Monday, January 04, 2010

The Trouble With Communicating Science

Chris Mooney of the Washington Post has an article on why science is such a hard sell. Using "climategate" as a backdrop, he writes:
The central lesson of Climategate is not that climate science is corrupt. The leaked e-mails do nothing to disprove the scientific consensus on global warming. Instead, the controversy highlights that in a world of blogs, cable news and talk radio, scientists are poorly equipped to communicate their knowledge and, especially, to respond when science comes under attack.
The problem here is two-fold. First, while there may, in fact, be a general consensus on global warming, these scientists behaved badly. There has been way too much documentation to suggest otherwise. That is what tarnished their reputation. Second, even if they hadn't behaved badly, the general public does have a dismal understanding of science, be it global warming, gravity or evolution. Mooney is correct about this.

According to Mooney, scientists have simply gotten to the point where they don't talk to the media or publicly debate their ideas because of this lack of understanding. This is certainly true within the creation/evolution debate, where creationists will often bring in buses of supporters to a debate, often overwhelming the scientist involved. The media is usually oblivious to this tilt. He continues:
They [scientists] no longer have that luxury. After all, global-warming skeptics suffer no such compunctions. What's more, amid the current upheaval in the media industry, the traditional science journalists who have long sought to bridge the gap between scientists and the public are losing their jobs en masse. As New York Times science writer Natalie Angier recently observed, her profession is "basically going out of existence." If scientists don't take a central communications role, nobody else with the same expertise and credibility will do it for them.
Daily, the Discovery Institute puts out editorials and bulletins attacking "Darwinists" despite the fact that no evolutionary biologists refers to themselves that way. To the DI, this is unimportant. The message is more important than the details. Kirk Cameron, under the auspices of Living Waters, has no formal training in biology yet feels qualified and compelled to shout from the rooftops that evolution is wrong.

Mooney states, correctly, that part of the problem could be solved if scientists who were also believers stood up and said something:
"Many Christians, including fundamentalists, can accept evolution as long as it is not attached to the view that life has no purpose," Karl Giberson, a Christian physicist and the author of "Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution," told me recently. "Human life has value, and any scientific theory that even appears to deny this central religious affirmation will alienate people of faith and create opportunity for those who would rally believers against evolution."

In other words, what's needed is less "pure science" on its own -- although of course scientists must continue to speak in scientifically accurate terms -- and more engagement with the concerns of nonscientific audiences. In response to that argument, many researchers will say: "Why target us? We're the good guys. And if we become more media savvy, we'll risk our credibility."
As long as the evolution debate is seen in moral and religious terms, the science will always be of secondary importance and scientists will succeed in getting the message across to no one. The other problem is that in any given conversation about the debate, how does the average scientist get someone up to speed on the concepts of allopatric speciation, homology, systematics, adaptive radiation and evolutionary development, just to name a few? Such concepts are central to evolutionary theory and most evolutionary biologists use them daily. John Q. Public has no idea what they mean and is somewhat disinclined to learn.

There is also the vociferous anti-evolution camp that either try to tear down the science in any way they can (sometimes dishonestly) or claim that believing in such things will lead to every imaginable sin and Hell. Creationist Todd Wood writes:
As a point of application, I think modern creationists would be much better served if we stopped coddling their every doubt and fear with new "evidence for creation" and instead helped to wean them off evidence altogether. A truly close Christian walk with Jesus should render evidence irrelevant. This is where we really want to be, not buffeted about by the wind and waves but confidently walking through the storm with our eyes fixed unwaveringly on Christ.
SLAM!! The mind of every scientist (including me) just slammed shut. Such a perspective is absolutely antithetical to scientists who view their task as studying and identifying the wonders of creation. Indeed, such a perspective is, even for Christians who are scientists, absurd. The universe IS God's creation. If it tells us something we don't like, are we simply to ignore it? That isn't science, it is pure religion, and your average scientist will accept the science and throw out the religion as being not worthy of his or her time. We cannot hope to reach people out there if we cannot portray science correctly and in such a way that it does not attack people's religious or moral values.

Now playing: Genesis - Watcher of the Skies (New Stereo Mix)
via FoxyTunes


  1. Daily, the Discovery Institute puts out editorials and bulletins attacking "Darwinists" despite the fact that no evolutionary biologists refers to themselves that way.

    Regrettably, Dawkins does frequently refer to "Darwinism" and to himseslf as a "Darwinist." Thankfully, he seems to be a lonely minority.

    Regarding AGW, have you seen the (currently 7 part) YouTube series on the subject by potholer54? I think it's very good. The first video is here.

  2. No, I haven't. Thanks for the heads up!