24 January 2012

My surprisingly conflicted take on #scio12

ScienceOnline 2012 has concluded, and the snap reviews are glowing and well deserved.  It was great to reconnect with acquaintances, and to meet people whose work I've been reading and admiring for some time.  I'm very grateful for the well-developed program, the brilliant speakers and attendees, and the spectacular organizers.

However, #scio12 also left me surprisingly conflicted and frustrated.

To me, science is hope.  It's the process by which we discover our origins, try to understand our present, and help shape our future.  It holds the promise for addressing humanity's greatest challenges.  And it's even more than that - it's what lets me watch my little boy's eyes light up when I tell him birds are, in a very real sense, dinosaurs. It's what makes every make-believe launch of a rocket ship into outer space just a little more fun. It's what makes every moment in the backyard an opportunity for discovery.  The people who pursue science and who share it with the rest of us are among my most valued heroes. It's really that big a deal to me.

And yet, scientists continue to feel the effects of a withering, coordinated attack in our politics and in our culture.  This is nothing new, of course - but the attack is increasingly well-financed, sophisticated and diverse. The strategy is to associate many scientists with something foreign, conspiratorial, and nefarious.  To create just enough public doubt over well-established scientific consensus that certain people avoid accountability.  To create an atmosphere that prompts everything from government censorship to death threats, and compels scientists to think twice about speaking up. Failing that, to marginalize scientists to the point where excluding them from important policy decisions is commonplace. The success of this strategy, of course, relies on a relatively uninformed and fairly disinterested population.

I think most #scio12 attendees agree generally on the political and cultural challenge.  I also think there are a good number of individual people there who do their own part to address a small piece of it.  But collectively, I don't think this community has anything resembling the sense of urgency or the strategic consensus required to overcome it.

There were plenty of panels that focused on particular pieces of this.  One focused on  science literacy. Another on outreach.  A couple more focused on politics.  And a very important one focused on interacting with the media.  And from the panels I attended (and others I read about via twitter etc) I was struck by how reluctant so many scientists are to engage beyond their own community.  They talked about the inherent and legitimate risks scientists (and especially non-tenured scientists) take just by talking to reporters and all the things that could go wrong. There was very little about what could go right. There was skepticism that anything could be accomplished by "framing issues" or PR campaigns.  There were many examples of politics encroaching on sound science, but very little about scientists organizing or fundraising or running for office or developing strategic communications campaigns.

From my perspective, #scio12 was an amazingly deep dive into the details and tactics of science communication, up to and including the differences in brain chemistry between liberals and conservatives. But all I could keep thinking of was what an unnamed George W. Bush Administration aide (long rumored to be Karl Rove) told Ron Suskind in 2004:
The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'
And I can't help but think that's what science is up against today. Seriously.

What's even more frustrating is the individual elements of a strategic plan to win this fight - and believe me, it is a fight - were everywhere at #scio12.  I wish more people could have seen Matt Shipman tremble when he described to me the righteous fury he feels over injustices in his community - and then how he channels it positively through his First Step Project.  I wish more people could summon the measured dignity and good humor Josh Rosenau constantly displays when he peacefully confronts his adversaries on the issue of teaching evolution.  And I wish someone would just give Danielle Lee a microphone, stick her in front of a television camera, and tell her to just say whatever comes to mind - because, well, see for yourself:

(One take, people.  ONE TAKE.  Unscripted. Imagine what this would be if I didn't suck so bad at recording video.)

I realize, of course, that it's not #scio12's responsibility to stimulate a grassroots effort to make science more popular and relevant, or compel politicians and business leaders to see a huge downside to censoring or otherwise obfuscating science.  And I also realize that there are dozens - maybe hundreds - more examples of people doing the right thing among the attendees.  And yes, it's very important to have sessions about literacy and outreach and dealing with the media and what makes a conservative's brain tick.

But I for one am tired of analyzing the contour and measuring the force of the fist punching "science" in the face.   The other side has a strategy, and they are committed to action more than analysis. They're always on offense.   It's time to develop an overarching strategy that positions science and scientists as the good guys and critics as the bad guys.  It's time to move the needle of public opinion, and it starts by increasing the number of people who actually know a living scientist.  It's time to coordinate efforts, develop a real commitment to outreach, and then just go out and git'er done.

I think what pisses me off most of all is that I haven't thought it all through, and I don't have the time to do it myself.  But despite this rant, I am hopeful - if for no other reason than the amazing people who put on and attend #scio12.


