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The Sciences

More Responses on Scientists' Understanding of the Public

Do Scientists Understand the Public


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Well, this topic has really run away on its own at this point. I can no longer keep track of all the things that have been said. I find Chad Orzel’s thread the best, because it really gets into a lot of the baffling reactions, many of which amount to saying, “this oped omits X” — even though X is to be found in the longer paper, or in the American Academy’s lengthy transcripts which I was asked to summarize.

So I really feel that the people who are making this argument about omissions, without even mentioning the longer work, are being unfair. An example would be Evil Monkey–here criticizing the Post piece without mentioning the longer paper, and yet nevertheless saying “I’ve already done more than Mooney. I’ve made a couple concrete suggestions for how the problem needs to be addressed”; here glossing over that omission  by saying the prior post “was directed at the Op-ed, which was pedantic and useless, if not counterproductive.”

Look: Everybody knows that one has to pare a topic down in order to write shorter articles, especially for mass media outlets rather than specialized ones. I’ve really seen nothing raised as an alleged omission in my Washington Post outlook piece that I haven’t written on extensively elsewhere–denialist attacks on science, poor media treatment of science, academic disincentives to being a better communicator, etc. In many cases I literally wrote the book on these things, or have been writing about them for more than half a decade. In other cases, alleged omissions are to be found in the longer American Academy paper, rather than the Outlook essay, or in the academy’s workshops.

Believe me, folks, it has been covered.

Indeed, that’s why scholars like Sheila Jasanoff or Matt Nisbet, who are well read on the academic literature concerning science and the public, are hailing the American Academy for airing very important consensus conclusions in the fields of science communication or science and technology studies.

There have been other objections from OracPZ, and others, and luckily for me, they are both summarized and also refuted in Orzel’s comments thread, saving me a lot of work. Let’s run through a couple.

Objection (as summarized by Zach Voch): “1. Mooney is reinforcing the egghead/condescending stereotype of scientists that isn’t true for many of those attempting to communicate science.”

Refutation (as provided by Chad Orzel):  “This is pretty much irrelevant. Yes, many scientists who have a strong interest in public communication avoid many of these pitfalls; they’re not the problem. The problem lies with the many scientists who do come off as condescending eggheads to the general public, and make a mess of science-based policy issues.”

My comment: Orzel is exactly right. If you think the idea of uncommunicative scientists has no basis in reality, you don’t know that many scientists. Neither do you know the young graduate students in science who complain constantly that their departments don’t care a lick about science communication. Of course there are marvelous exceptions, like Brian Greene, Neil deGrasse Tyson, etc. But that’s not the point, is it?

Let’s go on to another:

Objection (as summarized by Zach Voch): “Scientists moving towards ideology and straying away from the science in public debates risks their perceived objectivity and credibility.“

Refutation (as provided by Chad Orzel):  “This varies a lot from case to case, but I think one of the important points of the article is that in many cases scientists have already lost their perceived objectivity and credibility. The argument is that with more attention paid to ideology from the start, that loss of credibility and objectivity could be avoided.”

My comment: We can say more. Understanding the source of the public’s concern or objections does not require scientists to deliver any scientific misinformation, or any politicized information. It simply means knowing the audience better. Recognizing ideology on the part of others is not the same as embracing ideology yourself.

One more time:

Objection (as summarized by Zach Voch): “Though there’s little doubt some scientists are unaware of the problem of ideology over ignorance, scientists active in addressing denialism are very aware of the role of ideology, and it’s rather hard to miss.“

Refutation (as provided by Chad Orzel):  “This is the closest thing to a valid criticism of the current paper and op-ed on the list. The main thrust of both the paper and the op-ed is toward trying to avoid situations where denialism becomes entrenched in the first place…” (and read on)

My comment: Many scientists who recognize that ideology exists still seem to practice the central strategy of “setting the record straight” or “explaining the facts,” even though these will have little or no impact on said ideology. So, being aware is one thing; acting on that awareness is another.

But Orzel is right that once ideology becomes very entrenched, it is going to be much harder to dislodge. This is why the American Academy paper focuses on being anticipatory of science centered conflicts before they arise, and learning from the rich history of such conflicts that we already have.

Furthermore, when we are trying to communicate to the “public,” we aren’t always trying to reach the most entrenched people. There are actually many “publics”–a central finding of the American Academy workshops–and they need to be approached differently. Typically the denialists are only one extreme. On global warming, they are one out of six segments of the American public identified by Anthony Leiserowitz. Alas, it appears they are growing.

Please go over to Orzel’s blog to read more. And if you haven’t yet, please download and read the full American Academy paper!

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