Posts Tagged ‘science journalism’

Dilemmas in science communication

April 17, 2012

Slightly different version has been posted and discussed at Planet3

A few weeks ago I attended a meeting on science communication and the increasing public distrust of science. Climate was not the major theme, though it did come up as an example (not least because I was an invited speaker, as a blogging scientist / scientific blogger).

Cees van Woerkum: Modern vs traditional communication

The first speaker was professor in communication science, Cees van Woerkum. I attended his lectures 19 years ago. He explained how the old model, of a sender and a receiver of communication, was no longer valid (if it ever was). Modern communication is characterized by a much more active role of the audience in selecting what information to take in. Also, the message is not inert, but rather gets meaning in an active and social process.

Drawing on examples from biotechnology, carbon capture and storage, and vaccination he argued that scientists should take the concerns of citizens seriously. Laughing at somebody for calling biotechnology “unnatural” is not going to take their worries away or change their mind. Calling fears of side effects from vaccinations “dangerous nonsense” doesn’t quite work either, especially not if those concerns have already been anchored to a certain extent through social construction. If a scientist calls the chance of CO2 leakage from a storage facility vanishingly small, the response is “so it’s not impossible?!” A potential way out according to van Woerkum is to ask what’s behind their concerns: What do you mean by unnatural?” Then you can at least start to have a conversation.

Jona Lendering: A different field of scientific inquiry facing large scale disinformation

This was followed by a presentation by author and historian Jona Lendering. Although the topic of his talk was something entirely different (about ancientPersia) the similarities with the climate debate were striking. He explained how this field of academic enquiry (about the origin of Western civilization) was being “attacked by anti-scientific tendencies” (aiming to glorify one culture’s role). The scientific establishment hardly participated in the public debate on the internet. As a consequence, the anti-scientific views got more traction and mainstream science failed in (what should be) one its core missions: Informing the public. He repeatedly stated the mechanism: “Bad information drives out good information”. He also mentioned the “intense hate” with which the “attack-machines” approach science. It was as if I was listening to Kevin Trenberth; the dynamic between a skeptical-cynical part of the audience and mainstream science was just too similar.

Me: Dilemmas in science communication

I talked about the dynamics of blog discussions and about the dilemmas that one encounters in trying to communicate scientific insights to a broad audience, mainly in the sphere of understandability vs completeness:

I mentioned that imho mainstream media suffers from too much emphasis on news (as opposed to robust knowledge) and on mere facts (to the detriment of explaining the scientific process of getting to understand those facts). In the blogosphere I see too much emphasis on details (to the detriment of the big picture) and on uncertainties (to the detriment of robust knowledge).

The last one on the list I actually added based on the dilemma that van Woerkum alerted the audience to: As a scientist (or science journalist), you can no longer easily claim “listen to me, I’ll tell you how it is”. You have to take the concerns of citizens seriously.

But what to do if those concerns are not openly expressed, but rather disguised in scientific sounding (but incorrect or sometimes even plain silly) arguments? “Climate change is due to the sun” or “Iranis the origin of Western civilization” or “vaccination causes autism”? The underlying reason for skepticism often remains hidden. As a scientist, you’re sucked into a quasi-scientific argument. How else can you react, than by saying: “no, that’s not the way it is. It’s this and this way, for such and such reasons”? But such a reaction is being characterized by skeptics ((mis-)using van Woerkum’s words) as “unjustified superiority of science”. Is explaining how science sees it a hopeless strategy?

In line with van Woerkum I think it’s important to focus on the underlying reasons for distrusting science. We should really discuss why we disagree so strongly about climate change (e.g. due to differences in worldviews and in risk perception). Keith Kloor cites Scott Denning (who spent a lot of time talking with contrarians, e.g. at two consecutive Heartland meetings):

Almost everyone that dismisses climate change as a problem does it for ideological or political reasons, not for scientific reasons.

Of course, there are also other potential reasons, but this one is surely a biggie.

Discussions about hockeysticks and feedbacks are all very interesting, but they are not the crux of why there is a such a heated and politicized debate about climate change. We don’t have a similar public debate about the mating behavior of fruitflies after all.

 

Science communication: Who is responsible (for its failing)?

March 9, 2011

There’s a semi-continuous argument going on about who’s to blame for the lack of public understanding about climate change. I’ve discussed the communication conundrum a few times as well, and assigned blame to various quarters, e.g

The media:

The popular media often paint a false picture of the scientific debate by giving the tiny minority viewpoints equal footing as the consensus viewpoints.

Scientists:

Most scientists are very bad at talking about their scientific field in plain, understandable language.

Though of course both statements in isolation miss the broader point, which is that

there are weaknesses in all parts of the chain that hamper the communication and use of climate science: A lack of good communication by scientists, a lack of scientific literacy amongst the public, the education system, the political system, a lack of fact-checking by the media, disinformation by vested interests, etc.

Enough self-quotation. Discussions are raging at Keith’s, Eli’s (check out John Fleck’s comments), mt’s, Stoat, with very interesting discussions in the comments sections.

Eli:

John, tell your friends to get off the all scientists are lousy communicators and it’s their fault that the science is not being communicated kick and maybe we can talk.

To which many journalists would understandably reply: Exchange “scientists” by “journalists” as well while you’re at it. And both would be right.

John Fleck points out that, apart from egregious examples that exist e.g. in the opinionsphere journalism,

the data would suggest that journalists across the major press publications in the area I deal with most closely – climate change – are doing a creditable job.

Max Boykoff, now at the University of Colorado, has done the most work on this. His most recent analysis of newspaper coverage of climate change found that the British tabloid press “significantly diverged from the scientific consensus that humans contribute to climate change,” but that what Boykoff calls the “prestige press” (NY Times, Guardian, LA Times, Washington Post, etc.) pretty much gets the story right. Despite the widespread belief in a “false balance” problem, Boykoff’s most recent data showed a steady decline in the problem, such that in 2006 (the most recent year for which he’s got data, sadly), just 3 percent of the US and UK stories he surveyed did the “false balance” thing.

William puts the lion’s share of responsibility with the public:

But if the public wanted intelligently written journalism that actually explored issues carefully, they would get it. Alas (as far as I can tell), most of them want entertainment, but they want to feel good about watching it, so they want to pretend they are watching news, so effectively they are asking to be lied to. And that is what they get.

There’s something to that. Over the years, even the evening news and the weather forecast have changed in its narrative and appearance so as to be more about entertainment than about information. Election debates. Blogs. People want entertainment and they want it now. Gimme a quick fix, quick. Next, what’s next? There’s no time for learning or reflection.

Jonathan Gilligan has a similar line of thought as William, putting the responsibility on the public to consume the information they chose to:

There are lots of great books by scientists and journalists, so why do we assume that deadline journalism is so much more important than books for getting accurate and clear information to the public?

Yes, there’s bad journalism and there are bad books, but there are also excellent examples of both and if we can’t trust the general public to figure out what’s trustworthy, then it’s game over for democracy regardless what we do for the environment.

While rather gloomy in its ending, I think Gilligan is right that news journalism (interesting discussion on that thread, esp. the back and forth between Gilligan, Kloor and Tobis) isn’t the type of medium that we can expect to cover slowly unraveling stories in any depth. But even deadline news journalism is usually put in a certain context, where such issues can be touched upon. And there’s also background journalism, science journalism, and other kinds of communication (by scientists, journalists or whomever) that could rise to the occasion.

Which gets us to the point that it’s really about. Quoting mt:

the real question isn’t “whose fault?” It’s “what now?”


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