Ship said...

I smell a potential panel for #scio13 - the benefits of taking science to the public. I'd be happy to help.

David Kroll said...

Indeed, Dave, propose a session for next year.

And Danielle Lee? Damn! I've done two panels with her and invited her to talk with my NCCU students during this visit. She is divinely inspired. In a scientific way.

Tracy Vence said...

"I was struck by how reluctant so many scientists are to engage beyond their own community. They talked about the inherent and legitimate risks scientists (and especially non-tenured scientists) take just by talking to reporters and all the things that could go wrong. There was very little about what could go right."

Nailed it. This was one of the main take-aways of the meeting for me (science journalist). Disheartening, yes, but incredibly informative.

Dirk Hanson said...

Not that it's a huge consolation, but things are not so different among businesspeople, technologists, engineers, lawyers, and cops. Everybody's first thought: If I talk to a reporter, will I cause trouble for myself with the boss? Maybe that's why the most candid interviews are sometimes with bosses.

Jacquelyn Gill said...

I wouldn't say we're reluctant-- frustrated and discouraged, and even a bit defensive, yes. But most of the scientists I know are eager to do outreach. They lack the tools, the institutional support, or the media interest (most scientists' work will never be written about, because it won't end up as a Paper of the Week in Science or Nature). I attended the same panels that you did, and what I heard was not "I don't want to talk to the media or do public outreach" but "I'm concerned about talking to the media or doing outreach because of institutional barriers and a lack of support from my academic community." The scientists I talk to are very much aware of the benefits of talking to the public-- but beyond benefits, many of us want to do it because it's the right thing to do. Scientists themselves are not the barrier--rather, a lack of recognition of cultural differences (amongst scientists and journalists) and institutional support (e.g. from tenure committees or PIs) are the barrier.

Scicurious said...

I really appreciate this post, definitely agree there needs to be a panel on this! Most particularly, HOW to increase academic community support and institutional support for outreach and communication efforts. For example, you can do it from above (NSF Broader Impacts, anyone?), or you can try and do it from within (when reviewing application and tenure packages, makes sure you PRAISE outreach rather than assuming it comes at the expense of publication)? Are there people who have promoted outreach within their own institutions? How has it turned out? What has worked?

Anyone got an expert on this? :)

Unknown said...

"I was struck by how reluctant so many scientists are to engage…"

…and yet there we were, at a ScienceOnline conference, running and participating in sessions on engagement.

Just because we are raising important issues about the risks/difficulties/frustrations "scientists" as a group face doesn't mean we are reluctant to engage. It means we think engagement is so important that we are doing it in spite of these risks.

Those who would polarize the #scio12 community into us journalists vs. them scientists (or vice versa) are only harming our shared mission as so passionately set out in this post.

David said...

Yes Karen, I totally hear you, but I'd suggest there's a big difference between attending panels on engagement and actually engaging people. panels are helpful but to me it's about getting to the action part. In my experience with a lot of communities - not just science folks - there's a lot of talking about engagement and not much actual engagement.

and yes, you're right to raise the concerns people have. they are entirely legitimate and should be understood before one engages. I hope you don't think I'm trying to polarize anyone - I want to change the environment so people feel more comfortable engaging.

but yeah, your points are well taken.

Tracy Vence said...

@Jacquelyn Gill: Couldn't agree more. I don't mean to say what I got out of Scio12 was more of the same 'scientists vs. journalists' polarizing nonsense. Rather, it was illuminating to hear about the "lack of recognition of cultural differences (amongst scientists and journalists) and institutional support (e.g. from tenure committees or PIs)," as you note, which I interpret to be sources of "the inherent and legitimate risks" David brings up here (hence the perceived reluctance). Hearing about a lack of institutional support for investigators communicating their science is what really impacted me, simply because it wasn't something I'd encountered — nor even heard about — before.

@scicurious: All great questions. Would love to see this discussion blossom.

Unknown said...

David, regarding polarization, I was responding more to the commenter Tracy Vence than to you. I want to heed your call, and help others to heed it, and I think the suggestion that there be a session on constructive ways to do this is fabulous.

That said, I'm not sure I agree that "there's a big difference between attending panels on engagement and actually engaging people". The scientists who attend ScienceOnline are the same ones engaging. In many cases, we are the one person in our department who does. We are (or want to be) the champions of engagement to other scientists. If there is a session on how to promote engagement among scientists, we will be the ones taking those messages and ideas back to our scientist colleagues.

