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The Sciences

Learning to Speak Science

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyFebruary 3, 2006 12:29 AM


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One response I got from readers of The Republican War on Science was that the book depressed and outraged them, but provided little release, and didn't devote adequate energy to proposing positive solutions to the problems I had identified. I fully understand where this reaction is coming from, and began trying to address it in my column in the latest issue of Seed, available here. There are many things that can be done to address the problem of science politicization and abuse, but certainly part of the burden falls on scientists themselves. They must work much harder to communicate their knowledge, and its relevance, to the public. Above all, language matters, as do accessible explanations.

That's the argument I make in the column, which might be described as "Mooney meets Lakoff." Here's a brief excerpt:

Ironically, followers of regular politics are catching on to something that doesn't seem to have dawned on most scientists yet: It's actually possible to study empirically which public communication messages work and which don't. It's even becoming possible to craft a communications strategy that's based on a rich understanding of how the human mind actually operates -- one that, if properly executed by scientists and their supporters, could help rescue scientific integrity in America while better informing the American public. If we want to defend the knowledge that science has brought into the world, perhaps we should consider drawing upon the talents of researchers -- social and cognitive scientists -- who have brought empirical methods to bear on the study of effective political communication itself.

Take the firm Cultural Logic, an innovative communications consulting company run by psychological anthropologist Axel Aubrun and cognitive linguist Joseph Grady. Aubrun and Grady use empirical techniques to determine how the American public actually thinks and, thus, what types of messages can positively change the way they understand an issue. They stress the importance of accurate but succinct explanations that can help the public get past cognitive blocks that impede their understanding of complex issues.

Facts alone, note Aubrun and Grady, aren't enough to educate people; instead, facts must be carefully packaged (or "framed") in the context of narratives or explanations if they're to enhance knowledge. Consider the technically complex issue of climate change, where attacks on science have been rampant and the public has been deeply confused. Grady and Aubrun have found that as an explanation, the "greenhouse effect" simply confuses people. Few Americans have any firsthand experience of greenhouses, and they don't grasp the proposed analogy between carbon dioxide (a gas) and glass walls. So instead, Grady and Aubrun suggest talking about a "carbon dioxide blanket" encircling the earth -- an explanation that instantly helps people understand why a heating effect is taking place. Sure, it's a metaphor and shouldn't be taken literally. But then, so was the concept of an ozone "hole" -- a phrasing that instantly allowed the public to understand the issue of ozone depletion and that helped to galvanize political action. Again, the whole column is here. I'd love to hear your reactions.

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