Here we go again, with communications experts lecturing scientists on how to better reach their audience. While we appreciate support, you’d think the communications experts would actually be good at the communications side…yet over and over again, they tell us the same old stuff and exhibit the same terrible habits they accuse scientists of having. The latest lecture on how to teach good comes from Slate and someone who runs a network of workshops to help scientists learn to reach the masses.
It’s an admirable goal, but almost certainly destined to fail. This is because the way most scientists think about science communication—that just explaining the real science better will help—is plain wrong. In fact, it’s so wrong that it may have the opposite effect of what they’re trying to achieve.
Wait…telling people they’re wrong and telling people how to be right doesn’t work, and may actually have a backfire effect? Gosh. But didn’t you just declare that the scientists are all wrong — and are about to tell us how to do everything correctly?
Please, please, please, O Communications Pundit, I wish that just once one of you would practice what you preach. I have been at conferences and have debated with people who pull this stunt: arrogantly tell science communicators to stop being arrogant, announce that we should stop just citing papers and they have the papers to prove that it’s ineffective, and rudely bring us up short by scorning what we’ve done, since scorn and rudeness never work.
I was just at a meeting about science education, run by scientists, and one of them got a good laugh (or groan) from us by asking if we’d ever been at a meeting to promote active learning and had a speaker do a straight-up lecture for an hour on the subject. Yes. Yes we have. It gets old. (This speaker then gave us a small set of problems and simple exercises to work on in small groups to illustrate how to teach about restriction enzymes and molecular cloning, so he didn’t make this mistake.)
The Communications Pundits then typically make another mistake: they hector the scientist with stuff they already know.
Before getting fired up to set the scientific record straight, scientists would do well to first consider the science of science communication. The theory many scientists seem to swear by is technically known as the deficit model, which states that people’s opinions differ from scientific consensus because they lack scientific knowledge. In 2010, Dan Kahan, a Yale psychologist, essentially proved this theory wrong. He surveyed over 1,500 Americans, classifying each person’s “cultural worldview” on a scale that roughly correlates with politically liberal or conservative. He then assessed each person’s scientific literacy with questions such as “True or False: Electrons are smaller than atoms.” Finally, he asked them about climate change. If the deficit model were correct, Kahan reasoned, then people with increased scientific literacy, regardless of worldview, should agree with scientists that climate change poses a serious risk to humanity.
That’s not what he found. Instead, Kahan found that increased scientific literacy actually had a small negative effect: The conservative-leaning respondents who knew the most about science thought climate change posed the least risk. Scientific literacy, it seemed, increased polarization. In a later study, Kahan added a twist: He asked respondents what climate scientists believed. Respondents who knew more about science generally, regardless of political leaning, were better able to identify the scientific consensus—in other words, the polarization disappeared. Yet, when the same people were asked for their own opinions about climate change, the polarization returned. It showed that even when people understand the scientific consensus, they may not accept it.
Uh, guy, I already know this stuff. I teach. I’m pedagogically aware. I read the educational literature. I tinker with my classes all the time to try and improve them. I assess. I started teaching in 1993, and I knew then that standing on a podium, hiding behind a lectern, and droning facts at a class wasn’t always, or even usually, an effective strategy. So try telling me something new.
Nowadays, when I hear a communications expert tell me that I believe in the “deficit model”, as they always do, I just shut down and walk away. This is a person who is trying to shoehorn me into their incorrect model of how science communicators work. Sorry, you’ve got nothing to teach me. You’re a communications failure.
This fellow does try to provide some positive suggestions, at least. Unfortunately, they’re also old and familiar ideas that I already know.
Is it any surprise, then, that lectures from scientists built on the premise that they simply know more (even if it’s true) fail to convince this audience? Rather than fill the information deficit by building an arsenal of facts, scientists should instead consider how they deploy their knowledge. They may have more luck communicating if, in addition to presenting facts and figures, they appeal to emotions. This could mean not simply explaining the science of how something works but spending time on why it matters to the author and why it ought to matter to the reader. Research also shows that science communicators can be more effective after they’ve gained the audience’s trust. With that in mind, it may be more worthwhile to figure out how to talk about science with people they already know, through, say, local and community interactions, than it is to try to publish explainers on national news sites. And they might consider writing op-eds for their local papers, focusing on why science matters to their particular communities.
“Appeal to emotions”…because everyone knows scientists are robots who’d rather emit mathematical symbols at an audience. How about if, next time you’re motivated to give advice, you recognize that most scientists are really smart people who know what they’re doing? We tailor our approach to our audience. When we’re at a scientific meeting talking to people in our field, we can spew out amazing streams of information-dense jargon, and know we don’t have to provide a lot of background. When we’re teaching a class of 18 year olds, we know we have to build a story from more basic foundations. When we’re on TV with a huge, mixed audience, we know we have to try and reach out with even more basic appeals to common interests.
This is not to say we’re all good at it. There are difficult skills involved in this process. But please stop treating science communicators as if they’re completely unaware of elementary human interactions. It’s condescending and stupid (cue communications expert to start lecturing condescencingly about how condescention puts off your audience).
Here’s an example of how science communicators actually work. CNN brought Bill Nye together with William Happer — Happer, as many of you already know, is a Princeton physicist who is astoundingly stupid on the matter of climate change, and ought not to be on television at all. Happer gets the first words in, and they are idiotic. Watch how Nye responds.
Happer makes this pronouncement.
There’s this myth that’s developed around carbon dioxide that it’s a pollutant, but you and I both exhale carbon dioxide with every breath. Each of us emits about two pounds of carbon dioxide a day, so are we polluting the planet? Carbon dioxide is a perfectly natural gas, it’s just like water vapor, it’s something that plants love. They grow better with more carbon dioxide, and you can see the greening of the earth already from the additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
I sure wish communications experts would spend a little more effort looking at what bozos say, because they break all the rules the experts lay down, and they’re effective with their audiences. So there is Happer, with “Princeton” repeated over and over again in the background to give him authority, basically stating bald lies as facts, and looking far more robotic than Nye.
Now in response to what Happer said, I would have approached it rather differently than Nye: my first thought was “well, we make about a pound of poop every day, it’s perfectly natural, plants love it, but do we really believe more sewage would make the world a better place for humans?” You can see what Nye’s first thought was: he was thinking like an engineer, and wanted to discuss rates — there’s a whole lot of stuff he could have lectured on, relative rates of carbon dioxide production and fixation and sequestration, the balance of gases, etc., but he checked himself. I guarantee you that he knows that with the right audience, that kind of discussion would go over well, and he could probably also do a kids’ show all about that concept. But it wasn’t going to work on CNN, with an audience that had just smugly congratulated itself on hearing Happer’s idiocy affirming all their biases and ignorance.
So he switched gears, and you can even see it happening. He pointed out that Happer was an oddball, not representative of science at all, undermining his claim to authority. He criticizes CNN for having a crank on to represent a marginal view, poorly representing the consensus. He points instead to concerns about the economy. He briefly reminisces about his personal experience with Earth Day. He talks about how we’ll fall behind in competition with other nations. He invokes the US Constitution. He reminds everyone that the EPA was established by a conservative president, Richard Nixon.
Sir, with some respect, I encourage you to cut this out so we can all move forward and make the United States a world leader in technology. What we want are advanced wind turbines, advanced photovoltaics, advanced solar concentrated energy plants. And, everybody, if we were to do that, we would have at least 3 million new jobs in the United States that could not be outsourced. We would not need to have our military on the other of the world defending what people call ‘our oil.’ We could move forward and we could export this technology. We could be world leaders in this instead of wringing our hands and cherry picking data and pretending that this problem that’s obvious to the scientific community is somehow not obvious to you.
Every effective science communicator does this. And then the communications ‘experts’ will come along and complain that they spent too much time trying to correct ignorance, that damned ‘deficit’ model they love to invoke, if anyone makes any effort to explain why Happer was wrong.
You need it all: emotion, appeals to common interests, criticism of bad ideas and bad actors, and the facts. I swear, if these clowns had their way, I’d be teaching genetics by spending 14 weeks explaining why the students ought to care and be motivated, and when I got to briefly explaining a monohybrid Mendelian cross in the 15th week, they’d jump on me for wasting time trying to correct a ‘deficit’.