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The Sciences

The Right Slams Unscientific America

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We were initially surprised that our co-authored book, Unscientific America, was so strongly attacked for observing that scientists should strive to improve their skills at public communication--and that this probably includes not alienating potential religious allies or mainstream America. But in a sense, the attacks made a kind of sense. Mostly, they came from those for whom this advice ran contrary to their particular project of denouncing much of America and the world for alleged ignorance and superstition--the New Atheists. However, with a recent review in The New Atlantis, it appears that we also touched a nerve on the political right. As this is a more interesting phenomenon, I want to explore it in this post. First, The New Atlantis introduces me as the author of The Republican War on Science, a book whose argument runs directly contrary to the publication's own project of articulating and defending conservative approaches to science, and pinning anti-science sentiment on liberals. So, there's that. It is more surprising, though, to find that the critique (from Ari N. Schulman) echoes the perspective of those traditionalists--apparently over-represented in the science blogosphere--who instinctively distrust calls for improved scientific communication. These critics tend to argue that any hint of message framing is equivalent to dishonesty (even though framing is inevitable and unavoidable in all communication), that any simplification is equivalent to "dumbing down" (even though different communication contexts obviously require different degrees of complexity), and so forth. They also seem to take the stance that the job of a scientist is merely to do research--even though there is an obvious science communication gap and few around today (as science journalists dwindle) to fill it. Here's Schulman:

Laudable though it seems at first, this plea for public responsibility is lost under layers of jargon from the world of public relations. Mooney and Kirshenbaum write of making “source-oriented communicators” become “receiver-oriented,” of attaining “ideal synergy,” and of creating “a new caste of savvy scientists who can act as ‛framers’ of policy issues.” The book’s practical advice for scientists is in the same P.R. vein. The authors encourage scientists to adopt a conciliatory pose, to take courses in writing and communication, to learn how to explain their issues with “media communicability,” and to accept that their advice will be judged not on substance but on “the utility of its packaging.” Scientists should befriend politicians, form political action committees, and even run for political office themselves.

Yes, we do discuss these things (though some are slightly mis-characterized). But we do so not to advise dishonesty or manipulation (of course not!), but rather because we're trying to counter a naive mindset which suggests that scientific information speaks for itself, that truth just rises above the nonsense without any external aid. That's just painfully wrong. So while they should never be dishonest or misstate the facts, scientists must certainly stand up for their knowledge and try to disseminate it more broadly. And in this project, yes, they will be aided if they know something about communication, and take in some of the advice that seasoned communications professionals have to give. But the New Atlantis has a second beef. It is that we're too unabashedly pro-science, not attentive enough to the standard conservative critiques of scientific arrogance, hubris, technocracy, and so on. The type of arguments, in short, that regularly appear in The New Atlantis. Pursuing this line takes Schulman in an interesting direction--e.g., requiring him to misread the book. He ends by saying that

The authors instruct scientists to study communication when they should instead be advising scientists to study the disciplines of their interlocutors — ethics, religion, and the humanities — so they can truly engage with rather than merely market themselves to the public.

But of course, we very much want scientists to study other disciplines, far beyond the academic field of science communication. Indeed, one of the central themes of the book is to extol interdisciplinarity, and to call for more people who can bridge the "two cultures." For indeed, in order to communicate on contested issues, one needs a sense of why they often disturb members of the public--and that walks you right into the sphere of ethics. Another broad discipline, social science, is similarly critical to science communication efforts. Finally, we spend an entire chapter of the book directly calling for greater engagement with the religious community. Granted, we don't endorse a Leon Kass-type view, according to which we need to be wary of researchers creating a "brave new world" and engaging in the "unnatural," "playing God," behaving like Frankensteins, etc. This isn't because we find ethical concerns irrelevant, but because we find these sorts of fear-oriented and yuck-reflex oriented ethical arguments unhelpful (and they've been largely dismissed by bioethicists). So no, we didn't write the book about science communication that the New Atlantis would like to see. Rather, we wrote one that would serve as a needed call to arms to members of the scientific community who are growing increasingly frustrated as the issues break against them, the public ignores them, the media misrepresents them, the politicians attack them, and so forth. And given the dramatic response that Unscientific America received, that seems to have been a resonant message.

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