Sunday, June 13, 2010

More on Scientists and Communication

In my earlier rant, Dano posted this quote from Naomi Oreskes:

"Scientists and academic institutions need to expand definition of what their “real work” is: “The work is not done, in my opinion, until it’s communicated in a way that citizens understand.

I disagree strongly with this. A scientist's job is to do science. That is already quite difficult, and from the scientists I've know and the little science I've done, it requires an environment and a skill set that are in many ways orthogonal to a "communications" mindset. Doing science requires immense and prolonged concentration, often even in isolation. Your head is in a totally different space from the real world, and the best periods I had doing science I was deep into it and barely knew what was going on in the outside world, let alone the world of my friends. Maybe it was just me, but I found that doing good work and having insights required this kind of immersion. It didn't involve telephone calls and writing op-eds and the like -- it required keeping your butt in the chair and debugging code at 1 am and dreaming about your problem as you fell asleep.

Some scientists are good at public communications -- most are not. And that's a good thing. Communicating publically in today's media environment is difficult and not something you learn easily, especially when your inclination is more towards mathematics and rationality than towards simplifying your work for the public.

Isn't it the job of science journalists and public information officers to do this simplifying and contextifying and communicating? (By the way, did you know there are now 4 PIOs in America for every journalist?) What else are they there for?

And by the way, who says scientists aren't communicating their science now? All the scientists I ask for interviews are happy to give them, even those who already have a great many demands on them. What else should they be doing that they're not?

So let's get off their case and let them do science. A lack of communication skills in the scientific community is NOT the reason the world is refusing to deal with climate change. Scientists have made their case quiet clearly. The public knows well what needs to be done. The problems are elsewhere.

4 comments:

Jules said...

it's social scientists who need to explain the audience a thing or two about the basics of psychology & philosophy.

cuz poor understanding of those things is where climate skepticism has its origins.

Dano said...

I'm glad you are having this discussion here David.

I understand your point about what is the current job of the scientist. Oreskes' point (and my implicit point) is that the current job description is inadequate.

The inadequacy stems from the question" 'what good is knowledge if no one [few] can use it?'.

I'm not really of the stripe that wants the scientist to spend part of their time in front of a camera or PowerPoint presentation on a large screen, as I don't think the skillsets often overlap. Sometimes they do.

So this means someone else does the communication. This will necessarily entail interaction with the scientists.

How's that? Is that objectionable?

Best,

D

David Appell said...

> The inadequacy stems from the
> question" 'what good is knowledge
> if no one [few] can use it?'.

> So this means someone else does
> the communication. This
> will necessarily entail interaction > with the scientists.

> How's that? Is that objectionable?

No -- I agree with this. And I'm not saying scientists *shouldn't* communicate with the public -- they should, and the more the better. Many of them are -- have there ever been more blogs by scientists, more science shows on television, more science news available to anyone who wants to find it, more books written by scientists, more research group web sites, more press releases, more data publically available, more papers publically availabe, more lecture videos archived? No.

I just don't think it's part of their job description. (Nor, frankly, is most of the science being done of interest to the public. It's usually highly specialized and highly technical -- look at any journal table of contents. Science moves slowly and methodically, and most of it is not big headline material.)

So I think we should get off their case, and most of all we must stop the insinuation that lack of communication from scientists is somehow responsible for lack of movement on the AGW problem.

Dano said...

and most of all we must stop the insinuation that lack of communication from scientists is somehow responsible for lack of movement on the AGW problem.

Sure. This is part of the human condition, part of which is shaped by the Enlightenment that incorrectly thought rationality can be divorced from human experience. And Enlightenment Cartesian inquiry that...well, that's part of the standard Dano rant that has appeared here many times.

Nonetheless, the current system is inadequate to inform the public and the polity, and some tweaks need to be made, including outside of science where anything non-human is devalued for exploitation. Not holding my breath here, of course.

Best,

D