Could the media possibly be playing a role in the public’s confusion about science?

In case you hadn’t noticed, there is a new science communications meme out there: it is all our fault. Us scientists are too darned unlikable, dorky, literal, cerebral and generally unconnected to our “lower organs”. If we weren’t all these things and simply listened to the self-proclaimed science media gurus, all would be well. The public would get it, the deficit would be filled, and our environmental problems would be soved. Perhaps.

There is, however, an alternative explanation. Or at least another contributing factor. The Lame-Stream-Media.

Take for example, human-caused climate change and the LSM’s continued insistance to portray a made up conflict narrative, e.g., 97% of all working climate change scientist think increasing carbon emissions will warm the world, but let’s instead hear from Stan the Weatherman who says they are all boneheaded communists and that the earth is actually cooling.

And that is what we are up against on a good day. On a typical morning, we wake up to this;

No Need to Panic About Global Warming

There’s no compelling scientific argument for drastic action to ‘decarbonize’ the world’s economy

and this;

Forget global warming – it’s Cycle 25 we need to worry about (and if NASA scientists are right the Thames will be freezing over again)

Met Office releases new figures which show no warming in 15 years

Both pieces are riddled with lies. They come from the Wall Street Journal and Britain’s Daily Mail. An overwhelming majority of scientists that work in climate change science would disagree with these pieces. So would an overwhelming majority of reporters in the newsrooms of such esteemed newspapers. Yet, the leadership and ownership of these and many other enormous media outlets, e.g., the Washing Post, The Australian, Fox News, even the New York Times, continue to give not just a voice, but a godzilla-sized megaphone to the corrupt ideologues that make a living promoting junk science.

Don’t be such a scientist? What does it matter how good your communications skills are when you are up against such media monsters. What are we armed with in this battle? PowerPoint? Our cute blogs that get 0.00001% the traffic the LSM does? The letter to the editor?

We make use of all those tools but continue to loose ground with public perceptions. This morning, a group of leading climate change scientists published a letter in the WSJ debunking the lies told in last weeks op-ed by the notorious group of 16;

Do you consult your dentist about your heart condition? In science, as in any area, reputations are based on knowledge and expertise in a field and on published, peer-reviewed work. If you need surgery, you want a highly experienced expert in the field who has done a large number of the proposed operations.

You published “No Need to Panic About Global Warming” (op-ed, Jan. 27) on climate change by the climate-science equivalent of dentists practicing cardiology. While accomplished in their own fields, most of these authors have no expertise in climate science. The few authors who have such expertise are known to have extreme views that are out of step with nearly every other climate expert. This happens in nearly every field of science. For example, there is a retrovirus expert who does not accept that HIV causes AIDS. And it is instructive to recall that a few scientists continued to state that smoking did not cause cancer, long after that was settled science.

The union of concerned scientists also pointed out Monday that one of the most egregious lies in both pieces, was baloney:

Contrarians Misrepresent U.K. Weather Service Research to Push Cooling Claims

Climate contrarians are again pushing “global cooling” claims, despite the fact that 2011 was the 35th year in a row in which global temperatures were above the historical average.

Today, they’re relying on a column by David Rose in the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail in which the author mischaracterizes research from the Met Office, the U.K.’s official weather and climate science research body.

Rose claims there has been “no warming since 1997.” But his analysis relies on cherry-picking a single year and counting forward from there. By that logic, any year that breaks the record for “warmest ever” can be used as the starting point to argue there has been cooling. The Met Office rightly pointed out that taking a longer, scientifically defensible time frame shows significant warming over the past several decades.

Rose’s claim comes on the heels of the Wall Street Journal publishing cooling claims in a Jan. 27 op-ed, which the Union of Concerned Scientists also debunked.

I have used the letter to the editor myself in my local newspaper, trying to correct lies spread in the Washington Post about climate change. Even if I could write as well as George Will, I don’t have the international platform he does. Put simply; we are outgunned and outspent.

So science comm gurus; instead of (or in addition to) trying to fix us scientists, maybe we could work together with our allies in the media to fix all the corrupt outlets out there. Scientist have fought back this week using the tools we have, e.g., here, here, here, here, and here. (At least one journalist, Australia’s awesome Graham Readfearn also jumped into the fray). Unsurprisingly, the science comm gurus have nothing to say about the whole episode. Instead we are told scientists need to stop using overhead projectors and that we need more criticism. Oh right, I got the book-selling narrative mixed up again; it’s the messenger not the media. More on Hollywood Randy’s ”solution” soon…

 

15 Responses to “Could the media possibly be playing a role in the public’s confusion about science?”

  1. Kevin Z says:

    The funny thing is now, in the last few years, we have trained some scientists to communicate and there are some really excellent scientists, science writers and communicators that have gotten the footing on the web where good communication comes naturally to them. We have slowly built up an army or communications talent. I think its (almost) time to lay down the scientists are bad communicators trope. The problem on the scientist end is when it comes down to local news and picking a representative from local colleges, where the representative might not always be as prepared, experienced or trained to communicate.

    With that being said, I appreciated what Jen Ouellette wrote yesterday on her blog that the public has to meet us half way. Its a good read: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cocktail-party-physics/2012/01/31/meet-me-halfway/. But I am of the opinion that we can’t expect the public to know that they *want* this information. How can they know they want it if they don’t know it exists – because they chosen information sites are given them misleading information or doesn’t cover it? So, one approach is stealth communication. Trying to interject your science into the most popular sources, like mens and womens magazines, lifestyle mags, newspapers, etc. It requires more crafting and more work, but may prove more fruitful. We need to experiment with this more.

    • John Bruno says:

      Agreed. It is also funny (to me) that so few of the effective and active sci comms got trained. The only one I know of that did is Emmett. And I know of dozens that did but still stink or dont bother.

      Re, Jen’s piece: me too. Read it last night. Very nice! I am a new fan.

      Did you go to the session at SCIO12 on publishing in mens and womans mags? Id like to try that.

      • Al Dove says:

        It’s a nice post but in large part I disagree with her main thrust. The public will not meet you half way, no matter how much you may want them to. It’s on us to get their attention and then transmit the enthusiasm and the content to their engaged brains. I tried to make this argument in the DSN core value post about Ocean Literacy http://deepseanews.com/2011/12/promoting-ocean-literacy-a-dsn-core-value/

      • Kevin Z says:

        Al, I think that is what I was getting at with my stealth communication comment. We have to operate, much like I think you say, with the assumption that people are not interested in pursuing new types of information. Much of the trusted news sources are set in stone and perhaps new sources of information are only discovered serendipitously.

        John, I did go the Mens/Womens Mags session at SciO12 and found it tremendously helpful. It cements my belief in stealth science communication, that we need to throw up good science writing in every corner imaginable! Make it more of a norm, and not something special to place on a pedestal somewhere.

  2. Zen Faulkes says:

    I don’t think this is a fair comment on what Randy Olson is saying. As I’ve previously written (http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2009/09/review-dont-be-such-scientist_14.html):

    “Olson has not cracked that hard problem: how to communicate with those nice people who are just like you and me, except for a few beliefs that are divorced from reality. You know the ones: the creationists, the climate change deniers, the anti-vaccine campaigners, the moon landing conspiracy theorists, the birthers, and so on. Olson’s tips and suggestions won’t matter when dealing with those people, but that’s not Olson’s book. It’s a book that somebody needs to write – badly – but Olson’s approach shouldn’t be dismissed because of that.”

    • John Bruno says:

      I am working on a full post on this, but briefly I agree. I love the book, found it very useful, read the benshi, etc. But there are flaws in Randy’s argument. One being, he rarely bothers to point out scis that can communicate. Thus, we have few examples to look to and we don’t reward the ones that bother to work at this. Two, Randy is not himself a very good communicator. Dude, read your own book! Three, we don’t all chum around with hollywood stars. Sure, Jack Black can make anything interesting. Fourth, being an egghead scientist, Id like to see some examples that this advice and training works. You know, before and after; from fat to thin in 3 weeks! Is this useful advice or snake oil? Is anybody bothering to check?

