And now it’s time for something uplifting:
‘Of course scientists can communicate’ (Tim Radord’s Nature column)
there are reasons why scientists, in particular, should be and often are good communicators. One is that most scientists start with the engaging quality of enthusiasm. (…)
Enthusiasm is infectious, but to command an audience of readers, scientists should exploit their other natural gifts. One of these is training in clarity. Another is training in observation. And a third is knowledge. (…)
thoughts have value only when expressed, and the more clearly they are expressed, the greater their potential value. (…)
The problems for the scientist as a public communicator start with academic publishing: the language, form and conventions of the published scientific paper could almost have been devised to conceal information. (…) So to be effective communicators, scientists have to learn to stand back from their own work and see it as strangers might do. (…)
And while we have our ducks in a row, let me invoke the canard that scientists occasionally propagate about the media: that it does not appreciate scientific uncertainty. That one is especially irritating. It seems to say “I, as a scientist, wish to have it both ways. I want the privilege of knowing better than you, and the indulgence of being wrong without guilt, because science, don’t you see, is really about uncertainty.” To which the foolish answer might be “In which case, why should we listen?” But alas, people in any case listen selectively, even to the best communicators, which might be why so many Americans think Darwin’s theory of evolution is “only a theory”. Scientists are not the only people to blame for a problem in communication.
If large proportions of the public believe demonstrably silly things (such as young earth creationism or that the earth is the centre of the universe or that AGW is not happening*), perhaps that’s a sign that there’s something in human nature that makes them prone to believing silly (though comfortable) things? Humans may have big brains, but we’re by and large not very good at intuitively understanding things that we can’t directly observe (that probably wasn’t a highly needed survival skill during our evolution). Or is it something in our culture? Or the education system? Or all of the above?
The problem with many of these complex questions is that the most boring and least useful answer is usually the right one: All of the above…
The real issue is perhaps not so much how to improve the journalists’ or scientists’ communication, but rather how to depoliticize the topic of climate change. Picked up at Yulsman’s,
The impediments imposed by the way audiences filter what we say based on political belief systems means that our [journalists] work can only effect things at the margins.
(the same can of course be said for scientists’ communication efforts)
(People’s) beliefs, whether sensible or otherwise, about a whole range of empirical questions are determined by their political identity.
The good news is, the climate debate hasn’t always been as politicized as it is now:
Polls show that as late as 1997, Republicans and Democrats had virtually indistinguishable views on the science of global warming. But an aggressive campaign by the fossil fuel industry and conservative think tanks to cast doubt about the scientific evidence that human activity is warming the planet changed that. Today, public understanding of climate science reflects a deep division along partisan lines.
Undoing that division is key. I found Jonathan Adler’s thoughts interesting and thought provoking (mostly so for libertarians) in that respect.
*) Even though all of these examples taken as absolutes are rather silly/unlikely, I don’t mean to imply absolute equivalence between these examples. Jeez, since when are disclaimers needed on blogs?