Posts Tagged ‘science literacy’

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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