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?)