Lack of Power, Not Communication by Scientists, Is the Key Problem

Once again, Chris Mooney has published an article castigating scientists for our supposedly poor communication skills. Since Ive dealt with this before, I don’t want to rehash old ground. But two good posts, one by ScienceBlogling Evil Monkey and Joe at Climate Progress, are worth noting because they echo some points I’ve made before (and save me the trouble of doing so again. Sweet Baby Intelligent Designer, this gets tiresome). First, Evil Monkey places this in the appropriate context:

The problem with Chris Mooney is that he doesn’t understand the problem. And the reason he doesn’t get it is because he has never been a scientist and doesn’t understand all the factors lined up against us. I’m not trying to be a dick here, I’m giving an honest assessment. Like I said before, his heart is in the right place. But the basic mechanisms to facilitate what he proposes simply. aren’t. there. The resources aren’t there. The infrastructure does not support it. The academic lifestyle and expectations are antithetical to it. The university system actively undermines it. Corporations quash it.

While blaming scientists for a broken system, perpetuating myths of the social outcast, and saying that ultimately we just need to listen might sound great, it does nothing to address the core issues. Chris- please, spend more time listening to the scientists too. There just aren’t enough hours in the day, and the deck is already stacked against us.

As I put it once to Mooney:

Between teaching and research, along with all of service obligations expected of us (including public outreach), we have too much to do. When we are then told that we need to somehow organize a pro-evolution movie production (which we have no idea how to do since we’re scientists, not movie producers), that’s not helpful.

Many of us also don’t have the time, or, frankly the contacts, to engage in the activities you’re suggesting. Just as you don’t have the training and the professional network to conduct science, most scientists have no experience organizing public policy meetings or political campaigns. As I’ve learned from personal experience, political networking, if not a full-time job, is a huge drain on time. I don’t know a single scientist who isn’t overcommitted, and if something doesn’t appear to have a significant payback, we simply can’t devote time to it.

Additionally, many professional organizations are falling asleep at the switch:

They, as have the pro-choice organizations in the healthcare debate (i.e., Stupak-Mills), have gone completely AWOL. I bring them up because most scientists are already too busy–and some of that busy includes public outreach. But as Abel Pharmboy points out, there are no incentives for outreach–for many of us, outreach is not our job, nor does it accomplish what needs to be done to pay the rent.

As someone who has worked at a non-profit whose mission included public outreach and education, it’s a full time job*. Rapid response to industry propaganda is not something you can do well (or at all) part-time, or as a hobby. Yet the organizations that chop down dozens of trees annually to send me solicitations asking me to help them protect the environment and stop global warming have been completely absent (they’re certainly not being quoted in news stories). Where are the counter-ads? Where are their professionally-trained (one hopes) spokesmen going on television and radio?

To blame some junior faculty member who is trying to survive in an academic research and teaching system for these failures is absurd. And many, if not most, of these overworked faculty would be willing to talk to the media, but they need help forming the contacts and good message points from professionals–and they we aren’t getting that.

And being outgunned due to time pressures is only part of the problem:

Maybe it’s because climate science — and not vaccination science — has been the victim of one of the largest and best funded disinformation campaign in human history, one that has been the subject of many major books (see “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscure the Truth about Climate Change” and “The Invention of Lying about Climate Change”).

Mooney mentions this just in passing, though I mostly give him a pass because he had written about it at length in books and articles. I don’t give him a pass for not mentioning at all the catastrophic collapse in science and environmental reporting…

In spite of that, I think science is popular–why else do cranks and denialists feel the need to dress up their bullshit in ersatz science?

But the fundamental problem is a lack of political clout and power:

The REAL problem isn’t so much science communication — though that does suck — as the fact that we have this 60 vote supermajority extra-constitutional ‘requirement’. If the Senate only needed 50 votes (plus a VP tiebreaker) to act, we would have passed a climate bill last year, even in the face of the disinformation campaign and lousy media coverage. True, it would have been inadequate, but again, primarily because of the disinformation campaign and poor media coverage.

