science communication

Mon, 2012-03-19 08:43Chris Mooney
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Got Framing? Why Scientists Must Pay Attention to Communication Science, and Not Just as an Afterthought

There was the Tweet, from Andy Revkin: “Scientists Call For Stronger Global Governance To Address Climate Change.” Revkin linked to a Forbes story, that, in turn, linked to a new paper in Science by the “Earth System Governance Project,” described as “the largest social science research network in the area of governance and global environmental change.”

So why, then, don’t these scientists seem to know much about the social science when it comes to communication?

If you are a U.S. conservative, then “global governance” is automatic fighting words. Conservatives have individualistic values, as per Dan Kahan; they interpret the moral foundation of “liberty/oppression”—as per Jonathan Haidt–as a cry to resist power grabs by big government, and even more, global government.

This is deep seated, emotional, and powerful. And scientists have just brazenly triggered it by talking about “global governance.”  

Look: I’m no purist about communication. I know it is partly theory, and partly an art form. It requires creativity and humor as much as it requires listening to what science has to say about what persuades people (and what doesn’t).

But there are a few obvious tripwires that by now, people really should be aware of. And triggering the Tea Party’s “don’t tread on me” reflex surely ought to be one of them.

Mon, 2012-03-05 07:28Chris Mooney
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Don’t Blame the Victims: Why Public Outreach By Climate Scientists is More Vital Than Ever

In the last few years—and especially in the wake of the ClimateGate pseudo-scandal—climate researchers have become much more politically engaged. They’ve sought to become better at communication, and to have a greater influence on public policy. They’ve tried to establish rapid response capabilities, and also, better ways of protecting themselves from political harassment and lawsuits.

This didn’t happen by accident. It happened because there has been a long term campaign to attack and discredit climate science, and obscure what we actually know. Ultimately, researchers decided that they couldn’t just be silent as their knowledge was distorted, or as their colleagues were attacked.

So what did they do? Just what Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan would have done—and in fact, did repeatedly on the public issues of their day. They spoke out.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. In fact, it is essential. Scientific knowledge is a powerful thing, which is precisely why it is of vital importance that it gets communicated, accurately, in such a way as to influence public policy. If that isn’t happening, then not only is it natural for scientists to step up—they have a moral obligation to do so, and to do so effectively.

Fri, 2012-01-27 08:23Chris Mooney
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The Uneasy Relationship Between Explaining Science to Conservatives...and Explaining Conservatives Scientifically

Over the past year or more, I’ve profited from a series of conversations and exchanges with Yale’s Dan Kahan, the NSF supported researcher who has made great waves studying how our cultural values predispose us to discount certain risks (like, say, climate change). Kahan’s schematic for approaching this question—dividing us up into hierarchs versus egalitarians, and individualists versus communitarians—is a very helpful one that gets to the root of all manner of dysfunctions and misadventures in the relationship between politics, the U.S. public, and science.

Kahan says that his goal is to create a “science of science communication”: In other words, understanding enough about what really makes people tick (including in politicized areas) so that we know how to present them with science in a way that does not lead to knee-jerk rejections of it. Thus, for instance, presenting conservatives with factual information about global warming packaged as evidence in favor of expanding nuclear power actually makes them less defensive, and more willing to accept what the science says—because now it has been framed in a way that fits their value systems.

This is a very worthy project—but it doesn’t only tell us how to communicate science to conservatives. It tells us something scientific about who conservatives are. They are people who are often motivated—instinctively, at a gut level–to support, default to, or justify hierarchical systems for organizing society: Systems in which people aren’t equal, whether along class, gender, or racial lines. And they are motivated to support or default to individualistic systems for organizing (or not organizing) society: People don’t get help from government. They’re on their own, to succeed or fail as they choose.

It is one thing to accurately and scientifically explain how these values motivate conservatives. And it is another to reflect on whether one considers these values to be the ones upon which a virtuous and just society really ought to be built.

