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?

    Xeni Jardin put up an article about the candy meth craze.

    The candy meth craze is a story I hear from time to time, always containing some comment along the lines of “it’s made to taste like candy, so little kids will get hooked”. It’s sad to see this kind of hysterical nonsense show up on boingboing, which usually eschews hysteria. Given the amount of traffic the site receives and how wrong she had gotten the story, I felt it was worth writing an email to clue her in. In it, I explained that this is simply a matter of branding, and the choice of this particular style is probably due to the history of preparing meth from sudafed tablets, which left a little red tint in the final product from the tablet coating.

    Well, she posted the comment and I forgot to include a link to my site!

    (In case anyone is wondering how I know these things, and how I might know how amphetamines taste, you should know that chemistry people occasionally talk about this kind of thing. Since food and biology are my two loves, I’m really interested in the intersection of the two. I had some old posts up about this, but they’ve succumbed to link rot. I’ll put up my chart of amino acid tastes when I get a chance. For the record, I have not ever attempted to make meth, ok?)

    GOP Primary Debate Scorecard

    I’ve looked around the web, and although there are many articles entitled “GOP Debate Scorecard”, none are actually what I would consider a scorecard, that is, a card with the names going across one way, various categories going across the other way, and marks where the rows and columns intersect.

    Like so:

    Romney Brownback Gilmore Huckabee Hunter Thompson McCain Paul Giuliani Tancredo
    Repeal Roe v. Wade •/-
    Disbelieve evolution
    Ban stem cell research
    intervene in schiavo case ND ND ND ND
    slag Mrs. Clinton
    pardon Libby ND ND ND ND
    cut taxes without mentioning reducing spending
    support flat tax/"Fair" tax or repeal AMT
    talk about iraq in terms of winning instead of leaving ND ND
    slag Bush
    namecheck Reagan
    set up a national ID system ND ND ND
    start WWIII ND ND ND
    admit to beliefs dictating lawmaking ND ND ND ND ND ND
    believe there is no consensus on global warming ND ND ND ND ND ND ND ND
    wall off Mexico ND ND ND ND ND ND ND
    "they do it too" in response to ethics questions
    Have Charisma ND ND ND

    • Candidate made statements to that effect
    -Candidate disagreed with statement
    ND Candidate didn’t take a position

    You can visit their website to get their supposed platform and stand on common issues; what is represented here is only what they actually said during the debate itself.

    Caveats: I’ve used my own glib shorthand to refer to some issues. I’ve selected all the issues they all took a position on, but selected others according to my interests. The last row is my opinion only. Giuliani expressly said he was pro-choice, and only that it would be “OK” if it were overturned.

    “It’s an issue for the states” was a common phrase, and it seems to have been used most commonly to try to hide lack of support for a mainstream position. For example, saying “It’s an issue for the states” in regards to abortion, means “Overturn Roe v. Wade” whereas “”issue for the states” in regards to the Schiavo case meant “I personally would have intervened”.

    As you can see now that it’s all laid out, the only candidate remotely mainstream is Giuliani. The Right is pushing Romney, but it’s clear from his statements regarding the Schiavo case and the role of his faith in lawmaking that he’s just a puppet to steal get “compassion conservative” votes from Giuliani. McCain is close to mainstream, but way too hawkish to be trusted. Likewise, Ron Paul is close to mainstream, but extremely libertarian with regard to governmental services such as healthcare, welfare, and so on. The rest of the lot are absolutely off-the scale radicals. Brownback, Tancredo, and Huckabee make Pat Buchanan look like a centrist.

    Word Frequency Analysis of 2007 GOP Primary Debate

    I had a chance to look at the GOP primary debate this weekend between going to the amazing shows that come to town during the weeks surrounding Jazzfest.

    I thought it would be fun to do a little analysis of word frequencies:
    The number in parenthesis is the word count.

  • would(88)>should(67)>can(57)>want(55)>need(52)
  • think(102)>know(52)>>believe(4)
  • Governor(89), States(49)
  • Romney(50)>McCain, Giuliani(49)>Tancredo(42)>Gilmore(33)>Brownback(32)
  • Faith(19)>God(7)
  • Iraq(33), Iran(19), Policy(18), Foreign(17), Nuclear(14)
  • Reagan(29)>Clinton(13)>Rove(9)>Bush(8)
  • Win(22)>Troops(7), Home(8), Leave(6)
  • No(51)>Yes(21)
  • Below I’ve generated a simplistic “most significant” measure, by computing the ratio of the word frequency in the debate transcript to the word frequency in a corpus of spoken English. The number in the first table is the ratio, whereas the number in the second table is the word count. I’m going to get this in Exhibit and have a play with some neato visualizations as soon as I get a chance.

