12 July 2010

Science Needs a Strategy

I'm back.  I'll have something to say about "Pepsi-gate" but I'm trying to get some insights from others closer to the situation first.  Before I disappeared from the blog I mentioned an interest in examining Chris Mooney's assertion that scientists need to be better listeners when it comes to (for lack of a better term) public relations. For a while now I've pushed something somewhat related:
Science has a serious PR problem, and it's this: Critics of science are searching people out and talking with them in the simplest terms possible. Scientists and "science writers," if they talk at all, are basically talking with each other. 
When Mooney talks about "listening" I think he means understanding where certain critics are coming from and understanding more about what makes the more neutral (and potentially persuadable) public tick.  I think we all see a certain amount of value in that. But I also think Mooney would agree that "listening" is only the beginning.

If I understand what Mooney's critics are saying, he's been blasted for being either too simplistic, or too brief, or that he doesn't put enough of the burden on non-scientists, or that his ideas won't be a complete solution, or that engaging critics is like talking to the wall, or that scientists really shouldn't wade into some areas of discussion because it compromises their important role or their integrity or something.  

But then I cringe when I read headlines like "Scientists expected Obama administration to be friendlier."  (Really?  Why? Because he said he would be?  As Speaker Pelosi once said, "There are a number of things he was for on the campaign trail.") Or when I read the Attorney General of Virginia wants to investigate scientists who did nothing more than write uncouth emails about climate change critics - even after the scientists have been cleared of any wrongdoing. (No word on whether the AG plans to investigate the theft and leaking of said emails.)  Or when the scientific community is flatly ignored by our own government and an oil company whose CEO insisted the greatest ecological disaster of our time would be "very, very modest."

Here's the sad, simple truth: Scientists are marginalized in politics and the media because there's no downside to marginalizing them.  The community is loosely organized at best from a political / PR standpoint - despite the multitudes of organizations within the community.  There is no groundswell of support, no army of activists ready to go at a moment's notice. Worse still, there's no real agreement among scientists how to address this - or even if they should.

When it appeared the White House was going to drop immigration reform as a priority, Latino groups organized and made some noise.  Now reform is back on the table.  When it appeared the President's promise to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" as a military policy would be cast aside, the GLBT community organized and made some noise.  Now DADT repeal is back on the table. 

It's not like these communities are monolithic.  But there are some issues where they all get together and fight.  Where they let a group within the community identify an audience, set a goal, develop a strategy, and work relentlessly to implement it.   People either support that effort or they get out of the way.

Critics of science (you know, like some national groups with the word "family" in their name) consistently kick scientists' asses in PR and politics not because they're made of money but because they have a plan and they stick to it.  They learn as much as they can about the pool of persuadable people and the pressure points of people in power.  They test messages relentlessly with focus groups and polling.  They identify speakers and develop talking points and pitch stories to reporters.  They recruit allies.  They don't expect to "win" in a day, or a week, or a month - but they have specific benchmarks and timelines.  They have specific actions they ask people to take at specific times - typically in advance of milestones in a court case or a political campaign or the legislative calendar. They build databases of supporters and they stay in contact with them.  They constantly work to build relationships beyond their own, cloistered community - so when the time comes to build a coalition of support around an issue they're not introducing themselves by asking for something.

Bottom line: there's nothing even close to this from scientists or their "allies."  Nothing.  Instead there's mockery or infighting or indifference.

The mockery bugs me a lot. You're not shaming an adversary, you're getting their blood up and getting them to work harder. For example, I've heard educated people refer to National Rifle Association members as "ignorant hillbilly gun-nuts with no teeth."   But ask a politician where he or she stands on banning gun sales to PEOPLE ON THE TERRORISM WATCH LIST.  Nine out of ten of them will be looking over their shoulders, asking those ignorant hillbillies what they should think before they tell the guy who writes love letters to al Qaeda not to buy that AK-47.

The infighting bugs me even more. Chris Mooney had a thought.  Some people agreed with it, some people didn't.  That's fine.  But if Mooney and his pals launch a campaign to implement his ideas - ideas that they think would help all scientists - I'm fairly convinced there would be other scientists peppering insults from the sidelines, undermining the credibility of the campaign because of differences over minor tactical details or personality conflicts or whatever.  There would be people jumping in, saying "Chris doesn't speak for me," but not having a lot to say beyond that.  Let's face it - there are a lot of big egos in the scientific community.  But not even Darwin was correct 100% of the time.  It doesn't mean he wasn't brilliant.

The indifference bugs me the most.  I may be a civics nerd, but I think everyone has an obligation to participate in the political or civic process in some way.  With education comes a responsibility to the greater good.  If our political leaders are basing their decisions on folklore instead of science, then scientists must step up, organize, and make real noise. It can't be "that's a climatology issue, I'm a chemist."   It can't be "they just won't listen."  It can't be "I don't understand this process and don't have the time to learn it." 

Right now the politicians are blowing scientists off because they can.  Frankly, that's not even close to the worst.   Pretty soon they'll be looking for pots of money to cut the deficit or pay for something else. Guess where they'll find the cash?  Then the textbook re-write parties will migrate to Northern states.

This tide can be turned, but it won't if the community doesn't step up, organize, plan, and make some noise.


Mr. Gunn said...

So if religious and political groups fund the anti-science PR groups, who have nothing to do all day but work on that stuff, who'd fund the science PR groups? It's not like there money in their grants for that sort of thing.

David said...

no one said this would be easy. but one thing I've learned - if it's important enough to someone, they'll find the money.

most of these groups have a few large-dollar donors but get a surprisingly large amount of money in small donations, raised through simple word-of-mouth techniques. We'd probably have to work the same way.