Scientists should learn to be communicators, says Chris Mooney

Interesting talk yesterday, the main points of which were:

  • Science is complicated
  • You can’t expect the media to get it right
  • So, scientists should stop obsessing over tedious facts and learn to market, or “frame”, our work.
  • Nice sentiment, but facts are what we’re trained to do, and facts are all that many of us care about. If gene expression profiling suggests that one race is smarter than another, then that’s what they’re going to believe. The very literal, logical point of view is why they became scientists in the first place, and it’s a necessary ingredient of their success. If they cultivated their creative, expressive side they might not have been able to tolerate the grueling tedious hours in the lab that were necessary to achieve their discoveries. I think Chris missed this because of his English background, really, so it’s understandable, but do we really want to put the responsibility of communication on the non-socialized, Asperger’s-afflicted, born nerds?

    Science blogging is great, but one’s audience is self-selected, so you can teach someone who accepts global warming about climate models, and you can teach someone who accepts evolution about phylogenetics, but you don’t get to reach the undecided without the help of broadcast media. Media that exposes people to things they didn’t seek out.

    Of course, I’m comfortable with science blogs being a source of information for broadcast media science reporting, digesting the raw science into understandable issues, but I think that’ll be a pretty bitter pill for traditional media types to swallow.

    “Bloggers producing content that the media repeats?” “Inconceivable!”

    So it seems to me like the real question is whether the real story of science gets told better by science-ignorant reporters sensationalizing things or by unsocialized, slightly sociopathic scientists trying to learn to communicate their results better.

    Maybe there’s a niche for people with a science background who somehow retained communication skills? What’s the going rate for a “science ambassador” these days?

    About Mr. Gunn

    Science, Scholarly Communication, and Mendeley

    31. January 2008 by Mr. Gunn
    Categories: culture, current events, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 7 comments

    Comments (7)

    1. If gene expression profiling suggests that one race is smarter than another, then that’s what they’re going to believe. The very literal, logical point of view is why they became scientists in the first place, and it’s a necessary ingredient of their success.

      I think you are wrong here and that’s why framing is important. Science is not just about facts. It’s about taking facts and building them up into models and theories. The fact in your example is that a gene assay shows a correlation between some racial based genetic variation and some intelligence measure like IQ. This alone isn’t interesting. The science is in taking this fact and seeing whether other variables can better explain the correlation.
      This uncertainty of interpretation is at the core of all active science research. Have you ever seen an article published that just lists facts and doesn’t try to interpret them? How often do you see articles that don’t also give alternative interpretations of their results or limitations of their method?

      While I think Mooney goes overboard on this framing thing, I think the problem with mass media is actually the opposite of what you say. They like facts. They generally want a story with one question and one conclusion (or a debate between two opposite ideas). Good framing should both highlight both the closest consensus on a question and a taste for the complexity and uncertainty.

    2. I wasn’t suggesting people take the narrow view of science you described. My opinion is that scientists are good at facts (and the interpretation thereof), whereas they’re not good at the marketing thereof.

      One could say that it isn’t our job to present the media with palatable little sound-bites.

      The counterargument says that for-profit mass media can’t report on science with subtlety and knowledge, because it won’t sell, and if the media isn’t going to do that job, someone has to, and it might as well be us.

      However, I think that the non-profit media does do decent reporting, and the only people who know enough to understand or even care about the story probably already listen to non-profit media anyways.

      This goes back to the idea that different people use different ways of thinking about the world. Some people see the world in rational, logical terms, and are persuaded by rational arguments, but some people pay attention first to what they’re feeling about something, and a rational argument isn’t the way to get through to them. Scientists are primarily the rational type, and furthermore, are way unbalanced in that respect, necessarily so. They can’t ever be good communicators to the other kind of person (unless they’re the rare sort like me 😉 ).

    3. One could say that it isn’t our job to present the media with palatable little sound-bites.
      The vast majority of us derive our income and research expenses directly from taxpayer dollars. In addition to the general responsibility of keeping the public informed about how their money is being used, we need to present as full a picture of science to as many people as possible if we want funding to continue. As such, it IS part of our jobs to work with the media to make science reporting as high quality as possible. Think about how to do with using as few words as possible is vital.

      The counterargument says that for-profit mass media can’t report on science with subtlety and knowledge, because it won’t sell, and if the media isn’t going to do that job, someone has to, and it might as well be us.

      The mass media can’t afford to hire enough people to thoroughly investigate scientific claims in all fields of science. If subtlety is presented well, they can report it, but they don’t have the resources to make these judgments themselves. If scientists are only working on communication through personal and non-profit means, they are losing a large audience.

      Some people see the world in rational, logical terms, and are persuaded by rational arguments, but some people pay attention first to what they’re feeling about something, and a rational argument isn’t the way to get through to them. Scientists are primarily the rational type, and furthermore, are way unbalanced in that respect, necessarily so.

      I have a gut dislike of any example that begins “there are two kinds of people.” You are using this dichotomy as an excuse for not wanting to thing about framing and to justify ignoring people who you don’t consider educated enough to understand Science. Most people understand rational arguments, but no argument is purely rational. It is presented in context as part of the larger story. If science is presented in a dry opaque manner, people respond with their gut feeling. If science is presented in context of world experiences, it’s easier to grasp a rational argument.

    4. “The mass media can’t afford to hire enough people to thoroughly investigate scientific claims in all fields of science.”

      Don’t give me that “It’s too hard for reporters to understand science!” crap. No one said they’d have to fact-check every assertion, and they don’t do that today. The blame for shitty science reporting by for-profit mass media lies with the mass media. I’d love it if they wanted to do a better job, but they don’t. They would rather sell papers full of crap, and that’s a decision they have made themselves as for-profit entities. Science reporting CAN be done well, and non-profit media generally does do it well, so it’s not impossible to do. Until they decide that good reporting on real issues is something they should do, no amount of “framing” anything is going to make a difference.

      People who want to know more will read blogs or listen to NPR, and people don’t care will continue to be misled and poorly served by the for-profit media. We can’t make them want to write good stories, and we can’t write the stories for them. That change has to come from their end.

      Science Bloggers can help get the initial spin right, but we’re just as likely to whore ourselves out for pageviews as a newspaper.

    5. Don’t give me that “It’s too hard for reporters to understand science!” crap

      I didn’t. I said it is EXPENSIVE to do good science reporting. It also doesn’t bring in as much income as other topics. To be done right, it’s not an issue of fact checking. You can’t fact check science the same way you can fact check current events. You need a reporter who is extremely well versed in an entire field of research OR you need scientists who can do the framing themselves. Thus, most good reporting is left to organizations that don’t care as much about profit. And frankly even the nonprofits like NPR do a mediocre job with science reporting.
      The more scientists can lower the cost of creating quality science reporting, the better the quality of the coverage. This is true for profit and nonprofit organizations.

    6. I’m not sure scientists can do much to lower the costs of science reporting. Science bloggers, now, might be able to pre-digest some stories for them, but I don’t see the media admitting they get their stories from bloggers anytime soon.

      I don’t see corporate media caring to report about science the right way, either, and that’s what has to change first.

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