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The Sciences

Why Scientists Can't Tell Their Stories

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMarch 5, 2011 12:52 AM

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Randy Olson, in response to this post, offers an unstinting and thought-provoking commentary on science communication. Olson is a marine biologist turned filmmaker. One of his movies is called Flock of Dodos, which might best characterize his view of the science community--with respect to their overall communication skills. Although critical of scientists, Olson also offers some constructive suggestions below. Have a read and let's discuss. ******* Interesting discussion here. Lots of good points. I like Tom Fuller's plea for simplicity "” which is exactly what's needed for broad communication. And by the way, all of my essays, comments and my book are directed at trying to reach the general public, not the hard core aficionado crowd you get on serious climate blogs "” it's two different modes of communication. I also love Jonathan Gilligan's Dirty Harry idea "” as a simple PSA it would be better than the vast majority of the dull offerings of the NGOs in their efforts "” the sort of Russian Roulette we're playing with the planet, which is another variation on the loading the dice metaphor that is often used. As for Michael Tobis, I don't think you quite get my comment about scientists being "mumblers." That's what they are, in essence, when it comes to broad communication. They are the guy at the party over in the corner mumbling the truth as the loudmouthed fools in the middle blabber on and on about topics they know nothing about but have read of on blogs. Specifically there is no excuse for me to hear Bill Maher last September say that Climategate revealed scientists "fudging" their data when 5 investigations had already shown nothing of the sort. The problem occurred because all the science world had managed to do with the 5 investigations was mumble about them (meaning tout them on blogs that few people read). I wrote about it at the time here. The science world has never had a need to engage in large scale public relations, but that's because the world has never been like it is today. This is not your father's science world. This is not just the world of Twitter, it is also the world of magazine articles written last fall by journalists (Andrew David H. Freedman in the Atlantic, Jonah Lehrer in the New Yorker, you can Google them both) who have nothing against the science world, but are pointing out there are major psychological flaws in the brains of all humans, including scientists, that lead to high levels of false positives and other significant sources of noise. All of which means the time has come to take a deeper interest in understanding these basic dynamics of storytelling that we are all burdened with. And that is the key point of my essay on uncertainty. Your audience is defective to begin with "” we are ALL defective. That's what the two articles point out. People don't respond to "just the facts" in the way you wish they did. But there are ways to deal with this that do not involve dishonesty or distortion. One of which is making certain the public is aware of how much certainty you have provided them in the past. Last month I published this editorial in The Solutions Journal. One of my suggestions/complaints/observations is why in the world isn't the climate science community taking credit for the amazing amount of benefits they have brought our society through an understanding of El Nino. Twelve years ago in California the term was a blank slate. Today it is part of the way of life. That is a huge amount of certainty climate science has provided. That certainty builds public trust, but only if the public is made to realize who is responsible for it. It's called positive public relations. Corporations understand this dynamic. But the science world simply does not. And I'm now telling you this from down in the trenches. The public health and medical science worlds have connected with my book and the basic message of "Don't be such a scientist," and are reaching out to me now for lots of workshops with doctors, epidemiologists and medical researchers. They understand this need to be accountable and connect with the general public. But the climate crowd is still back in this philosophy of, "the truth is plenty scary enough." Just spouting the facts no longer works. There has to be an understanding of how NOISY our society has become, and what needs to be done to deal with it. It's not impossible, but it requires an acceptance that the world has changed. And that's a hard thing for a lot of the older generation of scientists. I know. I'm talking directly to these old guys. They don't appreciate my message. But they are on a sinking ship. Something needs to be done.

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