage of Michael Jackson's death, we get it, and if we want science education and/or coverage, we get that too.

A Sagan can make some difference, but not even Carl really made a huge difference, no matter the hagiography we get from Mooneybaum.

So I'm not opposed to supporting scientists' attempts to communicate better with the public, but clearly we need receptive listeners more than we need more communicators, even good ones. We have to face the fact that science has a limited appeal, and will probably increase mostly if education makes science more accessible and interesting to people.

Glen D
http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

It's all made of stars! It's so beautiful! My eyes!

Wow, even the sidebar. And the "Post" and "Preview" buttons. And I had no idea you could do that to an input box!

Strikethrough off!
Now, did you mean to do that?

One positive step I could suggest is for some educational foundation to organize the re-printing of Isaac Asimov's fifty or so science books, with amendments and updates to reflect our increased knowledge. Maybe the NCSE could talk his executors into allowing it, for a share of the resulting profits. Some essays, e.g. the history of the discovery of fluorine, wouldn't really need much changing; others would need a lot. Maybe we could throw in a few color illustrations or release them as PDFs. (Or is not exclusive). Any thoughts?

test

By Trin Tragula (not verified) on 21 Jul 2009 #permalink

Mike,
To actually answer your question, I think Mooney and Kirschenbaum were pretty forthright on what need to be communicated:

After all, America doesn't merely need non-scientists to better understand the details of science, or the nature of the scientific method: we need them to see why science matters in their lives and careers whether they're working in politics, the media, the corporate world, or some other sector.

Unsicentific America p.118, first full paragraph (emphasis mine).

Now, we can debate what ought to be in that message, and if that's where you are going I can make some suggestions. But to say that the outline of what we need scientists to communicate is missing from Chris and Sheril's book is not totally accurate.

> we need them to see why science matters ...

Science matter in their lives and careers, you say?

Well, why? What in particular about science do you want them to understand?

I know, "why it matters" -- but that fails to answer the question "why does it?"

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 21 Jul 2009 #permalink

Hey just a factual point--no way you would know this, but after we finished editing the book Rick Weiss went on to a new post, at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. I forget his position there, but he's no longer with Science Progress.

Anyway this is a great post...and of course, the reason it's hard to be as specific as you seem to want is that you have to communicate on so many different science issues, and each will be different.

On the one hand, there are the specific topics: global warming, evolution, etc. Each is different.

And then there are the issues like communicating the importance of science funding to America's economic future.

And then, there's communicating what science is, how it works, why people should trust it, why it's reliable.

So of course each message will be different, and our book isn't a how-to guide for communicating on every particular issue, though it contains many suggestions. But I generally agree with Philip H's reading....that is *one* of the central things that needs to be communicated.

No, Mike, that's not it, but since your comments seem to be turned off over there, I'll answer you here.

All I was doing was inserting an actual quote from the book as an example to answer your question. I did that because I've grown weary of the whiplash I have developed reading comment threads on Unscientific America where commenters stake out positions on the books' purported statements, all the while not bothering to actually read, much less quote the book.

But that is not the only example I could have pulled, nor even the best one. Consider this one:

And anyway, we don't need average citizens to beocme robotic memorizers of scientific facts or regular readers of technical scientific literature. Rather, we need a nation where science has far more prominence in politics and media, far more relevance to the life of every American, far more intersections with with other walks of life, and ultimately far more influence where it truly matters - namely in setting the agenda for the future as far out as we can possibly glimpse it.

Now, I'll be the first to say that Sheril and Chris COULD have set up a few examples with bullet points or tables to show specifics that are being missed in the larger popular discussion. They could have told us all the 15 things EVERY scientist needs to communicate before they die or something similar.

And had they done so, they would have been eviscerated for not including 49 other things. Or for using tables instead of bullet points. Or for daring to tell scientists which information is fit for communication and which not. Bottom line, they wouldn't have won any more arguements then they currently are - which is not a lot.

So, Id' sort of throw the challenge back out, and say what do WE, the scientific community think WE need to communicate more? What message do WE need to make better? And what's stopping us?

The main problem, as I see it, is more a failure of science education. It's all well and fine to say that scientists need to communicate with the public more, but, if opinion polls are to be believed, the majority of Americans are scientifically illiterate. How does a novelist communicate with someone who can't read? I frequently hear calls to explain things more simply, but many scientific concepts take a bit of work to wrap your head around and can't be reduced to sound bites. I think that what we need to do is to educate better so that the general public understands science better. But just as a novelist may not be the best choice to teach someone to read, I'm not sure the burden of educating the public on science should be placed entirely upon research scientists. Better training (and pay) for high school science teachers would be the best place to start.

the general public understands science better. But just as a novelist may not be the best choice to teach someone to read, I'm not sure the burden of educating the public on science should be placed entirely upon research scientists. Better training (and pay) for high school science teachers would be the best place to start.