The Sciences

The Reasons For Sci Comm Training

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyMay 25, 2010 6:28 PM


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When I blogged the other day about the media training I was doing at MIT, the first comment read as follows:

Frauds at work. Science is not about PR, Mooney. You and your ilk make me feel both ill, and embarassed to say I am a scientist. You should go crawl back under your rock.

To which Aileen Pincus, who also does media training, ably replied:

There’s no question that science is losing the public relations battle, so it’s interesting to me to still find scientists like the poster above who obviously believe that learning to communicate the science somehow harms the science. Yes, those who apply science commercially don’t suffer from such delusions, and they’re a good many of my clients. Others however, come to understand the real world of how science in funded only after long, losing struggles. Public support for science, essential to that funding, isn’t something to be scorned–and that can only happen when scientists learn how to talk to non-scientists.

Indeed--and that is only one of the reasons that many scientists are interested in having such trainings. I believe a lot of it has to do with the nastiness of the evolution and climate wars, and the sense that we have been "losing" them, or at least not making much positive progress--as demonstrated regularly in public opinion polls. It also involves the strong awareness that America is, er, "unscientific"--not very attuned to science, not very informed, not very interested--and that while the reasons for this sad state of affairs are myriad, uncommunicative scientists surely don't help matters. As for the claim that it is somehow a corrupting influence to learn how to explain yourself to non-scientists....this is the perspective, presumably, of those who slammed Sagan for his effectiveness and popularity. But it is hardly a dominant view in science any longer (if it ever was). And it really doesn't make any sense--not everyone is going to be a bench scientist who excels technically in research. Science needs both to create new knowledge and also to disseminate it effectively so that that knowledge has an impact--so that it changes the world in a positive way. Why on earth would these two important ends be set in opposition to each other? As for the notion that research results speak for themselves, and don't need any communication, any translation....well, this is just wildly wrong, as anyone familiar with the media coverage of scientific topics, or with research on science communication, can tell you. I am not sure how much energy needs to be spent refuting such negativism, though--because all the momentum is against it. In the wake of ClimateGate, scientists see an urgent need for better communications and media preparation. Yes there will be holdouts and naysayers, but they aren't winning the day.

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