Abbie makes an excellent point on it the ongoing discussion of the Nisbet/Mooney paper: just how often do scientists get an opportunity to discuss their work to the public, anyway?
I have a few simple points to make.
1. Why are scientists being told so often that they’re bad at communicating? Because, like, we aren’t. Most scientists are awesome at communicating, just not on the terms dictated by Fox News.
Try grabbing some random person and telling them that they are expected to do a one hour presentation to an auditorium of 90 people on some specific, complex subject…tomorrow. Most will freak out — it’s the #1 example of social anxiety. That, however, is routine for your average college professor. Not only do we do it all the time, we enjoy it, especially if the subject is something we think is important. We also won’t waste the listener’s time with platitudes and filler—we’ll sit down and dig up real information on whatever we’re discussing.
I’m in a profession where I’m expected to get up in front of a large audience and talk formally and at length on complex subjects several times a week. I do not have a speechwriter; I have to generate my own analyses and explanations, and it’s not as if I give the same speech time after time. I teach 18 year olds. Now I know different professors have different styles and levels of effectiveness, and my own lectures vary in quality … but really, how many professions out there demand that kind of frequent exercise of rhetoric and public speaking? Why are we being singled out as a target for accusations of incompetence at communication? Why am I going along with it? I’m beginning to feel that we are currently the target of some malicious framing.
The problem isn’t that we’re bad at communicating. It’s that we’ve got people telling us to take our complex subject and squeeze it into a 15-second soundbite. While they’re at it, maybe they should also tell us to do it while standing on our head and juggling monkeys, so they could tell us we suck at that, too. Of course we aren’t going to look good when you try to shoehorn our expertise into a medium inappropriately. I bet da Vinci was a crappy tap-dancer, too.
2. Blame the media. Slamming the scientists is the wrong thing to do when the flaws are obvious and elsewhere.
Now we may suck at giving the attention-grabbing 15-second sound bite, but that’s not what we do. We are experts at explaining complex subjects which do not fit into the format expected of television news, but hasn’t everyone noticed that television news is utterly useless at transmitting substantive information? Instead of complaining that our culture’s class of experts at technical subjects aren’t sufficiently pithy for a dumbed-down, low-bandwidth, superficial medium, why aren’t we fastening the blame on the media for inappropriately using our experts’ talents?
Look at your television. Check out Fox, MSNBC, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS. How many scientists do you see? And don’t tell me it’s because we demand more than a few seconds for a soundbite; those stations will give plenty of indulgence to a Deepak Chopra on medicine or a Glenn Beck on global warming. How much time does Rush Limbaugh get on radio to just talk and talk and talk? My cable provider has dedicated several channels to non-step vacuous garbage: try watching a few minutes of the Trinity Broadcasting Network sometime. Am I supposed to believe that Paul Crouch and Benny Hinn are instinctive masters of ‘framing’?
A perfect example: the recent Anderson Cooper show that purported to be discussing the role of religion and science. What did we get? Ten minutes of animatronic dinosaurs, Ken Ham babbling, home schooling moms explaining that evolution is bunk, and the one token scientist gets two sentences. What if instead, he’d been given 5 minutes and the opportunity to explain why his favorite mammal fossil was important, and how it supported evolution? I guarantee you that it would be informative, interesting television in which the audience might have learned something that would make them think. But no…cue the Fred and Wilma Flintstone Memorial Museum and the lying con man who will promise you eternal life, if only you really believe Jesus created the earth in 4004 BC.
I’m wondering why I’m told to hone my media skills when the media would rather show a prancing, lying con man than a scientist, and when those brilliant media mavens are going to pare me down to a talking head saying two sentences?
3. I blame YOU. Yeah, YOU. Why aren’t you, the consumer of media, demanding better fare?
There is another part of the problem, the one that Abbie brought up: we rarely get to use those skills in public. Why not? When people call me and ask me to talk, I first check my calendar, and if the date is free, the second thing I do is say yes. We academics are easy. I’ve run the Café Scientifique in my town for the last couple of years, and every year in late summer when I ask, “Who would like to talk about their work in a public lecture here in town?”, I get more volunteers than I have time slots. And without exception, every talk has been excellent — tell scientists to talk about their enthusiasms in informal terms to an audience, and you get a good show.
I’m always told by those pious left-wing moderate Christians that they really, truly care, and that we shouldn’t judge them by the religious loons. Right. The churches in my town invite creationists to come speak at public meetings, and there are apparently some church representatives that skulk around campus and show students Kent Hovind videos. Does your church invite scientists to speak about the issues your congregation cares about? Do you tell your pastor that if he’s going to preach against evolution, abortion, and climate change, that maybe it would be informative to invite someone informed to come talk about real biology, reproductive biology, or the environment? It doesn’t happen in my community. It didn’t happen in the Philadelphia suburb where I used to live. The church circuit is a profitable network of lying incompetents who wander about making stuff up. Why not change that?
Have you told your local radio and television stations that they ought to try to tap into local scientific talent and get some short features on real science? Academics don’t mind at all; we’ll cooperate and help out. Just don’t ask us to do all of a huge subject like evolution in a couple of snazzy sentences — ask us to explain some cool subset of a bigger issue in at least a little length, and we’ll pass along interesting information.
There are a lot of dysfunctional issues in the transmission of science to popular culture and vice versa. Somehow, though, when it’s time to apportion the blame, everyone turns to the scientists, the ones with little clout, but the actual expertise and the willingness to contribute to solving the problems, and the real source of the problem, media and a culture with a negligible attention span, gets a pass.
I think the greater problem is not some failure of the scientists to accommodate themselves to the demands of an increasingly dumbed-down culture, but the inability of everyone to make a deeper commitment to understanding. I don’t believe that the path to that understanding should involve scientists surrendering their principles to pursue those of a PR flack.