  3. Mark says:

    John, you’ve got it spot on with climate change. Scientists are pretty great communicators in this arena and the media has really failed us. and the science staff cut backs at many institutions suggests we can expect more of the same.

    That said, I’m hesitant to say that we should generally put the meme aside. The specialization required for top-notch science means that once a scientist has something to say of social importance, he/she may very well not know how to say it in a way that gets anyone’s attention. In oceans, I can think of a number of issues where we could improve scientists’ communication abilities: acidification, mercury, and fertilizers. On acidification, for example, I have yet to see much blogging or a good public information campaign.

    Of course, an alternative argument could be made that funding institutions are just not putting up the money to give the right scientists a voice. Is it the chicken or the egg?

  4. Ellen Prager says:

    A significant part of the problem is that even if you can communicate science effectively to a broader audience and have great media connections, there is another fortified towering wall to break through – the media gatekeepers. These are the producers and editors that choose stories, experts, change headlines, and have made science an endangered species on most newscasts. Unless there is a crisis, disaster, or reigning controversy the gatekeepers most often choose not to do science stories and will choose experts that tend to be controversial or will provoke outrage somehow. Not that I’m cynical or anything and there are a few good ones out there…but this is an added problem to what you’ve already addressed. Wish I could also suggest a solution, but for now we just have to keep responding and hammering away….nice response to the Wall Street Journal piece!

  5. No, it’s not all scientists’ fault. But it’s not all the media, either. Cherry-picking two egregious examples from everything that’s out there doesn’t fairly represent the media any more than outdated stereotypes represent all scientists. I tag examples of good science communication on my blog every day.
    Sorry to vent, but I have to say I’m really tired of the blame game. As Ed Yong pointed out in his post on the topic leading up to #scio12 (http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2012/01/17/every-scientist-versus-journalist-debate-ever-in-one-diagram/), it’s a conversation fixated on the worst of both science and journalism, and not terribly helpful.
    Truth be told, there are lots of reasons that the public doesn’t always understand science – the people, the process, or the results. But pointing fingers at each other isn’t going to solve that. Everybody striving to do their own part better and attempting to work together might be one starting point.

    • John Bruno says:

      Heather, I think you are confusing two distinct issues/debates. The one you are referring to is about scientist-journalist interactions, ie, when journalists interview scientists in their role as scientists. I agree. Worn out story.

      I am commenting on something quite different that really has little to do with pro journalists. Like I said in the post, nearly all get it. They get the science, the problem, the threat and communicate it effectively. But the media moguls don’t. Or are paid not to. When I refer to the MSM, I mean News Corp, not Ed Yong.

      • Steven Miller says:

        Hi John
        At the risk of going rogue, here goes.

        Who are the scientists who know how to communicate with the public? There aren’t many and none with rock-star appeal like we had with Sagan, Carson, or Einstein. All the good ones are dead. That’s why Randy can’t point to anyone as an example of what works. Communicating locally and effectively is something we can be trained to do, but it’s not sufficient. I’ll say more about training below.

        So, why not now, when we had nationally credible science spokespeople before? There isn’t a simple explanation, but to meet the challenge of finding or promoting the few special people who connect with the masses will require TOTAL TACTICS. We can’t do just one thing. We have to invest a lot of money in a lot of people and hope that a few rise to the top.

        What do you call the stuff that rises to the top? Scum. Unfortunately that’s how much of academia still views its colleagues who aspire to making it big on TV. We can attempt to change academia, but the pace will be generational. Instead, invest in people now, who are excellent scientists, who want the spotlight, and could give a fuck what their peers think. Communicating effectively to the masses is paramount, yet missing in our society. And yes, try and change academia too. It can happen, but not fast enough.

