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Friday
Aug172012

Doing science is different from communicating it -- even when the science is the science of science communication

The primary fallacy that the science of science communication seeks to dispel is that no science of communicating science is necessary -- the truth certifies itself etc.

A corollary is that there is a difference -- a really big, huge one -- between doing and communicating science. Because the truth doesn't certify itself, certification necessarily involves more than producing good science.  What's more, there's no reason to think that those who are good at producing scientific insight will be good at communicating it-- the two activities are very different & thus will involve diverse sets of skills.

Of course, that doesn't mean that scientists themselves shouldn't pay attention to the science of science communication or make use of its insights. Scientists who do become involved in communicating their science to the public -- whether to contribute to the good of making what's known knowable to curious people or to help promote informed public debate -- should know what is known about the challenges of talking to those who don't share their professional way of seeing. Alan Leshner makes this point brilliantly in an editorial this week in Science.

But the doing/communicating distinction does mean that we shouldn't expect scientists to be the ones who bear the burden of communicating science, nor should we expect improving the science communication abilities of scientists to secure the important societal goals associated with science communication. For that we rely on the skill of those whose professional mission it is to communicate science and who are suited by disposition, experience, and utilization of craft-specific knowledge to carry out that mission expertly. 

Science journalists and documentary producers, e.g., are the ones who make the biggest contribution to the good of making what's known to science knowable to curious people generally (including individual scientists, since, like everyone else, they are not in a position to figure out "first hand" more than a tiny fraction of the things that are known by science).  

There are also professional policy analysts who use related skills to make what's known to science known to policymakers in a position to use that science.

All of this applies, btw, to the communication of the science of science communication. That is,  doing the science of science communication is different from communicating the science of science communication, and it's a mistake for anyone, including science communication scientists themselves, to think science communication scientists are the best ones to communicate what they do either to the curious public or to policymakers in need of knowing something about science communication.

It's fine for science communication scientists to try their hand at communicating what they do, of course, and I gave it a shot the day before yesterday in my "World View" column in Nature. But no surprise, there are things even I, on reflection, can see I didn't do very well. 

I very much regret, e.g., that the column was amenable to being read (certain sentences definitely were; I see that now that someone has shown me) as designed to help "nonskeptics" understand why "climate skeptics" aren't so "irrational" as they seem--they are being poisoned by the polluted environment and it is impairing their perception. My point was that everyone's capacity to figure out what the best evidence  is -- on climate change and myriad other issues --is  being compromised by the entanglement of facts that admit of scientific investigation with cultural meanings that people use to signal who they are and who they aren't.  Indeed, to speak as if only one side of an issue like climate change or one cultural constituency generally is vulnerable to the disorienting impact of this dynamic is to participate in polluting the science communication environment, since it helps cement the pernicious association of particular positions on complex issues with particular cultural identities. 

Fortunately, a genuine science communication professional took up the same theme -- that the problem we face is a polluted science communication environment and not a defect in any aspect of democratic citizens' capacity to apprehend the best available evidence -- just a few days before my "World View" column was published.  Tom Zeller is an expert at communicating science & he wrote a very insightful, accessible, and interesting column on the issue in the Huffington Post on Aug. 10.

Glad to know that more people will get the message from him than me. Those of you who got it from me--go look at what he said. That's what I meant to say.

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