17 January 2012

Some important questions for NCSE

I was very pleased to learn (via John Timmer's piece at Ars Technica) that the National Center for Science Education (a.k.a., those nice folks who defend the teaching of evolution in classrooms) is broadening its mission a bit:
NCSE is proud to announce the launch of its new initiative aimed at defending the teaching of climate change. Like evolution, climate change is accepted by the scientific community but controversial among the public. As a result, educators trying to teach climate change, like their counterparts trying to teach evolution, are often likewise pressured to compromise the scientific and pedagogical integrity of their instruction. But there was no NCSE for climate — no organization, that is, specializing in providing advice and support to those facing challenges to climate change education. 
With the launching of the initiative, NCSE itself becomes that organization.
NCSE and others have seen the parallels emerging among those who oppose teaching evolution in schools and those who try to deny the sound science behind climate change. While I'm not sure how often schools teach "climate change" as much as they teach the basic scientific disciplines (chemistry, physics, etc.) that play a role in researching the issue, I think it's great that this group is stepping up here.

But then.... I read this.
..."We've always argued 'do what's best for the kids, teach good science.' The nice thing about evolution is that we can also say 'and by the way, if you try to teach creationism/intelligent design, you will be sued and you will lose, because all the case law is against you,'" Scott said. "There's nothing comparable with climate change. There's no constitutional protection against bad science. What we have to do is persuade people, help them understand what is good science, and why their kids should learn good science."
To help get the organization ready for the challenge of persuading people, the NCSE has hired Mark McCaffrey, a scientist that has focused on climate literacy. They've also placed the Pacific Institute's Peter Gleick on their board.
Persuading people.

NCSE is chock full of brainy people.  I mean SMART.  Their staff and board consists of biologists, anthropologists, philosophers, and geologists. And I'm really not trying to be flip here.  I admire and respect NCSE and its leaders a great deal, and I want to see them succeed.  So as a communications strategist, I really do have to ask a few questions:

  • Who specifically does NCSE want to persuade?
  • Has NCSE established a benchmark of sentiment on the issue that they want to change?  If so, how much?
  • Who at NCSE has ever developed and led a coordinated, national communications campaign?
  • Has NCSE established criteria to help them determine if they're being successful?
  • Has NCSE ever worked with a public relations company, big or small?
  • Has NCSE developed messages on the issue of climate change? 
  • Has NCSE ever tested messages through focus groups, polling, or other means?
  • Has NCSE developed a budget for this initiative?
  • Is NCSE planning to spend any money on advertising?
  • How does NCSE plan to "earn media" through creative opportunities and events?
  • How will NCSE integrate social media into its strategic communications plan?

I hope NCSE has good answers to these (and other) questions.  Maybe they don't see themselves as the organization that leads a national campaign - maybe they're the folks who give individual teachers some basic information in a single, convenient spot.  And that's cool.   But when I see the words "what we have to do is persuade people," these are the questions I immediately ask.

Persuading people isn't just about compiling data and having a great website.  It's not just about writing press releases and pushing them to the few remaining science reporters left at major daily newspapers. It's not about giving a talk to the local science club.  It's not even about debating an anti-science crank on television. It's not about simply responding to the latest outrage from the other side.  All of these things are nice.  None of them really persuade people - not in the numbers I think are necessary.

Persuading people is about having a strategy.  It's about developing messaging you know will be effective because you've tested it - you know, like a scientist does.  It's about identifying your audience and connecting your audience with your messages everywhere they are, as assertively and proactively and creatively and efficiently as possible.  It's about knowing where opinion currently is, and knowing what specifically you want to change, and knowing if you've accomplished your goal.

NCSE has launched this initiative.  And I think it's great.  It really does beg the question, though: now what?

Again, not trying to be flip.  I really want the answers.

No comments: