Shooting the messenger instead of dealing with the problem: more on some scientists behaving badly to the need to become better communicators - blog by Gurdur


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Shooting the messenger instead of dealing with the problem: more on some scientists behaving badly to the need to become better communicators
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Posted 23-Apr-2010 at 09:11 PM (21:11) by Gurdur

In my last blog post, I addressed the need for scientists to become better communicators especially where the science becomes central to public policy/politics debates. I also addressed in that the resources available to become a better communicator, and how despite all that some scientists react badly to the need to become better at communication. This is also shown in a very recent couple of blog posts made on the Mike the Mad Biologist blog.

In response to an article by Chris Mooney in the The Washington Post, "On issues like global warming and evolution, scientists need to speak up", Mike first responded in his blog:
... But this beating up the victim has to stop. Sure, I agree with Mooney that many scientists need to learn how to communicate with the public better .... But many scientists do communicate with the public, in one form or another, to the extent they are able to do so.
No, it's not blaming the victim. Like it or not, scientists will sometimes find themselves in public political debates, and sometimes those debates will turn nasty. What Chris Mooney and others have done is to show how scientists can do better at communication and influence, and to show how they are doing worse than they need to. That is not "blaming the victim", that is learning how to fight back.

Mike makes some points:

... Many scientists do this: the problem isn't an unwillingness to communicate (or an inability to do so), but that nobody contacts us.
Then very simply Mike and others need to learn the meaning of the proverb about Mohammed going to the mountain if the mountain will not come to Mohammed.

... Professional societies and advocacy groups could do much more to help scientists reach the public.
Which brings me to what I think a major, and mostly unmentioned source of the failure in Swifthack: professional environmental groups.
Where were they? ...
Here Mike raises a very important point; but what he does not seem to realise is that if science becomes too identified publically with certain political pressure groups, then a major selling point for science -- its objectivity -- comes under fire and risks being lost.

As unfair as it might sound, it's better for scientists to make their own pressure groups and campaigns rather than rely on others, and that way scientists can also maintain the detachment of science from manipulation in politics. Likewise, it's best for scientists to organise their own groups of the public in support of science and its objectivity, rather than relying on others to do it for them, or worse, demanding others do it for them.

Another problem here is that Mike is addressing his question to completely the worong person. Rather than addressing the question to Chris Mooney about the absence of professional enviromental groups, Mike should be asking those groups that question directly.

.... But as Abel Pharmboy points out, there are no incentives for outreach--for many of us, outreach is not our job, nor does it accomplish what needs to be done to pay the rent.
There may be few incentives, but there are disincentives for not doing so, for not doing outreach --- as the hacked climate-science emails affair showed.

... As someone who has worked at a non-profit whose mission included public outreach and education, it's a full time job*. Rapid response to industry propaganda is not something you can do well (or at all) part-time, or as a hobby.
Yet, even so, it needs to be done.

Yet the organizations that chop down dozens of trees annually to send me solicitations asking me to help them protect the environment and stop global warming have been completely absent (they're certainly not being quoted in news stories). Where are the counter-ads? Where are their professionally-trained (one hopes) spokesmen going on television and radio?
Ask them -- directly. Blog about the responses you get.

... Believe it or not, Mooney and I share the same goals. But he needs to stop lecturing scientists, and start asking them what we need to do this the right way.
The point is not getting through. Scientists are unlikely to be blessed with communicators with gallons of resources descending from the skies ready to do scientists' bidding. Scientists need to learn how to do it for themselves.

Then, in response to a blog post by Sheril Kirshebaum, Mike made a reply which seems to miss the point:

.... Worse, by blaming generic 'scientists', as opposed to specific scientists or science-based groups, Kirshenbaum simutaneously misidentifies the problem, while reinforcing negative stereotypes.
Wrong. What Kirshenbaum wrote was actually, " ...I often discuss the different groups who came to meet with me when I worked on Capitol Hill with regard to who was most effective. .... Scientists from universities or NGO’s would usually show up in my office with a briefing binder as thick as a phone book. .... Most didn’t talk to me, but at me. .... I don’t think most scientists understand the way policy decisions are influenced" (the bolding in that quote is my own).

Sheril Kirshenbaum was very obviously talking about a subset, albeit in her experience a majority subset, not "generic scientists" as Mike alleges. Would Mike have Sheril tell a lie instead in order to brush up the image of "generic scientists"? Or simply be truthful about relevant experience? hmmm?

Mike also wrote:

... Once again, we see the sorry spectacle of blaming scientists for policy failures ...
Oh puh-leeeze. Enough of the fake victimhood already. Kirshenbaum was not blaming scientists for policy failures, she was talking of some scientists being pretty useless at presentation and political influence. There's a big difference; and Sheril is someone who takes her own advice; despite never having had a journalism course, as she later responded to Mike's accusations, she tries to do better as a scientist in presenting science to the public and government.

Mike, having titled his blog post of a response to Kirshenbaum as, "Once Again, Professional Science Communicators Blame the Victim", went on:

... They might want to reallocate some resources -- resources an academic or solitary scientist can't even dream of having. Because this is a full time job .... I do research, others do research and teaching, others primarily teach. Regardless, we're in the game. We're doing our part. We're doing science. But carping on other people's supposed failures is not doing science. .....
So go fucking forth and do some science.
And stop blaming the victim.
For a start, as Sheril noted in her reply to all that, she never set out to be a "professional science communicator", she is instead a scientist who tries to be better at communication.

Mike would be well-advised to follow Sheril's example instead of whining.

Next off, science is big these days. There are lots of scientists and lots of labs and whatnot. No, no-one is going around to drop parachuted "professional communicators" and tons of cash over each lab. There really isn't all that much money floating around these days, and no Golden Horde of paid professional communicators with all the free time in the world just waiting to put themselves at the service of science. Scientists will just have to learn how to talk to the public and to government themselves.

So go fucking forth, stop being a petulant crybaby, and do some communication.

And stop shooting the messenger. That won't help you one tiny bit.

My previous blog post on this subject:

Science needs to do better in Public Relations? Some scientists react badly to the need instead

That blog post contains some references for some very good books on how to become a much better communicator, including Cornelia Dean's book specifically aimed to be of help to scientists.

Trackbacks for links cited in this blog post:
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