So, What Should Scientists Communicate?

In an earlier post (with the strikethrough eliminated–weird, it didn’t show up when I looked at the preview; it’s been fixed), I mentioned that it was hard to determine what Mooney and Kirshenbaum want scientists to actually communicate. One commenter pulled this from Unscientific America:

After all, America doesn’t merely need non-scientists to better understand the details of science, or the nature of the scientific method: we need them to see why science matters in their lives and careers whether they’re working in politics, the media, the corporate world, or some other sector.

That’s it? First, how is this different than any other academic discipline arguing it “matters in their lives and careers”?

Historians and economists have written similar books. And they’re right! We need to know history. We need to know economics. For that matter, given the actual cost of car driving (~$0.50 per mile), we should know a lot about transportation engineering, not to mention urban planning. (OK, the last sentence was snarky).
But one of things I’ve learned in communicating science is that, to communicate effectively, you have to know what you’re trying to get across. Marshall McLuhan notwithstanding, the message itself is a large part of the message.
So are we trying to communicate how the scientific method works? Should we be fighting for more funding? Are we trying to communicate some basic realities, such as global warming and evolution? Are we advocating policy positions for various issues? And what are the ‘outer boundaries’ of science? I’m content as a citizen with all of the these activities (the last question isn’t really an ‘activity’). To provide a more concrete example, when I worked for an organization that dealt with infectious disease and antibiotic resistance, describing the problems was pretty straightforward. But the solutions–and they often lay well outside the realm of science–were difficult.
For instance, in a post about legislation that would reduce the use of antibiotics in agriculture, I described why this bill is a good bill. As a scientist I can offer evidence that reducing use is a good thing to do. But how do that is the really hard part, and often has nothing to do with science (e.g., regulatory language). This is a good thing to be doing: I did it professionally for a few years. But to make a difference doing this, you have to go well beyond making people “see why science matters in their lives and careers.”
What puzzles me is that some nebulous entity ‘Science’ seems to be doing rather well. If all we’re trying to do is give people warm fuzzies about science, well, we’ve already done that. One could always do it better and more of it, but I don’t think that’s the most pressing concern. After all, woomeisters, cranks, and denialists all try to claim that science supports their various idiocies: creationist ‘science’ is perhaps the most obvious. Any time someone needs to flaunt her Ph.D. in Homeopathic Medicine (do you receive a blank piece of paper as a diploma?), it’s safe to say that science as a cultural icon is doing rather well. It’s the particulars where we run into problems–and I’m not referring to minutiae. It’s the more specific messages that are problematic. And those messages range from the basics of the scientific method to describing some of the general consensus about the scientific reality that surrounds us.
I wish Mooney and Kirshenbaum had spent more time dwelling on this, because, as I noted, how one communicates–and they have some good suggestions regarding the how–can’t be separated from the what, particularly when the ‘what’ is science, whatever that might be. In other words, what would a scientific America look like? Warm and fuzzies for TEH SCIENTISMZ isn’t enough.

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2 Responses to So, What Should Scientists Communicate?

  1. captainskellett
    Captain Skellett says:

    Teh scientismz for teh win! I agree, people already LOVE science, they can’t get enough of it (even though most of them don’t really understand how it works real-world). I haven’t read the book, seeing as I’m Australian and therefore not as excited by a Scientific America as an American, but agree that you need to be clear on your messages before you go running around communicating things. That just get’s annoying, and does more harm than good.

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