One of the things I’ve written about on this blog is the history of the civil rights movement and desegregation. I’ve described what I term the Cumbaya Fallacy:

That’s a foolish strategy, and it’s what I call the Kumbaya Fallacy. During the 80s and 90s, there was a popular revisionist version of the history of the Civil Rights movement that claimed that we all one day just realized that denying black people the vote and lynching was bad and that it needed to stop (i.e., we just held each others hands ’round the campfire and began singing Cumbaya).

Not exactly. The Civil Rights movement shamed enough people into forcing the end of segregation–often at the point of a federalized guardsman’s bayonet. If the Civil Rights movement had waited to convince the overwhelming majority of Americans of the justness of its cause, black people still wouldn’t be able to vote. There will always be those who don’t want to face reality, whether it be cynical self-interest, fear, or slavish devotion to a worldview. No mystical or mythical incantation of the right, focus-group tested, perfect phrase will alter this. The effort would be far better spent politically organizing.

The reason racial progress was made in this country was because power was used to support a valid idea. Ideas with power behind them gain far more traction.

Instead, we get blaming the victim and reinforcement of stereotypes.

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6 Responses to Lack of Power, Not Communication by Scientists, Is the Key Problem

  1. TTT says:

    Bless you for writing this. Mooney 2.0 is infuriatingly obtuse and has long since abandoned any pretense of engaging with his critics. It’s a good thing he already wrote “Republican War” years ago, since I highly doubt his post-“framing” incarnation would ever have done so.
    Nearly all scientists have to have worked as teachers in their rise through academia. Any teacher worth a damn knows how to “frame” concepts, knows how to “build bridges” of common understanding. When people are ideologically opposed to the scientific method itself (creationists) or paid professional liars and shills (eco-denialists), the notion of finding any middle-ground with them is naive and utterly useless. This has been pointed out to Mooney time after time, and ignored just as often.
    As proof of the failure of his thesis, witness Mooney himself doing what he believes ought to be done on his own blog, doing it “the right way,” and see how he is surrounded by eco-denialists and conspiracy kooks. Yet he does not seem to learn the lesson that some audiences are unreachable–deliberately, gleefully, infectiously unreachable–even though they are his audience on his site!

  2. Mary says:

    Yes! This is a structural problem. For all the reasons illustrated.
    Fully agree. I wish I had more time to comment, but I’m busy communicating software to scientists in a workshop right now….

  3. ponderingfool says:

    Do you really expect anything less from Mooney? He is Clinton/Obama Democrat, a slightly right of center who can hit the right frames to appeal enough of those on the left. Read his tirade against those who support third party candidates, ignoring the role third party candidates have had in shaping the narrative/direction of the US. Talk about ignoring the social sciences.

  4. SLC says:

    Re TTT @ #1
    Every time Mr. Mooney or his cohort Ms. Kirshenbaum post something on climate, they are inundated by denialist commentors who they never respond to. My theory has always been that sometime after he wrote his book, “The Rethuglican War on Science,” he met Matt Nisbet and was brainwashed into believing that the problem was “framing.” Although, during his sojourn in Los Angeles, it appeared that he was drifting away from the Nisbet orbit, it now appears that he has reentered it after returning to the East Coast.

  5. Min says:

    “Between teaching and research, along with all of service obligations expected of us (including public outreach), we have too much to do.”
    How can that be? Haven’t you heard? We have a glut of scientists. With all those extra scientists, how can they have too much to do?

  6. Hypatia's Daughter says:

    Instead, we get blaming the victim….

    Indeed. Evolutionary scientists were blindsided (right across the back of the head with a spiked club) by the CreoIDers coming out of places like the Institute for Creation Research and the Discovery Institute. They thought the debates sponsored by these organizations were about science. But no research and no discovery is ever done by them or even planned to be done. They are PR machines, pure & simple. Their goal is not even to educate about CreoID – it is to sway the electorate into voting anti-evolution, pro-CreoId politicians into office and get educational laws changed in their favor.
    Now most scientists, who have been burned by ICR & the DI, refuse to be seen on the same stage as these CreoId flacks.
    You can ask a scientist to inform & educate about his science; but it is unreasonable to expect him to battle a well-funded PR campaign based on distortions outright lies.
    What is needed is an organization, like the NCSE, that specializes in pro-evo PR, which is not just about the facts of evolution but the whole body of religious & social arguments these organizations make.

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