Buy

Books
Click images for more details

Support

 

Twitter
Recent comments
Recent posts
Currently discussing
Links

A few sites I've stumbled across recently....

Powered by Squarespace
« Murdo Fraser breaks ranks | Main | Yamal in the National Review »
Friday
May252012

Science communicator, heal thyself

Last night the Biochemical Society hosted one of its regular TalkFest meetings. Being hundreds of miles away and entirely unaware of the occasion, I was not in attendance, but I picked up some interesting tweets under the #talkfest hashtag last night.

The subject was science communication and whether it is an inherently political activity. There were apparently suggestions that most sci comms people concentrate on cheerleading rather than challenging scientists and that they rarely question motive or funding. There was also a suggestion that science communicators should focus on opening science to the public.

These observations were particularly interesting when juxtaposed against some comments made by Felicity Mellor, a science comms academic who was also involved in the BBC review of science.

On climate, climate skeptics could be the usual source for the opposing view

But if skeptics are part of the story, shouldn't they be quoted? - this all felicity mellor

Isn't that odd? In climate science, it is the sceptics who are challenging scientists. It is sceptics who have opened the subject to the public. And the sci comms community has been at the forefront of efforts to cheerlead for the mainstream, to ignored vested interests, to shut down debate, to argue from authority, and to keep dissent off the airwaves.

Does the science communication community have something of a dilemma?

(Christian at the Carbon Brief, from whom I snaffled the tweets above, warns me that he may not have quoted Felicity Mellor precisely. The session is apparently slated to be podcast at a later date, so we'll find out then)

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

Reader Comments (21)

Sci comm is all about presenting a message. The message that the grant masters want to hear.

In my experience in business, when companies wanted to downsize they have a consultation with an external set of business experts. The first thing the business experts ask is

'What do you expect to get out of this consultation ?'

They now have the message and they run with it ...

May 25, 2012 at 8:19 AM | Unregistered Commenterconfused

A Canadian commentator, Ezra Levant just coined this rather informative turn of phrase:

'Most journalists who are normally the most skeptical people in the room, turn into obedient stenographers when faced with global warming salesman.'

That is surely part of the explanation for the astonishing spread of alarm and hyperbole over CO2. And environmental/science 'journalists' seem largely to have been appointed to assist with the spread as a full-time job. I guess editors can spot a good thing for headlines when they see it.

See: http://www.sunnewsnetwork.ca/video/search/Ezra/cooling-global-warm-mongers/1653483485001
Hat-tip: Climate Depot, http://www.climatedepot.com/

May 25, 2012 at 8:36 AM | Registered CommenterJohn Shade

Ezra Levant (via John Shade): “Most journalists .. are normally the most skeptical people in the room..”

It’s a bit more complicated than that. No-one is shocked if the journalists on the holiday pages are less than hard-bitten in their descriptions of their favourite tropical beach. But if a Private Eye, a Monbiot, or a Goldacre accept everything they’re told without question, they no longer have any reason to exist. They might as well write about astrology and badger culling (which is what they’ve chosen to do).

May 25, 2012 at 9:00 AM | Unregistered Commentergeoffchambers

To whom do we owe a debt of gratitude for the invention of this nouveau industry "Science Communications". I can't recall that term being thrown around in its current context 20 years ago.

But if we must have them (as opposed to journalists who cover science stories), isn't the job descriptio in the title? To commuicate "science" is to communicate the debate, not the "consesnsus", not the politics, but the controversy and the unkowns as much as the advances and discoveries. Such is science.


As Einstein observed, as our sphere of knowledge increases the boundary to the unknown grows exponentially. Shouldn't "science communicators" be reporting from the boundary, where the "known" interacts with the unkown??

May 25, 2012 at 9:07 AM | Unregistered CommenterGeckko

I think if you are the receiving side of science communication you have to ask if are you interested in the science in question i.e. how interested are you in the science itself whatever the consequence.

I feel I can look at myself and understand my personal history of being a science communication receiver and remember how I took in, and still take in, information from many fields such as physics, biology and compare my feelings then to what I see in climate “communication”. What I see there instead is typified by the Hockey stick. The message was “This is such a a powerful image! Bow down and worship climate science imperatives!”

I think as a sceptic I can honestly say I want to know how climate deductions are made. What I see in climate science are constant obfuscations, patronising talking down, and overt appeals to external political and moral imperatives from the scientists themselves, this has only the need of an extra layer of politics on top from the “communicators” and the added authority of appearing in print.

The “communicator” often becomes a conduit of politics dressed in fake science sounding clothes which is fine for the idiots on both sides of that exchange but, if an external person genuinely interested in science starts to ask awkward questions, becomes uncomfortable for both involved in that mutual love.

The fact a lot of sceptics are genuine science inquisitives and they get demonised is the worse thing that climate science has done.

Environmental communication is a joke to me when I am in a good mood, and a nasty piece of crap that will go down with eugenics when I’m in a bad one. I suspect this is the same for a large minority of the people who describe themselves as progressive and climate change believers. It is human nature to want real information and the same old spin on any science story from climate is a joke.

It is doomed.

May 25, 2012 at 9:13 AM | Registered CommenterThe Leopard In The Basement

The fact a lot of sceptics are genuine science inquisitives and they get demonised is the worse thing that climate science has done.

My world of pain. As a lifelong disciple of science, it's a betrayal that mainstream science stands by while the luddites in charge of the asylum call me anti-science.

May 25, 2012 at 9:24 AM | Unregistered CommenterTheBigYinJames

In the final scene in Bridge over the river Kwai, the colonel who drove his men to build a magnificent bridge for the enemy: finally comes to his senses and says to himself; "what have I done"
I think that this ort of revelation is going to be experienced by some science reporters and climate scientists, hopefully, in the not too distant future.

May 25, 2012 at 10:24 AM | Unregistered Commenterpesadia

The Leopard:

I feel I can look at myself and understand my personal history of being a science communication receiver and remember how I took in, and still take in, information from many fields such as physics, biology and compare my feelings then to what I see in climate “communication”. What I see there instead is typified by the Hockey stick. The message was “This is such a a powerful image! Bow down and worship climate science imperatives!”

Maybe it is the difference between being communicated with and communicated at?

May 25, 2012 at 10:34 AM | Registered CommenterJeremy Harvey

Jeremy Harvey

Maybe it is the difference between being communicated with and communicated at?

Yes I agree it is. The people involved can stop flattering themselves they are science communicators in the mode of say Peter Medawar or anyone you can think of who showed an interest in communicating science knowledge warts and all. They are at best cargo cult practitioners at worst cynical PR and political hacks.

Climate science communication on the whole is not about communicating science but about communicating political imperatives. They can stop pretending otherwise.

Science communication when done well, as a genuine service to the reciever, unveils the process, has the narrative of a continuum, you can look at every point in the process unfolding.

Climate science on the other hand is only allowed to be communicated as being full of end points and conclusions. All of them hanging majestically in the air with misty clouds below them in which you are not supposed to peek without risking being called a denier.

It has all the hallmarks of a religion or pseudo science. This to me is so obvious that I find it is painful to watch the pretence of it being otherwise from its practitioners and apologists.

May 25, 2012 at 11:22 AM | Registered CommenterThe Leopard In The Basement

Great stuff. The Leopard prowls in powerful prose.

May 25, 2012 at 11:38 AM | Registered CommenterJohn Shade

@jeremy harvey

'Maybe it is the difference between being communicated with and communicated at?'

Sharp-eyed readers may remember this strap line from a once popular and influential climate website, now fading into terminal irrelevance

'Climate science from climate scientists'

Surely the classic introduction to warn you that you are going to be communicated at!

And on the few occasions that I dared to ask a less than hagiographic question there, it was made extremely clear that my role in the equation was to be an obedient Receiver of the message while theirs was to Transmit the True Wisdom. And that further interventions without demonstrating due reverence would be extremely unwelcome.

It is no surprise that in the last week they have managed only three threads and about 100 comments.

By comparison BH has discussed 18 different topics and has prompted 875 comments in the same time. For WUWT the numbers are 29:2400.

Communicating AT people is not a way to win their hearts and minds

May 25, 2012 at 11:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterLatimer Alder

confused

The first thing the business experts ask is 'What do you expect to get out of this consultation ?'
I can see the problem you're identifying but I'm not sure how you get round this. If you answer "whatever", the poor man doesn't know where to start. What's worse, he doesn't know where to finish because he doesn't know why you have asked for the consultation.
There's no point his coming up with an answer to a question that you're not asking.
If science communication is about producing the answer the grant master wants to hear then it's not communication; it's PR. Science communication is, or should be, about communicating the science (novel idea, there; can I patent it?) with all its doubts and flaws and disagreements.
What the climatologists want is not communication; it's advocacy. The last thing they want is objectivity which is the one thing that both public and politicians need. If there had been more of that and less special pleading by the environmental luddites we might all have been better placed to decide exactly what (if anything) we could or should do to influence the climate. Assuming we were that arrogant.
I endorse fully the Leopard's 11.22 post.

