If a Fact Falls in the Forest and No One Hears It . . .

17 05 2010

Do scientists “believe” or do they “know?”
Is evolution a “theory” or a “law?”
Should scientists take such cultural communication questions seriously?

See Training Scientists to Be Better Communicators, Chronicle of Higher Education, excerpted from a new book by Dennis Meredith, Explaining Research: How to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work (Oxford University Press, 2010):

Science suffers from its lack of a culture of explanation.

Scientists and engineers tend to communicate poorly in public controversies because—compared with, say, doctors and lawyers—their professions have not valued explanation. Their career advancement doesn’t depend on having lay-level explanatory skills. To progress professionally, scientists really need only to explain their work technically to other scientists—their colleagues, department heads, and granting agencies. But imagine what would happen to a doctor who couldn’t explain diseases to patients, or a lawyer who couldn’t explain the law to clients and juries. Their careers would be over.

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9 responses

17 05 2010
Daryl P Cobranchi

Do scientists “believe” or do they “know?”
Is evolution a “theory” or a “law?”
Should scientists take such cultural communication questions seriously?
**************************

Neither, we either accept or reject.

Theory, definitely. But our “theory” is not your “theory.”

That last is an interesting question. It depends on who the “customer” is. For the vast majority of scientists, there’s no need to learn to communicate to the general public. Our “customers” are other scientists (or, perhaps, senior management). For those rare issues (like GW) in which the public needs to be “sold” on the scientific consensus, it’d be helpful if there were some articulate, informed scientists who could make that pitch. But it’s not rational for all scientists to study PR in grad school, since we’ll most likely never need the skill. I’m not sure what the solution is, other than for one political party to stop exploiting folks’ ignorance. Yeah, like that will happen.

17 05 2010
Lynn

Lately, I’ve also been wondering about the sweeping assumption that all or most scientists are poor lay-level communicators. Tagging Daryl’s point that many scientists don’t interact with the public, is it really true that those who do assume that role have poor explanatory skills?

There are probably better examples, but this one (from last month) popped up first in my search. 🙂

Bill Nye and climate change:

Look at a picture of our world from space. The atmosphere is often not even visible. If you could drive straight up into outer space, you’d be there in less than an hour. Our atmosphere is so very thin, and we’re changing its mixture of gases with our activities. We’re trapping heat and warming our world.

I wouldn’t know how to make info any more “accessible.”

Speaking of Nye, does anyone remember when he was booed during a public presentation for saying that the moon does not emit light, but instead reflects the light of the sun (contradicting Genesis 1:16, which reads: “God made two great lights — the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars.”)?

At this point, several people in the audience stormed out in fury. One woman yelled “We believe in God!” and left with three children…

So, is it that the info is not being communicated well? Or, could it be that immature and fearful human beings just prefer propaganda and conspiracy theories to adult problem-solving…

17 05 2010
Nance Confer

When an innocent fact about the moon draws such an inappropriate response (and what did she expect at a presentation by Nye?non-science?) it’s hard tobe hopefl about people.

OTOH, we might have a better chance of not being such asshats if pols and corporate types didn’t hijack science for their own purposes. The whole series of non-answers from BP spring to my mind.

17 05 2010
Audrey

I don’t think it would hurt SOME scientists to have better PR skills. Specifically, I’m thinking of those involved in fields that are currently under attack by the fundies.

Those scientists are losing public ground for lack of communication skills in lay-terms. Most people are too lazy to try to figure out complex scientific ideas for themselves, so will listen more readily to the slick, easy answers (in Genesis *roll eyes*) from the fundies. It’s sad to see how many people will fall for that schtick.

So, on those terms, I think it would behoove those types of scientists to parry the thrust with more readily accessible (and pervasive) replies to the bible-babble.

17 05 2010
JJ

I’ve always loved me some Bill Nye . . . 😀

18 05 2010
Lynn

I just remembered another favorite: environmentalist/educator David Suzuki, who I’ve always loved.

Further, he has said, “Education has failed in a very serious way to convey the most important lesson science can teach: skepticism,” which makes me wonder if I should make room on my list for skeptic/educators like Michael Shermer.

Remember when Luke asked us to recommend a book? I foolishly suggested Genie Scott’s new book; but you were the one with the good sense to suggest a title not about what to think (about evolution), but how to think. (I think.) Oy. His chapter reviews of Genie’s book were brutal to read. It’s just like the parable of the sower: without decent soil, perfectly good seed is just trampled under foot, devoured by birds, withered away, or choked by thorns… 🙂

I’m being paged by The Girl….. gotta run…. 🙂

19 05 2010
JJ

. . .suggest a title not about what to think (about evolution), but how to think.

