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Wednesday
Feb062013

Yet another installment of: "I only *study* science communication ..." 

Man, I suck at communicating!

I’ve now received 913 messages (in addition to many many comments) from scientists saying  “I attended your recent presentation, and you did fine—everyone loved you. Seriously. Don’t jump – here’s a number to call for help.  Okay? Okay?”

I see exactly what happened, of course. Despite my intentions, I came across like whining, self-pitying baby, because I wrote something that made me sound like a whining, self-pitying baby!

Actually, the potential miscommunication I am most anxious to fix is any intimation that I felt the audience at the  North American Carbon Program meeting made me feel I wasn't playing a constructive role in the discussion.  Definitely no one did in Q&A.  And after, the comments from the many people who lingered to discuss consisted of "very interesting!" (n = 3)  "thanks for giving us something to think about," (n = 2)  & "[really interesting observation/question relating to the data & issues]” (n = 7). (Like I said in the talk, it is essential to collect data, and not just go on introspection, when assessing the impact of science communication strategies.)

The source of the disappointment was wholly internal.  Also—but please don’t take this as reason to console me; I’m fine!—I remain convinced it was warranted.  I have proof: interrogating the feeling has enabled me to learn something.

So let me try this again . . . .

Something astonishing and important happened on  Monday.

I got the opportunity to address a room full of scientists who, by showing up (& not leaving for 2 hrs!), by listening intently, by asking thoughtful questions, by sharing relevant experiences, and by offering reasonable proposals proved that they, like me, see fixing the science communication problem as one of the most pressing and urgent tasks facing our society.

Of course, I stand by my position (subject, forever, to revision in light of new evidence) on what the source of the problem is. Also, I am happy, but hardly surprised, to learn that members of the audience didn’t at all resent my registering disagreement when I felt doing so would serve the goal of steering them—us—clear of what I genuinely believe to be false starts and deadends.

What disappoints me is not that I felt obliged to say “no,” "I don't think so," and “not that.”

It is that I failed to come fully prepared to identify, for an audience of citizen scientists who afforded me the honor of asking for my views, what I believe they can do as scientists to help create a science communication environment in which diverse citizens can be expected to converge on the best available scientific evidence as they deliberate over how best to secure their common ends.

I said (in my last post), “the scientist’s job is to do science, not communicate it.”  I didn’t convey my meaning as clearly as I wish I had (because, you see, science communication is only a hobby for me; my job is to contribute to scientific understanding of it).

Of course, scientists “communicate” as part of their job in being scientists.  But that communication is professional; it is with other scientists. Their job is not to communicate  their science to nonexperts or members of the public.

This is a very critical point to get clear on so I will risk going on a bit. 

The mistake of thinking that doing valid science is the same as communicating the validity of valid science is what got us into the mess we are in! Communicating and doing are different; and the former is something that admits of and demands its own independent scientific investigation.

In addition, the expert use of the scientific knowledge that the study of science communication creates is something that requires professional training and skill suited to communicating science, not doing science. Expecting the scientist to communicate the validity of her science because she had the professional skill needed to generate it is like expecting the players in a major league baseball game to do radio play-by-play at the same time, and then write up sportspage accounts for the fans who couldn’t tune in.

Yes, yes, there’s Carl Sagan; he’s the Tim McCarver of science communication. For sure be Carl Sagan or better still Richard Feynman if you possibly can be, b/c as I said, if you can help me and other curious citizens to participate in the wonder of knowing what is known to science, you will be conferring an exquisite benefit of immeasureable intrinsic value on us! Still, that won’t solve the climate change impasse either.

But neglecting to add this was my real mistake: just because what you say in or about your job as a scientist won’t dispel controversy over climate change does not mean that it isn’t your duty as a citizen scientist to contribute to something only scientists are in a position to do and that is essential not only to dispelling controversy over climate science but to addressing what caused that controversy and numerous others (nuclear power . . . HPV vaccine), and that will continue to cause us to experience even more of the same (GM foods . . . synthetic biology) if not corrected.

The cause of the science communication problem is the disjunction between the science of science communication and the practice of science and science-informed policymaking.  We must integrate them—so that we can learn as much as we can about how to communicate science, and never fail to use as much as we know about how to make what’s known to science known by those whose well-being it can serve.

Coordinated, purposeful effort by the institutional and individual members of the scientific community are necessary to achieve this integration (not sufficient; but I’ll address what others must do in part 5,922 of this series of posts). That was the message—the meaning—of the National Academy of Science’s “Science of Science Communication” Sackler Colloquium last spring.

Universities are where both science and professional training of those whose skills are informed by science take place. Universities—individually and together—must organize themselves to assure that they contribute, then, to the production of knowledge and skill that our society needs here.

