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?

Leave a Comment