I do remember, and that’s pretty much my personal power of story no matter what the subject. It’s how we unschool and why I love Michael Shermer, and Dale’s religion posts, and imo gives us a window into how minds can be changed through smart public communication even when said minds aren’t a very high-quality growth medium for idea gardeners. 😉

Also why I worship at the feet of Howard Gardner. Cognitive psychology is science too, the science of how we think, which we’re beginning to learn isn’t at all how most people THINK they think . . .his Changing Minds perhaps, is the one text we ought to require all undergrad scientists to study?

19 05 2010
JJ

Some earlier snooking about Gardner’s Changing Minds and related concepts:

Once you’ve made a journey like this — once you’ve gone this far — you are beyond suggestible.

It’s not merely the informational indoctrination, the constant belittling of homosexuals and atheists and Muslims and pacifists, etc., that’s the issue. It’s that once you’ve gotten to this place, you’ve left behind the mental process that a person would need to form an independent opinion about such things.

. . . a new book I was reading last night, by Matt Taibbi: “The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics & Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire:”

. . .

He says both belief poles are off the rational reservation deep into magical thinking and conspiracy theories, can’t even agree on a common set of facts to debate, distrust the news media even more than their own elected government, and basically elections have become simply “a forum for organizing the hatreds of the population.”

“We don’t respond to problems as communities but as demographics.”

On the back of the book jacket, fellow political author Michelle Goldberg says Taibbi shines a light on “the corruption, absurdities and idiot pieties” of modern American politics, with “surprising compassion for the adrift, credulous souls who are taken in by it all.”

Idiot pieties. Credulous souls taken in by it all. Well said — that’s what I see in all directions, too, what makes me read books like Great Derangement, Howard Gardner’s “Changing Minds” in all its education brilliance, and Lakoff’s ““The Political Mind: “Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain.” Why I don’t often use political and religious labels for myself. Why I won’t play party politics and haven’t for decades. And why my support for Barack Obama is basically in spite of his party’s support, not because of it.

In case you don’t read Gardner as passionately as I do, you may need this quick review of the Seven Levers with which we change our own minds and each other’s, and eventually our society’s thinking:

Gardner’s Seven Levers of Mind Change:

1. Reason
2. Research
3. Resonance
4. Representational Redescriptions
5. Resources and Rewards
6. Real World Events
7. Resistances

. . . if any demographic were completely right, we collectively probably wouldn’t have gone so completely wrong. That could be where The Great Derangement can educate us — here’s another look at the lessons it offers, from a publisher’s take:

Matt discovered in his travels across the country that the resilient blue state/red state narrative of American politics had become irrelevant. A large and growing chunk of the American population was so turned off—or radicalized—by electoral chicanery, a spineless news media, and the increasingly blatant lies from our leaders. . . that they abandoned the political mainstream altogether. They joined what he calls The Great Derangement.

Taibbi tells the story of this new American madness by inserting himself into four defining American subcultures:
The Military, where he finds himself mired in the grotesque black comedy of the American occupation of Iraq;
The System, where he follows the money-slicked path of legislation in Congress;
The Resistance, where he doubles as chief public antagonist and undercover member of the passionately bonkers 9/11 Truth Movement; and
The Church, where he infiltrates a politically influential apocalyptic mega-ministry in Texas and enters the lives of its desperate congregants.

Together these four interwoven adventures paint a portrait of a nation dangerously out of touch with reality and desperately searching for answers in all the wrong places.

. . .

Now is the time, I think, for independently studying each candidate’s true-life story and coming to understand it within the context of our own, not for collecting and comparing poll-driven, staff-written, dueling-demographic soundbites.

If this election does as I believe, present a last-chance opportunity to pull out of our democratic death-spiral, then we’ll need better educated and more thoroughly understood answers to who WE are, and who we aspire to be as America.

24 05 2010
JJ

Heartening news: have these guys been reading our minds (or our blogs?) 😉

The Chronicle of Higher Education
May 23, 2010
Academics Take Their Message to the Masses, on the Radio
By Katherine Mangan

Lots of scientists complain about a lack of public support for biomedical science, but two professors in Galveston, Tex., are doing something about it.

. . .Other academics are also reaching out through radio. While the Galveston researchers talk up science, two philosophy professors in California are engaging callers in discussions about the meaning of apologies, the ethics of torture, mind reading, and nihilism.

And three historians known as “the American-history guys” have a monthly call-in show, BackStory, on public radio, in which they explore the historical underpinnings of topics in the news. It’s the kind of program they hope anyone might listen to in the car.

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