May 25, 2012 at 12:00 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

"three threads and about 100 comments" (RC)

Doubtless there were more, but were not considered suitable for their adoring audience. Doesn't Gavin get tired of being told how wonderful he is?

May 25, 2012 at 12:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterJames P

You know that science communication is in good hands when you see a headline like this coming from a school newspaper.

"OSU research says North American global temperature will quadruple by 2070"

OSU research says North American global temperature will quadruple by 2070 - Campus - The Lantern - Ohio State University

May 25, 2012 at 1:59 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn K

Our Ph.D. supervisor once told the group "Remember, if you can't explain the relevance of your work to a truck driver in a honky-tonk bar in Texas, then should ask yourself why you are doing it and why they should pay for it" [his words!].

That was relatively easy for my work which had medical justifications, but what do you do if you're a "climate-change" scientist? Well, scaring people a bit about what could, might, or will happen certainly helps. And, yes, as John Shade points out above, media editors know the value of "communicating" a good scare story. [Or perhaps I should say they know the price of "communicating" a good scare story].

I predict more 'near-miss' asteroids coming Earth's way.

May 25, 2012 at 2:36 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

May 25, 2012 at 9:13 AM | The Leopard In The Basement

"What I see in climate science are constant obfuscations, patronising talking down, and overt appeals to external political and moral imperatives from the scientists themselves.."

Haven't you missed out the constant amount of incredibly awful science that comes out too. Isn't one of the problems in 'Communication' is that many people are communicating the large amounts of really bad science and the actual good and reasonable science is not heard about at all. Maybe because it might not fit into the 'consensus' so well.

May 25, 2012 at 10:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterRob Burton

On the subject of science communication, not sure if this has been mentioned yet, but did anyone listen to the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning?

Nina Fedoroff (AAAS President): "If you're speaking from your best scientific knowledge, and you're saying "World, wake up. This is what's happening, these are the facts", if we don't do something about it, with every year it gets harder and harder, and we're doing - nothing. Zip. Zero. So that's why I'm scared to death. Where are we going?"

Full transcript here: https://sites.google.com/site/mytranscriptbox/home/20120525_r4

May 25, 2012 at 11:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlex Cull

May 25, 2012 at 10:47 PM | Rob Burton

Haven't you missed out the constant amount of incredibly awful science that comes out too. Isn't one of the problems in 'Communication' is that many people are communicating the large amounts of really bad science and the actual good and reasonable science is not heard about at all. Maybe because it might not fit into the 'consensus' so well.

Yes I don’t doubt there must be some good climate science work going on somewhere. I never heard of it though ;)

If so I reckon anyone involved with that work may have worked out they are better off not getting associated with the present batch of climate science communicators. Maybe they have wised up; calling it something else, and just getting on with their work? ;)

May 25, 2012 at 11:34 PM | Registered CommenterThe Leopard In The Basement

May 25, 2012 at 11:34 PM | The Leopard In The Basement

Well studying climate is really an inherently purely academic subject that really is of no use or interest to the majority of people. Looking back a couple of decades and further the weather, meteorology and long term weather (ie climate) really is the domain of the enthusiastic amateur and is part of the basis (and because it changes so much every day for the UK's semi obsession with weather. Luckily with the rise of the internet I think science itself is moving back towards the enthusiastic amateur and away from the masses amount of publically funded stuff that we have at the moment. Surely public funds are better spent on helping things like the basic infrastructure of the country.

May 25, 2012 at 11:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterRob Burton

(if the above quote is genuine:) *Please*, sci comms, go ahead! Abandon dull name calling in your communications! First of all, *please* see, hear, read and address arguments of the "opposing view" (Personally, I think you must not be a genius with respect to sci comms to have realized that -- except e.g. the famous Lindzen -- a lot of people didn't (and won't) like to be labeled as "climate skeptics" (for nearly all human beings I know of that label would be too simple), or often even as "climate deniers".)!

May 26, 2012 at 6:11 AM | Unregistered CommenterSeptember 2011

Communication is a two-way (at least) process.

Science "communication" seems to be more a matter of bringing the tablets down from Mt Sinai.

May 27, 2012 at 3:23 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlex Heyworth

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Post:
 
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>