Are Scientists Really That Disengaged?

A post at Jezebel, decrying the lack of engagement by scientists on the global warming front, has been making the rounds on the internets. Here’s the key beef (boldface mine):

Here’s the problem: Americans know next to nothing about science, largely because scientists spend all of their time talking to others in their field. Studies show that only 4 percent of individuals quoted in stories about the 2010 UN climate summit in Copenhagen were scientists, and that only 9 percent of commentary pieces and letters to the editors in major publications were written by university-based scientists in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Unfortunately, scientists don’t snag promotions or tenure by educating the public, so they spend their time publishing theoretical pieces in academic journals instead. Mainstream projects such as commercial books are looked down upon as “anti-intellectual.” PSA to scientists: you are not hipsters! You are the saviors of Mother Earth! Please act appropriately.

I’m all for engagement, better communication skills, and the like, but we should think about the numbers here. In the U.S., one percent of the population has a PhD, in any field (.xls file). Roughly half of those PhDs are in the natural sciences (pdf). And once you start getting to the natural science disciplines where that PhD is germane to global warming, at best, we’re looking at about one fifth of all natural science PhDs.

So…[the Mad Biologist has to take off his shoes to do the countings] …0.1% of the population accounts for 9% of the published letters and pieces in major journals. That’s a ninety-fold amplification.

Could we do better? Sure. More sexy? Why not. But I think ‘scientists’ are communicating.

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3 Responses to Are Scientists Really That Disengaged?

  1. odumlogan says:

    The issue is not whether scientists are talking, IMO. The issue is what they are choosing to focus on? Is the problem of climate change really just displaced anxiety about empire and growth, especially in the US?

  2. jtotheizzoe says:

    I think lauding the 90-fold amplification is neat, but misses the point. How many Amercans are talk-radio hosts? Think-tank policy wonks? Energy executives? Government agency PR spinners? The real question is why those even smaller sectors of society receive GREATER amplification than the science.

  3. ponderingfool says:

    Considering they said university scientists, I am guessing your 0.1 % is an overestimate. Probably at best 0.04 %, so we are talking at least a 225-fold enhancement.

    Lets face it, there are is a lot of money in churning the denialism about climate change. Where are the short-term economic interests that favor teaching people about climate change? Not a lot of money in that relative to the denialism side. Joys of our economic system. Of course blaming scientists is a lot easier than dealing with that problem.

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