What does that mean? Not necessarily one thing (such as, say, a formal “science of science communication” program or whathaveou). But any of a large number of efforts that a university can make, if it proceeds in a considered and deliberate way, to make sure that its constituent parts (its various social science graduate departments, its professional schools, its interdisciplinary centers and whatnot) predictably, systematically interact in a manner that advances the integration of the forms of knowledge that must be combined.

So make this happen

Combine with others within your university and petition, administer, or agitate as necessary to get your institution both to understand and make its contribution to this mission in whatever way intelligent deliberation recommends.

Model it yourself by teaching—or better yet co-teaching with someone in another discipline that also should be integrated—a course called the “Science of Science Communication” that’s cross-listed in multiple relevant programs.

Infect a brilliant student or two or fifty with excitement and passion for contributing to the creation of the knowledge that we need—and do what you can to demonstrate that should they choose this path their scholarly excellence will be conferred the recognition it deserves (or at least won’t compromise their eligibility for tenure!).

Is that it? No other things that scientists can do? 

I’m sure there are others (to be taken up in later posts, certainly, I promise). But making their universities bear their share of the burden to contributing to the collective project of melding science and science-informed policymaking with the science of science communication is the single most important thing you can do as a scientist to solve the science communication problem.

But don’t stop doing your science, and just keep up the great work (no need to change how you talk) in that regard.

Okay. Next question?  

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Reader Comments (4)

Dan - you said in your revised post, that "Their job is not to communicate their science to non-experts or members of the public." This did strike me as a weird thing to say. When I am doing science, I try to do it in a scientifically defensible way. When I am communicating to the public about science, I try to do it in a way in which they learn something, and hopefully laugh a few times. But what my job is, that's for me and my employer to negotiate, and hopefully, for me to be creative about. My job is to feel good about what I do, and at the same time hopefully help people, and get to eat. But, as I said in my email to you, it is indeed our responsibility to do exactly this (communicate to members of the public), as I said, especially when the scientific results have large social, ethical, economic, human and ecosystem health impacts. And, it is the case that Federal agencies, e.g. NSF, that fund the scientific community REQUIRE that we communicate our science outside of the scientific community.

For me, doing this is an integral part of who I am as a scientist. I have learned, from a variety of personal experiences, like marriage counseling, and communicating about climate change to Rotarians, etc., that it is very important to "get into the heads of" the members of the audience. But, until your presentation at the NACP meeting, I didn't fully have the jargon about, and the better informed ideas about, the importance and impact of cultural cognition. This has helped me a great deal, and I am sure it will in future presentations; I am already implementing changes (in my head) as a result of your blogs and your presentation. But I don't typically expect scientists to communicate, as you have said, the "validity of valid science". Scientists more often are communicating about the process of science, which can be far more interesting and entertaining, than trying to hammer home the idea that some set of climate science-related conclusions are valid. For me, a quantitative scientist, to discuss the "validity" of my work requires the use of error analysis, and thus, for a general audience, might require them to use stimulants of some sort. People sometimes use the word valid or validate when referring to one of the most important tools of science, the model. But, models are almost never valid, they are a representation and most often simply a test of our understanding of a natural system, such as the Earth. It is hard for me to imagine an Earth System model as ever being valid. But what is fun to tell people about is the process of finding things out, to use a Feynman-ian-like term, since you have referred to Feynman in your blog. People will listen to stories about how hypotheses are developed, e.g. about warming in the Arctic, and then about how you went there to test it, and observed a similar warming, and a similar loss of sea ice, but how that loss of sea ice is occurring faster than the models predicted, and then how that comparison led you to think harder about what is wrong with a model. Models aren't ever valid, they are wrong, and it is learning about the wrongness that leads to scientific progress. The finding things out, and the wrongness is the excitement of science. People love to hear stories about what an Inupiat Eskimo taught you about ice that you never learned from other scientists, and how that helped you rethink your model. Science is a process, not a bunch of end results that are either valid, or not. Ah, but enough ranting.

Regarding making my University bear its share of the burden, I can't really make my University do much of anything. I have tried! But, I can motivate myself to try to inspire young people about the process of science, and to tweak peoples minds to think about things in a different way, and hopefully, in a positive, constructive way. So, when I asked you about taking a renewable energy engineer with me to the Rotary Club, I was suggesting that it might be effective for people who value individualism and a hierarchical world to see the unprecedented investment opportunities in renewable energy, which everyone on the planet will likely eventually need. Its a darn big market! And that pursuit of such investment opportunities might "symbolize human resourcefulness", in a way that is fully consistent with the values of the cultural group with which they identify. Shouldn't we try to take Warren Buffet with us to the Rotary Club? I think the climate science community should be communicating that everyone can win, and that includes the cultural groups with which they strongly identify, in the pursuit of the solutions to climate change.

While you might not think that I am, I will take the liberty of saying thank you for helping me to think more clearly.

February 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Shepson

Oh, and by the way, my vow is intact. I will never tell you what your job is. But, if you're really lucky, it will be something different every day!
- Paul

February 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Shepson

Ok, this is a distributed discussion - I've read bits in different places and probably haven't found all of it. So it's not clear where to post, but here goes:

It seems to me that the discussion suffers a great deal from people disagreeing on semantics, even though they may not be in substantive disagreement on the issues. In particular, a key point under discussion is _to whom_ scientists should be communicating, but people persist in using the word "communicate" without specifying the audience. When you (Dan) use the word "communicate", you clearly have in mind "communicate to the general public". Equally clearly, this is _not_ what several other participants in the discussion (and perhaps scientists in general, because communication to peers is such a crucial aspect of scientific activity) think of when they hear this word - e.g. Andrew Gelman using it to refer to self-communication, which is on the very opposite side of the audience spectrum. And the intended meaning may not be clear from context at all - the only good way to discern it is to read more of the writing of a particular author to get a sense of how they use the word, which is clearly not a good state of affairs.

So (at least when talking to scientists) I would strongly suggest saying "public communication of science" or "public communication" instead of "science communication" or "communication". These are absolutely not synonymous.

For instance, when you say "The mistake of thinking that doing valid science is the same as communicating the validity of valid science..." I think you have a valid idea in your head but the actual words are dead wrong. Communicating the validity of the science to a select audience (preferably as broad as possible a subset of the scientific community) is an absolutely critical part of doing science - if one neglects that, one has in effect not done any science at all. Communicating it more broadly than that could be argued not to be part of "doing science", but is certainly also part of what a scientist is paid to do. So your attempt to clarify just ended up muddying things further.

Let's get the debate on track to discuss _who_ (all scientists? some more than others?) should be communicating _what_ (facts/conclusions/empirical results? process? validity? degree of certainty?) to _whom_ (broader range of scientists? students? scientifically knowledgeable public? quantitatively but not scientifically knowledgeable public? general public?).

February 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkonrad

@Konrad: I don't think we are tripping over semanitics. I wish that were it, b/c as foolish as that would make us, that sort of problem would be much better than the one we have here.

Consider:

a. The very occcasion for the event I'm writing about here is public conflict over climate science, so it is 100% clear to all from the outset that it's "communication w/ the public" that is under discussion.

b. I say, "it isn't the scienitst's job to communicate science." It'sclear from the context that I meant "to the public": why would I inject into a discussion everyone knows is about about "communicating to the public" a point about "communicatin w/ scientists," & who could possibly believe that it isn't part of the job of the scientist to communicate to other scientists?

c. Yet someone answers, "I write journal articles, so it is too part of my job to communicate." I could think, "wow; that person forgot what we were talking about -- not communication w/ scienitsts, but communicatoin with the public!" But It's not plausible to think that someone as smart as that person forgot that. What's perfectly plausible is that this person thinks that the communicating intrinsic to science is the same communicating involved in communicating what's known to science to the public. The reason that's plausible is that this view is in fact widespread; it is implicit in how our society, which is remarkably innocent of the idea that science communication admits of scientific study, operates; it is the very mistake that led to the problem -- public confusion over climate science -- that is the occasion for our discussion.

d. I want to be very very very sure to point out, then, that the answer this person just gave is the source of the problem. So I do.

That's what is going on here.

Now, the reason that just saying "that's what's going on here" isn't sufficient to resolve the disagreement or even displel confusion (I agree confusion plaugues all of us here) is that there's something about (c) & (d) that really really really really really goes against some core element of the cultural programming of scientists, certainly, but of people who are citizens of the the Liberal Republic of Science. No matter how clearly I speak (in fact, I made the point super duper clearly, I think, in my initial talk *&* in the intial post after the talk, not to mention *this* post itself), its progress into comprehension will be impeded by a strong current of dissonance.

I have a way to diagnose whether a particular person's software contains the programming that makes (c) & (d) seem dissonant. Do you find nullius in verba inspiring & beautiful? If so, you will constantly experience a sort of cognitive/emotional hiccup when you encounter (c) & (d).

I find nullius in verba very inspiring & beautiful. I find (c) & (d) to be a constant source of surprise & misadventure. I always find that it makes it hard for me to "communicate my science"; and knowing that's what the problem is, it makes me feel tremendous empathy and admiration for, rather than frustration with, my audience (or frustration w/ myself for that matter).

Go here for latest...

February 23, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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