Oh, no, the Science Communications Debate is starting up again

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’.


  1. chrislawson says

    Brings back memories of Chris Mooney, who famously lectured biologists not to talk trash about creationism because negativity would make them switch off. This from a guy who wrote a book called The Republican War on Science (and he later joined the Templeton Foundation — some science communicator he turned out to be).

  2. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    This all reminds me of the tone/concern trolls that have infested Pharyngula in the past. Funny how when challenged by saying “show us how to do it, don’t just carp”, they had nothing new to offer. They just wanted to carp to make themselves feel superior.

  3. Zeppelin says

    I mean…changes in atmospheric composition which lead to catastrophic upheavals of the climate, ecosystem collapse and mass extinction, are “perfectly natural”. So are giant meteor strikes. You’d still think people would sympathise with efforts to prevent them happening to us.
    Personally I’d also have gone with “poop is perfectly natural and great for plants, but we wouldn’t be having this debate if the entire world was currently waist-deep in shit”, just because the “it’s natural, therefore it’s fine” premise is so offensively stupid that I’d feel the urge to offend in return. Maybe that’s why I don’t get to be on TV.

  4. jerthebarbarian says

    Zeppelin @3

    Polio and smallpox are both “perfectly natural” and yet you never see anyone claim that we shouldn’t worry about them. Even anti-vaxxers seem to admit that disease is bad, they just refuse to admit that vaccines are effective at preventing disease (though I suppose there are some real loons out there that believe it and I haven’t encountered them).

  5. Johnny Vector says

    Happer, as many of you already know, is a Princeton physicist…

    Was a Princeton physicist. He is emeritus, and has been for some time. Curiously, this part of his title seems to be forgotten in many introductions of him (and on his Wikipedia page).

  6. says

    Communications experts are caught between being ineffective sayers of the obvious on one hand and amoral manipulators on the other. The whole field needs to work on its framing.

  7. ck, the Irate Lump says

    It seems like the science communications debate is just a way to blame American anti-intellectualism on scientists rather than on the politicians and related miscreants who have spent decades fostering it.

  8. says

    I saw a speaker try to slam PZ writing, yet she only provided anecdotal evidence that he isn’t effective. She’s otherwise a good person, but her bias in that speech left an impression on me.

    I think he is doing something right. ?

  9. anchor says

    My pet peeve is that institutional or government bureaucracy administrators insist scientists are supposed to be bad communicators (or too busy to explain anything) and then hire Madison Avenue types to ‘improve’ public outreach…which fucks it up 9 times out of 10. The worst thing one can do is treat science like a commodity that needs selling under a marketing metric. That approach completely insults people’s natural curiosity and thirst to understand. How do I know this? Sagan taught me.

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    We would not need to have our military on the other of the world defending what people call ‘our oil.’

    Ooh, Nye got political! There’s a rule against that! Somebody, dox him quick!

  11. jrkrideau says

    It seems to me the best response to really nutty claims is something along the lines of “They are totally batty”.

    For a Gish-gallop attack, just invent anything that comes to mind and confess at the end that it was total nonsense, just like the crap the opposition was “quoting”.

    Embarrassing enough, I found a reference to something like Colt and Luger (1967) was accepted and I had to admit the deception on a gun newsgroup. I had thought it was so obvious no one would have believed it.

    But in a Gish-gallop attack I love the idea.

  12. chrislawson says


    Not so. Many anti-vaxxers insist that the vaccine-preventable diseases are just “normal childhood illnesses” that never caused much harm in the first place.

  13. methuseus says

    Bill and the woman (I couldn’t understand when they said her name, horrible hearing, and can’t seem to find who she is) both had great points about the energy economy: there are more jobs in renewable energy than in entrenched fossil fuels. The fossil fuel companies just don’t want to give up their profits and power. For example, a large number of German companies build the majority of wind turbines for the world. One American company (GE) builds a large number of wind turbines (fewer than the German companies, though), but at most half of the production is in the US (three US factories, and at least 3 overseas factories), which means the factories in east Asia are likely their profit centers anyway. That means the one major US manufacturer of wind turbines doesn’t even make a lot of them in the US. From what I’ve seen, the German companies do tend to manufacture a lot of their stuff in Germany.

    On another point, the woman in the video was very well spoken and took some potshots at Happer as well. It bothers me that, out of all the news stories tied to this video, I can’t find a single one that actually names her. I should probably already know her name since she’s involved in this debate, but I guess I haven’t been following it closely enough.

  14. imback says

    @methuseus #14, the CNN video gives her name on the banner underneath her when she first speaks a few minutes in. It says she is May Boeve, Executive Director of the Environmental Group, 350.org.