07 March 2011

The Science-to-English Dictionary Doesn't Include the Words "Fuck Off"

Some interesting discussions in the field of science communications in the past few weeks.  First, Chris Mooney interviews Neil deGrasse Tyson and writes about it at the Intersection.  He also included this somewhat noteworthy exchange between Tyson and Richard Dawkins:

While quite funny (and a bit salty at the end there), it illustrates a growing tension among scientists - whether they should take the time and effort to persuade those less science literate than themselves, or whether they should essentially "speak truth to power" in debates where sides are growingly intractable - climate change, evolution, vaccines, and so on.

I realize it doesn't have to be an either-or thing, and there may be a time and place for each approach, but in general I count myself squarely in Tyson's camp on this.  On the very important debates where the goal is to encourage or change behavior, I've never found the words "fuck off" to be especially effective.  There really is a better way.

To me the answer lies in creating a groundswell of support on the pro-science side of these arguments, and that means establishing a large, deep reservoir of goodwill between scientists and the general public. Doing so aligns the incentives of policymakers (who respond to the public) and scientists more directly.

That's why I was so impressed with Maggie Koerth-Baker's presentation at the SAGE Weston Lecture Series at University of Wisconsin-Madison.   Koerth-Baker is the science editor at Boing Boing, and I thought her advice to scientists about being more persuasive with the general public was outstanding:
I think the best recommendation that I have is to go to presentations and go to public lectures on subjects that you know absolutely nothing about. Step outside your expertise and start thinking like somebody who doesn’t know about this. And when you do you are going to find questions that you’re not asking about your own work. And you are going to find sources of skepticism that you aren’t applying to your own work. And you can kind of turn around and start doing that. One of the things I think you are going to run into if you do this is the issue of how long it takes for basic science to find its way to the commercial sector. This is really, really, really poorly understood. And neither journalists nor scientists do a very good job of giving the public what it needs to understand.
Of course, understanding others by listening to what they have to say is only part of the task.  When you're speaking, Koerth-Baker says you have to do so on the most basic of terms:
Sacrificing storytelling and understandability for extreme accuracy is often just as bad as sacrificing accuracy for the sake of storytelling. To start off with that what I mean is dumbing down is OK. I hear lots and lots of people, even journalists, making fun of USA Today because it is written at a 6th-grade reading level. It should be. We should write more at a 6th-grade reading level. If you are not writing about your science at a 6th-grade reading level you are probably doing something wrong. And not enough people are understanding what you’re talking about.
And finally, her advice to science communicators sounds quite a bit like PR or marketing counsel to me:
Basically everything that I have told you here boils down to two basic lessons. First: KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. And Second: KNOW YOUR MESSAGE. And finally, be able to match the correct audience and the correct message so that people really understand what you’re saying.
It goes back to what I was saying about climate change and strategic communications a while back.  Scientists really have a choice: lift people up or put people down. One approach will bring people closer to your understanding of the nature of the world around us, while the other will push people away.    With the issues we face, the stakes are far too high to settle for the smug satisfaction of knowing you're right.


Psi Wavefunction said...

Yeah, I prefer to reserve "fuck off" for other scientists*, but saying it to [most] non-scientists is just condescending and and detrimental to decent science communication. Unless they're frauds**, in which case I would definitely tell them to "fuck off", this time as a human being rather than a scientist...

* I disagree much more passionately with people I mostly agree with, than those I don't agree with at all...

** Most proponents of creationism. Not the regular followers, of course, but rather the vocal 'lecturers' on the topic. They're filthy lying scumbags capitalising off ignorance and vulnerability of the weaker and poorer members of society.


Psi Wavefunction said...

Oh motherfucker, not only do I fail to type my own damn name, it doesn't sound very good when mistyped in that particular manner either... *headdesk*

It's getting late here.


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