Thursday, April 22, 2010

Scientists Want to Communicate with Normal People

I went to a panel discussion at MIT today about communicating about Climate Change, Talking Science in the Age of Sound Bites. It was really really good. The most exciting thing they were talking about was that scientists need to build trust with deniers by acknowledging that values shape how science is interpreted and used.

Beth Daley-
Environmental reporter for the Boston Globe since 1994.

What she said: She talked about the change in print media and how the sciences sections have been downgraded over the years. Also, media has become more polarized politically so more political editorial is considered "news." She noted that there is no common basis for information anymore. There are fewer writers and she has to put out a lot more content rather than be able to work on in depth articles. She used to only write a few articles every year, but now she has to write several stories a day, blog, tweet, and even video-blog. This results in having articles that basically just paraphrase press releases. She talked about the need for science articles to talk more about human narratives to engage people rather than bland statistics.

John Sterman-
Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Director of MIT's System Dynamics Group.

What he said: He talked about how scientists need to sound less depressing by talking about the dream rather than talking about the nightmare. He also made some really interesting points about how scientists and environmentalists need to get away from the "deficiency paradigm," which is the view that global warming deniers just lack "the facts." Instead, there should be more focus on establishing trust and learning to communicate about values and how they influence the interpretation of "the facts." There will need to be scientists who are more trained in communicating with the public. Working on solutions to global warming is not going to be like the Manhattan project, which is what many scientists and engineers envision. It will require the public to be involved in implementation and supportive of policy.

Randy Olson-
Marine biologist turned filmmaker--"Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus" and "Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy."

What he said: Scientists are boring. We need more personalities and someone that the public trusts and would go to for advice such as Richard Feynman. However, other scientists criticized Feynman for hamming it up. He is a movie maker and has seen many attempts for scientists and Hollywood directors to collaborate, but they do not know how to speak to each other even when in the same room together. Scientists and environmentalists need to learn how to manage their public relations. They have evolved to be apolitical as people who work on discovering "the truth." However, it is a reality that scientists have ethics and values since they are not impartial machines, so there is no way to be apolitical. Scientists need to acknowledge that there is controversy about climate change instead of dismissing the deniers by simply saying there is consensus amongst the scientific community. He talked about how scientists were really unprepared during "climate gate" as well as the evolution debate and that it's an organizational problem. Someone, perhaps the National Academy of Science, needs to step it up.

Judith Layzer-
Associate Professor of Environmental Policy in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

What she said: She paints a starker political picture, saying that most of the political change has been due to advocacy groups. Policymaking is not a linear process. She also suggested that much of the weak response of scientists during "climate gate" is because of temperamental differences. She does not think the National Academy of Science would step into the role of spokesperson for scientists. She points out, though, that conservatives are also depressing doomsday sayers. Sterman responded by saying that the difference is that conservatives are resisting change, saying that there is nothing wrong with our way of life while environmentalists are trying to confront people about their way of life.

Gino Del Guercio-
Executive Producer at Boston Science Communications, Inc. and adjunct professor at the Boston University Center for Science and Medical Journalism.

What he said: He talked about being a producer on the Discovery Channel from the beginning. At first, they made good science shows, but as ratings went up, the ratings became more and more important so that there became a schism amongst the crew where some wanted to keep making science shows and others only cared about the ratings. He said that the title is often more important than the content. One thing people can do is to contribute to public television.

John Hagan-
President of the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences.

What he said: Science needs to be embedded in social fabric.

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