Sunday, January 3, 2010

Scientists Need to Talk to the Public - It's Time to Speak Up!!

So says Chris Mooney in an opinion piece in the Washington Post this weekend. Mooney is co-author with marine scientist Sheril Kirshenbaum of "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future." Mooney warns us the the deniers of science, for example those that deny climate change and evolution, are highly organized and experienced in getting their message out. Even if it is false. Or perhaps especially because it is false.

Scientists do their science in labs and the field and communicate through journals and scientific conferences with their peers, but traditionally have left the communication to the public of that science to others. If it was communicated to the public at all. It doesn't help that scientists often distrust the media's ability to get it right. According to Mooney, "[r]ather than spurring greater efforts at communication, such mistrust and resignation have further motivated some scientists to avoid talking to reporters and going on television."

He further notes that scientists "no longer have that luxury. After all, global-warming skeptics suffer no such compunctions." And with "traditional science journalists who have long sought to bridge the gap between scientists and the public" being let go by the struggling media outlets, "[i]f scientists don't take a central communications role, nobody else with the same expertise and credibility will do it for them."

Quoting Scripps Institution of Oceanography marine biologist Jeremy Jackson, who teaches a summer course that introduces young scientists to the media, blogging and even filmmaking:

"Traditionally, scientists have been loathe to interact with the media," Jackson said in a recent interview. But in his class, "the students understand that good science is only the beginning to solving environmental problems, and that nothing will be accomplished without more effective communication to the general public."

So Mooney suggests, "[s]cientists need not wait for former vice presidents to make hit movies to teach the public about their fields -- they must act themselves." To teach scientists how to do this, he recommends two recent books: Randy Olson's "Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style" and Cornelia Dean's "Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist's Guide to Talking to the Public."

Here is my earlier review of Mooney and Kirshenbaum's Unscientific America. Ironically, I just finished reading Dean's "Am I Making Myself Clear?" and a few months ago read Olson's "Don't be Such a Scientist."

Other scientific book reviews can be found here.

No comments: