04 March 2010

Science Has a Serious PR Problem

Here's the truth: evolution happens, vaccines save lives and don't cause autism, and climate change is real.

Meanwhile, as Julie Marsh points out, the state of Texas continues to push for alternatives to evolution in its science curriculum in schools. Even after the Lancet retracted its infamous paper suggesting a correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism, The Huffington Post published a piece by David Kirby insisting the retraction "changes nothing." (and guess what? this post is the first thing you see when you google "Lancet retraction.") And sadly, the South Dakota House of Representatives just passed a resolution - well, let Kate Sheppard explain:
The resolution, approved by a vote of 36-30, states that public schools should be required to teach students that "global warming is a scientific theory rather than a proven fact" and that a variety of "climatological, meteorological, astrological, thermological, cosmological, and ecological dynamics" could be changing the weather. Yes, that’s astrological, as in horoscopes. And as Brad Plumer points out, thermology involves the science of infrared body imaging. Not quite clear what role that might play in global warming.
In Utah, one state legislator called climate change "in fact a conspiracy to limit population not only in this country but across the globe," and prompted the state Assembly to pass a resolution urging the federal government to stop its "carbon dioxide reduction programs."

Now the New York Times reports that opponents of science are trying to link some of these issues together - leveraging misinformation about climate change to promote misinformation about evolution. It cites a bill filed in Kentucky that tries to question the science on both.

From a politics and communications perspective, science is getting its butt kicked right now on the state level. And while the stimulus package Congress passed a year ago gave science funding a boost, overall sound science isn't doing all that much better on the federal level.

This is a serious problem for everyone in many ways. Right now I'm focusing on my line of work. When science is attacked, people don't know who to believe on issues of fact - and they can't make informed decisions. If you're a business with science-based product, you're vulnerable to any kind of fear-based campaign with halfway-decent, focus-grouped messaging. You know, like "there's antifreeze in vaccines." (there isn't.) Further, if a business tries to stand up for science, it's attacked as mercilessly profit-driven. Who's right is irrelevant.

So where is the campaign to fight back?

The truth is there isn't one. What we have is a handful of decent books like Unscientific America and Denialism, a lot of really smart science and medical bloggers, and Bill Nye. There is a grassroots group (more accurately, a group of groups) called Citizens for Science that tries to take on the issues facing science education - but you may notice that they list no chapters in the states mentioned above - Utah, South Dakota, and Kentucky.

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.

Even Bill Nye, who really tries to talk with non-scientists, likes to talk about meeting Stephen Hawking. He's really preaching to the converted.

The blogosphere represents an outstanding opportunity for scientists to share ideas with the rest of us. And there are hundreds of really smart scientists writing very impressive blogs - most of which use words I've never seen. But on issues like climate change or evolution or when science is criticized generally, Not many science bloggers I've seen like to talk with the "persuadables." They prefer to eviscerate their critics, and insult those who might follow those critics. On science blogs, scientists are sharing their points of view with their colleagues, and they're adding some powerful snark for good measure. It may be good science, but it's not good PR. And what's happening in the blogosphere is happening elsewhere as well.

I've heard people say "we need to make science cool" - a lot of that talk was at ScienceOnline 2010 - and that would be nice, but I don't think that's really the answer. "Science" isn't really going to beat out American Idol or the NFL or whatever.

Cool is important, but I think we need to make science relevant. There's a difference. For example, I think every scientist should listen to Robert Krulwich's 2008 Commencement Address to graduates of Cal Tech:
When a cousin, or an uncle, or a buddy comes up and asks you, "so what are you working on?" even if it's hard to explain, even if you know they don't really want to hear it - not really - I urge you to give it a try. Because talking about science, telling stories to regular folks is not a trivial thing. Scientists need to tell stories to non-scientists because science stories - and you know this - have to compete with other stories about how the universe works and how the universe came to be. And some of those other stories - Bible stories, movie stories, myths - can be very beautiful and very compelling. But to protect science, and scientists - this is not a gentle competition - you've got to get in there and tell yours, your version of how things are and why things came to be.
Yes, we should celebrate science and scientists in our pop culture. But it's not enough. Science has to be accessible and relevant. Those who do it must be able to talk about it - not "media trained" but able to explain, in simple terms, what it is, why it's important to them, and why could be important to everyone else.

Further, people have to be able to participate in it, at least in some way. Darlene Cavalier and Michael Gold are developing this wonderfully important and engaging website called Science for Citizens that gives regular folks an opportunity to participate in real science projects run by real scientists. Of course, I learned about this by watching Darlene present it to a room full of scientists. And I saw some of those scientists mumbling things like "that's not really science."

What Darlene and Michael are doing is profoundly important, and it deserves enormous support. Not everyone is going to be a PhD but everyone should have the opportunity to participate in the scientific process, and feel the rush of discovery and awakening that comes with learning and experiencing new things.

As more people have that understanding and perspective, I think we'll see much more support of science generally and far fewer attempts by state legislators to obfuscate or reject what we know is true.

So gear up, science bloggers... I'll be sharing more thoughts soon...


Julie @ The Mom Slant said...

It's hard to talk to the "persuadables." It's hard to conceive that I would have to *persuade* someone of the validity of carbon dating or natural selection or the importance of herd immunity. Since real science is evidence-based, it's not surprising that scientists don't have much patience with people who need to be emotionally convinced of what they see as plainly factual.

I also think people generally dig controversy and conspiracy, both of which involve emotional gray areas that aren't present in science. The unknowns of science - like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle or Schrodinger's cat - aren't nearly as compelling.

But I'm all for raising the collective intelligence and curiosity, as futile as it may feel sometimes.

Kate Porter said...

I agree with Julie, and would also add that another common problem is that--especially in the cases of evolution, climate change, and vaccination studies--it takes a whole lot of background knowledge to understand the science to begin with. I think one of the reasons creationism and similar things are so popular is that they're EASY. You don't need to know what cells are, or have an understanding of statistics, or know anything about EM radiation to understand Genesis.

The reality is that science, while fascinating and fun and thrilling, is HARD for a lot of people. It's counterintuitive, it doesn't "sound" right, it's complicated--and in order to understand why it's not, you have to have a certain knowledge base that many (most?) people just don't have, and aren't willing to obtain.

David said...

Both excellent points. Controversy is what mainstream media folks look for when reporting science or anything else - they're telling stories. And of course the challenge comes in making science understandable for someone who doesn't have a bunch of letters after their name. But I just think that means you have to develop a strategy that considers all this.

Roger Harris said...

Great post. I agree that much of the problem encountered by science educators has to do with the perception of science as agenda-driven.

I propose a national initiative to rebrand science so that people understand (1) it is what has given us the technological and medical benefits we enjoy today and (2) it is a natural thought process that is inherent in our psychological make-up and (3) it is at least as cool as American Idol, dammit!

But as to the third point I agree with you that encouraging kids to study science and consider science careers is not just about making science cool. I think that professional educators and science communicators have a role to play.

My perception from meetings such as ScienceOnline 2010 (which I attended) is that science communicators do a great job of communicating science, but it is mostly among themselves and to scientists. There is painfully little osmosis of scientific messages beyond the semi-permeable membrane of the science communicator community (as it were). That's got to change IMO.

My goal is to reach fans of American Idol, guys (or gals) who watch Sunday football, and go to the bar, anyone who considers science "not for me" or geeky or uncool. They should be our target audience. (Hence I am organizing the Triangle Science Festival.)

My concern is that we have frittered away time and resources speaking to ourselves very effectively and left non-scientists to the predations of those who truly are agenda-driven. It's time to get out there into the real world and change how people think about science (and, yup, that's rebranding), not just about how wonderful science is.

I'd love to discuss these ideas in more detail with you! (Find me @triscifest on Twitter.)

Dennis Meredith said...

Indeed science does have a serious PR problem, as this excellent post details. Although the problem manifests itself now in debates over global warming and evolution, more fundamentally science suffers from a lack of a culture of explanation, as I discuss in this blog post http://wp.me/pjyFJ-3n on my blog Research Explainer. And also fundamental is that scientists have never been given the tools or the training to engagingly and clearly communicate their research, which is why I wrote "Explaining Research." ( http://www.explainingresearch.com ). One might hope that someday scientists will do battle with such willfully ignorant people as creationists and climate change deniers on a level communication playing field.

Anonymous said...

When pharma spends more on marketing and advertising than research, Americans take note. When the media is dying and yet their mainstay in pharma advertising, Americans take note. When 1% of 8 year olds have autism and yet the media can't decide whether or not there is an epidemic, Americans take note. When a peanut butter sandwich becomes a weapon of mass destruction in a daycare center, Americans take note. We have more "medicine" than any other nation and yet we're a nation of fat, sick, autistic, allergic, diabetic, cancer riddled, depressed, suicidal wrecks.

Yay science!

GREAT post.

Anonymous said...

I agree that scientists are loosing the battle because they forget, or perceive themselves as above educators. If science is the way to find knowledge, than education is the way to... See More pass it on. Lest we forget that education takes place at the most simplest areas of life, human interaction. I get the vibe that some very smart people hate the interactions they have with people who they perceive as less smart. I think that is a foolish mistake because you underwrite and alienate a group of people (who are not dumb as rocks) to a beautiful way of understanding life and experience (science). I think that people involved with science should embrace their primary role as an educator. i think ill follow this blog.

Unknown said...

"It's hard to conceive that I would have to *persuade* someone of the validity of carbon dating or natural selection or the importance of herd immunity. Since real science is evidence-based..."

Julie, you're right on but backwards! Science is evidence based, but in fact most people have NOT been introduced to the evidence, nor even the theories. For example, I know people who don't disbelieve evolution who will still say 'but we haven't *seen* a species evolve into a different one'. Lots of people have 'heard' that carbon dating is not that reliable, but few understand how reliable a radioactive half-life is.

I think the internet is a big part of this problem - people know that theinformation is *available*, and so they never bother to get it. And when two people say you can draw different conclusions from the evidence, you NEED to look at the evidence to know who is right and who is lying. But no one bothers... they know the truth is out there, and htey will wait for it to be shown to them rather than finding it themselves.

So, I would say that it can be hard to talk to them, but you MUST conceive that you need to persuade people of the value of these things, and you MUST do it based on the basic principle that science is falsifiable, and that the evidence supports the scientific theory and not the BS theory.

George said...

I'd recommend that you take a look at the Symphony of Science site.

The Poetry of Science video teaches an important lesson for science advocates: you need a narrative, just not facts, to reach those folks who don't get the science taught in schools.

And neuroscience is showing (surprise) that there are some fundamental(ist) differences between the brains of those who accept religious beliefs and those who don't, ie. it's not just a matter of showing them the logic and reason of science.

Otherwise, Feynman's advice would have clarified things a long time ago....

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool.

Richard Feynman, Caltech commencement address, 1974