    Here are the caveats: The word frequencies I’m using in the first table are actually from the British National Corpus, so many of the words in the speech transcript are highly represented simply because they’re speaking American English, and in the second table, using the ANC Corpus, many words are highly represented because they represent current events that hadn’t occurred when the corpus was compiled and because debates are part speeches, which are more like written English. I’ll update it when I find a better reference.

    Top 100 Words in GOP Primary Debate 2007

    Top 100 Words in GOP Primary Debate 2007
    sorted by appearance ratio

    GOVERNOR 589.4664
    IRAN 335.5764
    IRAQ 174.853
    CLINTON 137.7629
    FEDERAL 90.07577
    TAXES 84.77719
    COALITION 79.47862
    STATES 74.18005
    READER 74.18005
    BUSH 70.64766
    CALIFORNIA 61.8167
    AMERICANS 61.1374
    BORDER 57.06157
    NATION 56.51813
    BELIEFS 52.98575
    DIPLOMATIC 52.98575
    EXPORTS 52.98575
    MILITARY 49.86894
    UNITED 47.09844
    SPENDING 46.07456
    WASHINGTON 45.41635
    DEMOCRATS 44.15479
    PROGRAM 39.73931
    SECURE 39.73931
    ACQUIRE 39.73931
    DEFEAT 39.73931
    KOREA 39.73931
    NUCLEAR 39.04213
    WEAPONS 38.53509
    PRESIDENT 38.34495
    MAYOR 37.84696
    ISRAEL 37.09002
    ACQUISITION 35.32383
    AUTHORS 35.32383
    JOURNAL 35.32383
    LIMITATIONS 35.32383
    PRESIDENTIAL 35.32383
    TROOPS 33.7182
    FOREIGN 33.3614
    GLOBAL 33.11609
    AMERICA 32.99113
    AMERICAN 32.75483
    VALUES 31.79145
    GAINS 31.79145
    SUPREME 31.79145
    GREATEST 29.80448
    SERVING 29.43653
    FAITH 26.49287
    ENTIRE 26.49287
    CONSTITUTION 26.49287
    ILLEGAL 26.49287
    CATHOLIC 26.49287
    COMMANDER 26.49287
    ACCOMPANIED 26.49287
    JUDICIAL 26.49287
    VIEWED 26.49287
    WALKER 26.49287
    PROTECT 25.43316
    THREAT 24.93447
    CELLS 24.45496
    GRADE 24.08443
    CANDIDATES 23.54922
    WEAPON 23.54922
    CONCERNING 22.70818
    JUDGES 22.70818
    BILLS 22.30979
    ELECTED 22.30979
    WELFARE 22.07739
    STABILITY 21.1943
    FORMER 20.18505
    DEFICIT 19.86966
    CELL 19.52106
    SOLVE 18.92348
    VOTED 18.92348
    PROUD 18.54501
    LEAD 18.1267
    MIDDLE 18.1267
    TAX 17.82698
    CRITICAL 17.66192
    FREEDOM 17.66192
    CONSISTENT 17.66192
    PRINCIPLES 17.66192
    TRANSFER 17.66192
    EXPERIMENT 17.66192
    INTELLIGENCE 17.66192
    ROMAN 17.66192
    SUCCEED 17.66192
    DISCRETION 17.66192
    ENEMY 17.66192
    STUDIED 17.66192
    WEALTH 17.66192
    COLLAPSE 17.66192
    CONCLUDED 17.66192
    CONVICTION 17.66192
    HUMANS 17.66192
    PAKISTAN 17.66192
    REVEAL 17.66192
    SEPARATION 17.66192
    WIN 16.89401

    Top 50 Words using ANC Corpus
    sorted by appearance ratio

    9 KARL
    21 RONALD
    3 VETOED
    7 REPEAL
    12 STEM
    4 AISLE
    4 HYDE
    2 CURES
    2 UNIFY
    6 CELLS
    6 ENGAGE
    15 ID
    5 BIN
    3 RACISM
    2 CONVEY
    2 CURING
    2 TAMPER