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January 02 2010

''Scientists Need to Speak Up''

The academic community needs to do a better job at responding to attacks on its credibility:

On issues like global warming and evolution, scientists need to speak up, by Chris Mooney, Commentary, Washington Post: The battle over the science of global warming has long been a street fight between mainstream researchers and skeptics. But never have the scientists received such a deep wound as when, in late November, a large trove of e-mails and documents stolen from the Climatic Research Unit at Britain's University of East Anglia were released onto the Web.
In the ensuing "Climategate" scandal, scientists were accused of withholding information, suppressing dissent, manipulating data and more. But while the controversy has receded, it may have done lasting damage to science's reputation... Meanwhile, public belief in the science of global warming is in decline.
The central lesson of Climategate is not that climate science is corrupt. The leaked e-mails do nothing to disprove the scientific consensus on global warming. Instead, the controversy highlights that in a world of blogs, cable news and talk radio, scientists are poorly equipped to communicate their knowledge and, especially, to respond when science comes under attack.
A few scientists answered the Climategate charges almost instantly. ... But they were largely alone. ... This isn't a new problem. As far back as the late 1990s, before the news cycle hit such a frenetic pace, some science officials were lamenting that scientists had never been trained in how to talk to the public and were therefore hesitant to face the media.
"For 45 years or so, we didn't suggest that it was very important," Neal Lane, a former Clinton administration science adviser and Rice University physicist, told the authors of a landmark 1997 report on the gap between scientists and journalists. ". . . In fact, we said quite the other thing." ...
Scientific training continues to turn out researchers who speak in careful nuances and with many caveats, in a language aimed at their peers, not at the media or the public. Many scientists can scarcely contemplate framing a simple media message for maximum impact; the very idea sounds unbecoming. And many of them don't trust the public or the press....... Rather than spurring greater efforts at communication, such mistrust and resignation have further motivated some scientists to avoid talking to reporters and going on television.
They no longer have that luxury. After all, global-warming skeptics suffer no such compunctions. ... If scientists don't take a central communications role, nobody else with the same expertise and credibility will do it for them.
Meanwhile, the task of translating science for the public is ever more difficult: Information sources are multiplying, partisan news outlets are replacing more objective media, and the news cycle is spinning ever faster.
Consider another failure to communicate from the global-warming arena: the scientific fallout after a devastating trio of hurricanes -- Katrina, Rita and Wilma -- in the fall of 2005. Just as these storms struck, a pair of scientific studies appeared in top journals suggesting, for the first time, that global warming was making hurricanes more intense and deadly. Other scientists vociferously disagreed, and the two camps fell into combat.
So while public interest in hurricanes was at a high after Katrina, much of the science reporting at the time portrayed researchers bickering with one another ("Hurricane Debate Shatters Civility of Weather Science," announced a Wall Street Journal cover story). Judith Curry, a climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a co-author of one of the contested studies, told me recently that the experience made her realize that "this was really the wrong way to do things, trying to fight these little wars and knock the other side down."
With the media distracted by the food fight, scientists weren't leading the public discussion, and other important findings that ought to have received attention in Katrina's wake ... were drowned out.
If the global-warming battle has any rival in its intensity, its nastiness and its risk to scientists if they do not talk to the public, it is the long-standing conflict over the teaching of evolution. Science's opponents in this fight are highly organized, and they constantly nitpick evolutionary science to cast the field into disrepute.
The scientific response to creationists has long been to cite the extensive evidence for evolution. In book after book, scientists have explained how DNA, fossil, anatomical and other evidence indisputably shows the interrelatedness of all species. Further, they have refuted creationist claims that evolution cannot explain the complexity of the eye or the intricacy of the bacterial flagellum. Yet ... polls repeatedly show that a large portion of Americans have doubts about evolution.
For all these efforts, why haven't scientists made any inroads? It's because at its core, the objection to evolution isn't about science at all, but about perceived threats to faith and moral values. The only way to defuse the conflict is to assuage these fundamental fears. Yet this drags many scientists out of their comfort zone: They're not priests or theologians and don't know how to sound like them. Many refuse to try...
Ironically, to increase support for the teaching of evolution, scientists must join forces with -- and show more understanding of -- religion. Scientists who are believers also need to be more vocal about how they reconcile science and faith. ...
In other words, what's needed is less "pure science" on its own -- although of course scientists must continue to speak in scientifically accurate terms -- and more engagement with the concerns of nonscientific audiences. In response to that argument, many researchers will say: "Why target us? We're the good guys. And if we become more media savvy, we'll risk our credibility."
There is only one answer to this objection: "Look all around you -- at Climategate, at the unending evolution wars -- and ask, are your efforts working?" The answer, surely, is no.
The precise ways in which scientists should change their communication strategies vary from issue to issue, but there are some common themes. Reticence is never a good thing, especially on a politically fraught topic such as global warming -- it just cedes the debate to the other side....
On other topics, including evolution, scientists must recognize that more than scientific matters are at stake, and either address the moral and ethical issues themselves, or pair with those who can...
All this will require universities to do a better job of training young scientists in media and communication. ... Scientists need not wait for former vice presidents to make hit movies to teach the public about their fields -- they must act themselves. ...

I agree that the academic community should speak up more often, and engage in the public discourse in areas where they have particular expertise. I also agree that alone will be enough.

I'd describe the problem a little bit differently. Over the last few decades -- and perhaps longer -- there has been a concerted effort from the right to discredit and diminish academic voices. We hear academics are nothing but a bunch of liberals out of touch with the real world, etc., etc. -- you've heard it all -- and I think the right has been at least moderately successful at attacking the messengers when they don't like the message (and there's not much coming out of academia they agree with).

So, yes, we have to get out there and explain what research says about a topic in terms the public (and more importantly newscasters) can understand. But the political battle has to be engaged as well. If academics continue to ignore or place themselves above such political battles, then they will continue to be be undermined by those who want to silence research that stands in opposition to their interests (and who do not care at all about the integrity of the scientific process, their goal is to win the battle).

Academics have lost considerable respect in the eyes of the public in the last few decades, and while we often don't do ourselves any favors when we do speak up (so yes, let's become more media savvy), that outcome is no accident. It's the result of a concerted effort from those on the right. If we don't do more to counter the political attacks on our credibility, nobody else is going to do it for us. If the voices that are aligned against the academic community are not taken on directly, then the influence of the academic community over important pubic policy questions will continue to diminish.

April 27 2009

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