Thu, 2011-09-22 04:30Chris Mooney
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Science Communication: Training for the Future

Yesterday I arrived in Las Vegas, Nevada, for another installment of an enterprise to which I’ve been increasingly devoted over the last year: Training scientists in communication, public engagement, and media outreach. Working with the National Science Foundation, but also sometimes on my own, I’ve now probably been involved in training over a thousand scientists in these, er, “arts.”

In this, I’m just one part of a much broader communication and outreach wave that is sweeping the science world. This wave, in my view, has built up for two related reasons: 1) ongoing frustration in the research community over the failure to get its knowledge “out there”—successfully disseminated—especially on controversial subjects like climate change and evolution;  2) the decline of science coverage itself in the traditional media, and the concomitant rise of the new media. This development is both exhilarating and  also rather terrifying, because it increasingly places the scientist him- or herself in the position of serving as a direct-to-public communicator, rather than in the old role of communicating through an intermediary (the journalist).

My co-authored 2009 book Unscientific America noted these trends and called for greater outreach efforts—and now, I’m also heavily involved in trying to realize the vision. As a result, I think it’s worth laying out some conclusions I’ve drawn so far from the “sci comm” training enterprise, as well as to describe what appear to be the next steps. (This is also something I’m going to be talking about more at two conferences coming up: The Soil Science Society of America annual meeting in San Antonio in October, and the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union this December in San Francisco.)

To me, the key tension at the center of this exercise is between “theory” and “practice.” And we have to ensure it’s a productive one.

Thu, 2011-09-01 07:35Chris Mooney
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Communication Fail: Why the IPCC Must Do a Heck of a Lot Better in 2013

Regular readers know I’m pretty critical of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change–particularly when it comes to how this expert body communicates climate science. Basically, my view is that any organization that holds a key climate meeting in Copenhagen in winter is pretty clueless about the politics and public perception of this issue. [See Correction Below.] But even worse is that IPCC has shown far too little investment in communication or public outreach (although lately that is beginning to change), and has handled crisis communication moments—like the Himalayan glaciers flap—terribly.

Now, before I get too many ticked off emails: I know the IPCC is the leading expert source for climate science assessments, and deservedly so. I know that the scientists who volunteer to work on its reports do a heroic job. I recognize and commend all of this. But it simply isn’t enough in this day and age—and it is in the communications sphere where the IPCC’s scientific excellence simply has not been matched.

Wed, 2011-03-23 06:12Chris Mooney
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Good Communication is Good Scientific Practice

It’s always helpful to know what those who disagree with you are saying, and why they do so. Let’s consider, then, a recent article in the conservative American Thinker that espouses climate change denial—and that also, interestingly, whacks climate scientists for wanting to do a better job of explaining themselves to the public.

Anthony J. Sadar and Stanley J. Penkala write:

The revelations of Climategate and ten years of stagnant global temperatures have produced a decline of public belief in human-induced climate collapse. But, rather than strengthening the foundations of climate science by increasing transparency in data analysis, releasing raw data for third party evaluation, and allowing their hypotheses to be debated in the literature, government-funded scientists instead have decided it’s best to just change their method of messaging.  The latest tactic is for these man-made global-warming faithful to sharpen their communication skills and tighten their influence on the editorial boards of the environmental journals of record.  The intent is to deflect or bury challenges to their climate-catastrophe canon, not defend their hypotheses.

First of all, this is another marvelous example of how climate change denial is not postmodern.

Wed, 2010-12-15 08:22Chris Mooney
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What’s Hot in Climate Science Today? Communicating

San Francisco–Here at the 19,200 scientist American Geophysical Union fall meeting, you can sample any aspect of Earth and planetary science that you like. The proceedings provide, among other things, a dream roster for Hollywood disaster movies in the making. You’ve got volcano experts, earthquake experts, hurricane experts, and on and on.

But you also have a new and different focus: Scientists out here, especially climate scientists but also those who study natural hazards and many other fields, are increasingly dedicated to figuring out how to reach non-scientists with what they know. They’ve learned the hard way, through events like “ClimateGate,” that it doesn’t just happen automatically. If anything, it un-happens.

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