14 April 2007

Framing "The Knack"

Over at Xark!, Dan Conover brings the blog Framing Science to our attention and offers this advice in "Science and media" to journalists and scientists:

Respect your craft, understand your limitations, figure out what you need to do better, try to help other people every now and again and, for crying out loud, get over yourselves.
Matthew C. Nisbet and Chris Mooney continue the conversation via the Washington Post: "Thanks for the Facts. Now Sell Them."

Public communication is a very valuable skill. Like any skill, it requires time and effort to develop (more for some than others). Science and Technology (S&T) fields don't usually offer a lot of time to develop such skills. However, it certainly isn't true that to be a scientist or engineer, you have to have the genetic mutation that also makes you socially inept.

I can name many friends who, after getting their undergrad degree in a science or technology field, went on to get a graduate degree in law or business and now succeed in those fields communicating with non-scientists/engineers. I believe that has benefited science in better laws and better support/understanding from business (for example, R&D).

I've been fortunate over two decades to have spent at least a year or more as an engineer among engineers, an educator among students, a researcher among researchers and an advisor among executives/decision-makers. My communications skills have certainly benefited as a result. There are also areas of my field I probably would know better if I had been a "dark room" researcher.

Explaining the basics of science and engineering to students, or explaining the costs, risks and return on investment of a technical course of action to decision-makers requires many of the same skills. Communicating with the public and politicians also require similar skills - but the fundamental difference remains: know your audience.

I think those involved in the S&T fields need to be very careful here. Despite token warnings from Nisbet and Mooney, I don't think they've done enough to bring forward the dangers of politicizing science, popularizing science and making science influential in the policy-making public sphere (beyond S&T's already significant influence in quality of life and cultural advancement).

Currently, the American public expresses strong support for, and confidence in, the S&T community. However, that "trust" is not based on their scientific literacy nor do they necessarily look to S&T for solutions that include a moral or ethical component:
A sizeable segment of the U.S. population has some reservations about S&T. For example, in 2004 surveys, more than half of the respondents agreed that "we depend too much on science and not enough on faith," that "scientific research these days doesn't pay enough attention to the moral values of society," and that "scientific research has created as many problems for society as it has solutions." However, agreement with the last two statements declined in recent years.
I don't think members of the S&T community want to (or should) present themselves as politicians, philosophers or ethicists; nor should they belittle political, philosophical or ethical concerns about scientific pursuits. (UPDATE: Engineers and Scientists as Moral Exemplars.)

I'm especially wary of Nisbet and Mooney because of the continuing difficulty with cargo cult science in this country and the danger of Lysenkoism. Neither the public nor journalist is currently equipped to defend themselves against pseudoscience.

I think a better focus would be on making better use of the platforms already available to scientists to communicate with the public like PBS's Nova, Scientific American Frontiers and the Discovery Channel. I've always been a BIG fan of Bill Nye. We in the S&T community should be encouraging more uses of the New Media to communicate to the public taking lessons from Bill Nye. I think we owe a great debt of gratitude to Carl Sagan and can learn from his public enthusiasm. In other words, I don't see this as a new problem but rather an old one that continues to improve. In 1998, Charles R. Chappell and James Hartz wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "The Challenge of Communicating Science to the Public":
In fact, we found that a remarkable 81 per cent of the scientists we surveyed stated that they would be willing to invest time in learning how to explain their work more clearly to the public. Further, both scientists and journalists agreed that science is not too complex to be reported effectively.

If scientists hope to improve their communication of science, they need to change their own culture. They must stop disapproving of colleagues who take on and even excel at this task. As Timothy Ferris pointed out in "The Risks and Rewards of Popularizing Science" (The Chronicle, Opinion, April 4, 1997), Carl Sagan was one of the rare scientists who found it relatively easy to explain technical material simply, but he was scorned by many of his colleagues, who felt that he was too visible in the public eye.

As a first step in improving communication with the public, then, scientific societies and other organizations, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, should make better use of the World-Wide Web to disseminate information about major advances in science. For instance, a scientific association could make readily available on the Web, for journalists and the public alike, several clearly written paragraphs about important new developments, indicating which new papers and discoveries were the most significant. The groups also could use the Web to make it easier for the news media to contact scientists with the ability to discuss new findings in terms that non-specialists could understand.
"Framing" isn't the problem the S&T community has in communicating with the public. It is a problem for advocates trying to get the funding and policy decisions they want. I think it's great that Nisbet and Mooney are reminding the S&T community that they could focus more on communicating with the public. The S&T community should never be allowed to lose focus on their connection with their society and the public. I just don't feel compelled by Nisbet and Mooney. Their advocacy of "framing" lacks ethos.


Anonymous said...

I appreciate your post, and think that I'll go back and re-read it. I'm wary of Nisbet and Mooney too - most of the scientists that I have spoken with about it feel the same way. (I need to go take a look at the Washington Post article that you mention). I agree with your comment about NOVA and Discovery - although just last week I was involved in an email exchange between a group and a Discovery producer, and much of the exchange was about how to glamorize what they were going to film (staging classes, making a fake lab for someone to work in) - I know that some of that happens for 'television' - but boy, I was disappointed. I would love a series of shows on 'what a scientist really does' (perhaps focusing on several different fields) so that the reality of our days is understood. I've seen similar shows for medical doctors (where at the end of the show the surgeon is shown walking out of the hospital at 2 am...) but it would be nice to see that for your run-of-the-mill research scientist ('reality TV'!). My response to the Nisbet and Mooney piece was that it just made me feel really, really tired.

W2JIG said...


Thanks for offering your thoughts here.

I'm in full agreement with the difficulty of TV's need for visuals. I guess if I was looking for a silver lining, sometimes that works to science's benefit (i.e. great animation that helps explain what the mathemetical formulae represent.)

I also agree that medicine has gotten a good deal of air time (HBO's Baghdad ER, M*A*S*H, ER, Gray's Anatomy, House, Scrubs, ...).

re: tired

Me too.