Good Communication is Good Scientific Practice

Wed, 2011-03-23 06:12Chris Mooney
Chris Mooney's picture

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. Anyone familiar with the field of science studies will find this passage quite naive in its contention that mere transparency, on a highly politicized topic like this one, will somehow restore “objectivity” to the debate, so that the truth will finally become clear to all. Yeah, right. Whatever their faults, postmodernists know that people, including scientists, are a lot more subjective than that–and data do not speak for themselves, especially on so contentious and emotional a topic.

But I really want to tackle this point about communication, which is equally naive or worse–this contention that somehow, climate scientists are dirtying themselves because they now want to communicate to the public. Or that they’re just trying to become better spin-meisters.

First, there is no doubt that there is a greatly growing interest in communication in the climate science field. Not surprisingly: Climate scientists overwhelmingly feel they’ve failed to reach the public and to explain their work to them, and polling data strongly supports this concern. So it’s very natural to shift one’s attention to communications in this context—and that has indeed happened.

But climate science is hardly the only field in which it has occurred—and there’s nothing dishonest, wrong or otherwise lamentable about this development. Scientists today want to do a better job of communicating about an array of issues—not just the highly politicized ones, like climate change or evolution. Do we reproach them for that? Do we dislike what Carl Sagan did to bring science to the public, and what Neil deGrasse Tyson does today?

The truth is that what scientists are learning right now about communicating will actually help them to fulfill a major civic responsibility they have—especially if they receive public research funding. The whole point of the government’s funding of science is that the taxpayer supports work that’s expected to create a payoff for society in some way—not necessarily immediately, or in a predictable fashion, but certainly work that is relevant (or could be) to social problems, to generating new innovations, and so on.

In this context, it is essential for scientists to explain to citizens what it is that they’re doing with tax dollars: It’s part of the job description. It is even written into many government research grants—and it should be. It helps to promote accountability and responsiveness in a scientific community that, although often seemingly walled off in an “ivory tower,” in fact is intimately tied to a non-scientific public in myriad ways. 

So imagine that you’re a scientist, and you’re aware that it’s imperative to explain what you do, and why it matters, to non-scientists. Well, in order to do a good job at this task, there are some things you need to think about that you won’t necessarily learn in your scientific training. Let’s just use one very simple example.

When it comes to scientific topics, citizens—and journalists, and policy-makers–want to know what the bottom line is, in plain language. They want to know why a topic matters, who it affects, what we can do about it. And can you blame them for feeling this way? There is a lot out there to pay attention to. We’re all suffering from information overload, all the time. It is very hard for anything to get through, much less anything technical or difficult.

This fact has huge implications for how scientists communicate, because it suggests an approach that runs strongly contrary to their instincts in many cases. Scientists are often prone to explain themselves through long, stepwise, technical arguments, eventually leading to some type of heavily hedged conclusion. So they’ll start out communicating like this: “I study X. X is a particular type of Y, found in Z. Previous researchers studying X had postulated that A and B most centrally influence its formation and development, but my work suggests that to the contrary, C plays the dominant role…”

And so forth. But what non-scientist is going to follow all the steps, trying to keep up with all the jargon and alien terms (here denoted by letters), without even knowing where it is all going to lead and why it matters?

That’s why scientists, in communicating, have to unlearn what they’ve learned in their training and put the conclusion first–followed by the details. For of course, once you understand why the details matter, you are more likely to grow interested in them and want to learn more. Yet this is very different from scientific instinct in many cases. It’s not how scientists are trained to talk to their peers.

This is just one small example of what scientists are learning about communication today, and it has absolutely nothing to do with misleading anyone–or with climate science in particular. Rather, it is about better informing those who pay for the research in the first place, and those who have a huge stake in it, across scientific disciplines–by making the results of science relevant and resonant to those who are not accustomed to the scientific way of speaking or doing things.

Moreover, this science communication trend is certain to continue–as it should. Naysayers aside, making science more relevant to the public that is affected by it is an idea that is here because the merits support it. Science matters; the public both needs and also deserves to know this; and scientists need to help them understand why. It’s that simple…and it also changes everything.