What does the science of science communication say about communicating & expanding interest in noncontroversial but just really really cool science?
I got this really thoughtful email from Jason Davis, who is doing graduate work in journalism at the University of Arizona, and who operates Astrsosaurus, an interesting-looking science journalism site:
I'm curious to hear your thoughts on communicating "non-controversial" science. There seems to be no shortage of plausible, but not necessarily correct, ideas on addressing polarized subjects like global warming, stem cell research, nuclear power, etc. But what about something more innocuous, like spaceflight? Do you think the "you tell me what works and what doesn't" approach you emphasize in your lecture is equally valid in these areas? Or since we're treading on less-controversial turf, are we back to a deficit approach? Or perhaps it's naive to assume any science issue can be communicated without controversy?
As an example, I'm personally fascinated by the vast unknowns in our own solar system, but I know not everyone shares my enthusiasm. To make some gross assumptions here, if we had more public support for NASA, perhaps its budget would be increased, and perhaps we would have more spacecraft uncovering the mysteries of Jupiter and Saturn's moons. So, are we to assume that more effective science communication could close that gap? If so, what should that communication look like? Or should I just concede that not everyone is interested in these things, and convincing someone to care about the moon Enceladus is akin to someone else trying convincing me to care about, say, Hollywood gossip?...
Here is my response, which I think is OK, but definitely could be improved upon -- by others who have thoughts, insights, and experience. For one thing, looking back on this, I can see that I sort of avoided the "how to generate interest" question & instead focused on "how to satisfy the appetite of culturally diverse people who are curious to know what is known" -- which I view as the critical mission that that science journalism plays in the Liberal Republic of Science. So feel free to supplement my response in comments section (I'd like to know answers to Jason's questions, too!).
1. I think this is a very very different sort of science communication issue. The biggest fallacy that the science of science communication addresses is that there is no need for a science of science communication -- sound science communicates itself. But the second biggest is that the science of science communication is one thing -- that the same insights into how communicate probabilistic information to an individual trying to make an informed decision about a medical procedure are the same ones that will "solve" the climate change dispute. Science communication is 5 things +/- 2.
2. One of the things it is is systematic, empirical inquiry into how to make what's known to science known to curious people. Many many people in the Liberal Republic of Science are thrilled and awed by what the use of our collective intelligence has revealed to our species about the workings of the universe; it is part of what makes this political regime so good that it invests resources to produce information to satisfy that interest in knowing what's known, and that many of our smartest & most creative people are excited to play the translation role that science journalism involves.
3. The state of knowledge on this part of science communication is in good shape -- it is in much better shape than the part of our scientific knowledge that relates to protecting the quality of the science communication environment from toxic meanings that disable citizens' ordinarily reliable sense of who knows what. Indeed, this part of science knowledge -- the part that involves making what's known by science known to curious people -- is woven into the sophisticated and successful craft of science journalists & related communicators.
4. But I still think there are ways in which the use of scientific inquiry-- indeed, the incorporation of scientific tools, insights, methods into the craft of science journalism -- could make this sort of science communication better. One problem, which I address here, is that I think the resource of accessible and entertaining communications of what is known to science is not as readily available to all cultural groups in our society. I am curious to know if you think I'm right in this hunch; surely you are in a position to tell me -- you are thoughtful & are dedicating your life to this field.
"Evil Dr. Nick" submitted this commment to me:
Quick thought/question on that last post:
Jason refers to "noncontroversial" science but then describes (for lack of
a better word) "uninteresting" science - that is, science that relatively
fewer people might find interesting (e.g., space exploration). A lot of
your work examines the controversy surrounding "noncontroversial" science
(e.g., climate change) though not exclusively (for e.g., gun control
law-where there is not expert scientific consensus).
Have you ever thought about how your methodology could be applied to
topics which to some degree purport to be scientific (or at least to rival
explanations predicated on the scientific method)? I'm thinking here about
intelligent design/creationism. Of course, I'm not suggesting a 'science
of dogma communication', but it's interesting (to me) that people not only
selectively credit or discredit scientific evidence when its congenial but
also do this regarding what is and is not science (and they invoke
putatively scientific arguments to support their position-i.e., they don't
just appeal to faith). Thoughts?
I did sort of beg off addressing the "how do you get people intersted" part of the question. I think primary & secondary school teachers are on the front lines there: most kids are susceptible to being infected by the wonder of science, so it's their job to make sure they are all exposed to a good dose (like this one did). I myself am more or less content to let people who aren't thrilled by science pay engage themselves in whatever it is they are interested in. I'm more worried to think that among the people who do find science enthralling, the opportunities and resources for satisfying their apptetite for knowing what we know might be diminished by unintended and completely avoidable tension between the way in which that information is communicated and their cultural outlooks.