The Public is "Scientifically Illiterate." But Do Scientists Have "Public Literacy"?

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyMar 31, 2011 6:02 PM


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Sociologist Barry Glassner, the president of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, agrees withmy "Do Scientists Understand the Public" paper, written for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Writing in USA Today recently, Glassner argued that

Were hard data and cold logic all that mattered, any number of common personal behaviors would be long gone by now, from smoking to overeating. As any skilled public relations practitioner will attest, successful communication meets people on their own turf — by means that address emotions, fears and values. I do not mean to suggest that scientists transform themselves into Don Draper-style Mad Men and embark on a course of Madison Avenue-style spin. But scientists who want members of the public to better understand their work ought to start by understanding them.

Glassner, certainly, is not so, um, ignorant as to think that public ignorance is the problem. Instead, he calls for scientists to invest in "public literacy":

Scientists and their advocates need to become more knowledgeable about how people come to their beliefs — who they rely on for scientific information, what they hear, and through which filters they hear it.

Amen to that. It is not like scientific information travels in a vacuum, after all. It travels through minds and through media, both of which can have quite the distorting effect. Thankfully, the new trend in the scientific community today is to understand these problems of information transmission and translation--encoding and decoding, as a communications nerd might put it--rather than acting as though they don't matter. They most emphatically do.

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