        Take-home message here, TOTAL TACTICS and INVESTMENT. Regarding investment, nobody wants to take risks these days and I fault the foundations, especially Pew, for training a generation of scientists, who (and we agree here) generally stink at communicating to the public. Worse, they think they’re good communicators because they have the Pew stamp-of-approval. Unfortunately, most are lost-casues because they think they know what it takes. You can’t tell them anything. Sure, they give good lectures and they can talk to the press, but that’s not sufficient.

        What is TOTAL TACTICS? Go ahead, do the Pew Fellows Program and others like it. But that should not be the pinnacle of training for science communication. If it works so well, why don’t we have any famous scientists who graduated from the program? And getting picked to sweet positions in government does not mean you are a good communicator. Making people famous and credible in the public eye are not Pew’s goals. We need to do lots of things. We need to invest in the best graduate students and give them training in film, story-telling, and acting. Same for young professionals just out with their PhDs. It might even work for a few old guys. The point is, you never really know who’s going to be good. Why do you think directors have actors test for parts?

        Importantly, we also need untraditional venues to showcase our best talent. Preaching to the choir does not matter. Damn, I just had an idea for a TV show where science is showcased! Damn, I just had another idea for a great Public Service Announcement that’s sexy and cool. Ooh, another idea for a great series of workshops, kind of like American Idol, to find scientists who look good on camera and are viewed as credible and trustworthy by the public. What chance do we have to get any of this produced? None. It’s too risky for foundations to consider. I get that. What I’m suggesting is high risk, but high gain. That’s something every scientist should understand. Do all your usual stuff but also push your boundaries, try new things that are risky, because you just might break a paradigm or discover something interesting and important.

        TOTAL TACTICS is about training too. Most of the replies here talk about scientists already doing a good job of communicating. Maybe, but only the facts. To connect with the public you need to find ways to reach their hearts, guts, and in some cases because it works so well, their sex organs. Imagine picking a spokesperson because they have sex appeal? Gasp! I dare you!

        Arguing better, or arguing louder does not work. You can’t just read Randy’s book and become a better communicator. You can’t memorize a bunch of bullet points and suddenly transform into a better communicator. But that’s how scientists think. It’s like reading a book about tennis. You don’t then become a great tennis player. You have to train and practice and none of this is available in academia, unless you have theater and film departments, or specially conceived training programs. If you want to be a good communicator you have to work at it, and not everyone is going to be good. That’s why I suggest investing in dozens of people, year after year, to find one or two who “get it” and who the public “gets.”

        So my advice to you, John – not that you asked – is simple. Admitting that you have the egghead problem is the first step in breaking the egg! You should be applauded for what you do with your blog. It’s useful and interesting. But is it sufficient to transform your audience from eggheads to the masses? No. I’m not suggesting that’s something you even aspire too. But somebody needs to have such goals. Until we find those people (prerequisite is also great science accomplishment), until we give them training, and until they are promoted from within academia and the media (or Hollywood), science will continue to have trouble finding its voice in the larger media world.

        Damn, way too long a post. Concision is important. I suck.

  6. Randy Olson says:

    Hi there – I got sent this from a friend yesterday. I’m hesitant to wade into this sort of no-win discussion, but because I see some good friends in here I will say a few things. Since the publication of my book I’ve been increasingly invited to work with public health organizations like CDC, NIH, NCI and Dept. of Health and Human Services. I’m very impressed with them. They don’t wail and scream with anger and frustration, they just do the work — especially the folks at CDC engaged with vaccination issues. They encounter the irrationality of the anti-vaccination campaigns, do their best to understand how those people work, and do their best to deal with it. They “get it” on communication, which is why I’m spending more time with these folks and enjoying it.

    But do you know how highly they prioritize communication at the CDC? They have about 500 communications personnel. My first talk there was in a filled 400 seat auditorium where just before I began a guy whispered in my ear, “these are ALL communications folks.” They have their own television station. They innovate. A lot (they win almost all the annual innovation awards from HHS). And they don’t condescend.

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