Unknown said...

Just saw Tracy Vence's second comment after I posted mine. I think we are all in agreement here.

EMoon said...

I'm here as a member of the public--not a professional scientist (though I have a science background) and not a science journalist. I came here via Twitter and @edyong209. First: this is an excellent post and I agree that--scary or not--if science is to regain public credibility, scientists need a strategy that puts their work, their method of thinking, their data out in the world more widely, more clearly, and more forcefully.

The forces arrayed against science and reality have a strategy and it's worked over the past decades. Attending meetings with one another (or with science journalists) isn't going to get the job done. It will take risking more, by more scientists. I understand the fear. It's exactly the same fear that's been carefully nurtured in the population by those who oppose science and other desirable human activities. But it's not the first time scientists have been at risk from those in power. Regaining the ground lost--the ordinary citizen's confidence in science--cannot be done without accepting that risk, enduring hardship (including the loss of employment with all that entails) and developing a united purpose.

What scientists may not realize is that there are non-scientists in the citizenry who share their values--who may even have scientific training--and who would gladly connect with one or more scientists and promote science at a grassroots level. Science journalists, important as they are, are not the only way to connect with citizens. Direct contact is more potent, in arousing enthusiasm and support, than even the best writing.

Scientists who understand the need can and should counter the critics who oppose "popularization." All scientists should push back against academic inertia or disapproval of scientists taking active part in public debate. Scientists should look beyond academia for individuals in their own communities who will be supportive of science in public issues. They do exist. Even in a "red" state such as the one I live in.

Sandra Chung said...

Thanks for this post. I agree that science could use an organized outreach campaign with specific goals and a well-defined strategy to meet them. It's a cultural and political challenge that you write of, one that calls for a cultural and political approach. Toward the end of your post you mention an important goal: the goal of accessibility, or having more people know a living scientist. This is not a goal that is best achieved by written or online communication alone. To be known outside our profession, scientists need to occasionally leave the lab and do things other than science with people other than scientists. (Did I write "our"? Haha. I still self-ID as a scientist despite having left research some years ago). We can engage directly with our local communities, e.g. by mentoring, volunteering, doing art, playing pick-up sports, even running for public office. Academia might not condone this type of non-research activity any more than it does blogging, but it's the right thing to do.

Unknown said...

I was going to bristle at being asked to "endure hardship" but then the rest of EMoon's comment won me over, especially "Science journalists, important as they are, are not the only way to connect with citizens. Direct contact is more potent, in arousing enthusiasm and support, than even the best writing" and "Scientists should look beyond academia for individuals in their own communities who will be supportive of science in public issues". Yes. Just, yes.

KateClancy said...

Such a lovely post and some really great comments. I do think it's important to remember that, as Karen said, those of us in engagement sessions are actually doing engagement (that why we're in the sessions). And there were even sessions on how to articulate the importance of outreach to others like the "why the resistance to blogging" session.

Someone suggested a hackathon to end scio13 and I think something along those lines would be great. What if we put some thought into producing or doing something by the end of the conference? I'm very interested in the push vs pull issue we bloggers have. People have to want to read science to find us. What is something we could do either between now and scio13 or at scio13 that would put people not seeking science in our paths?

Barbara King said...

David, great post. I could not attend scio12 but want to be at scio13. My science blogging is for NPR.org, which is an interesting experience, because it automatically means engaging with a broad public. Readers range from scientists and non-scientists who avidly read science, to people who attend very little, normally, to science but happen to find a science post on the NPR home page or NPR facebook page. As a result, the range of comments left- often in the hundreds- are quite interesting. I feel that my response to the comments is itself a crucial opportunity... to engage openly. I'd like to attend a session and learn from others who are plunged into this sort of mix.

Beachton said...

I have no qualms about saying whatever I want on my blog because I have no boss or community or anything. Maybe that's the upside as more and more middle aged engineers and scientists becoming unemployable --they'll be free to do science outreach all the time!

I don't know how well things like blogs and social media work for this particular national problem though. I have a tiny blog with only a few thousand readers a month, and only about 70% of those are in the US. I'm afraid it really is up to PR people to work out a strategy and a plan to counteract the attack. Could we use national pride as a tactic? Other countries are going to win at science! Neil DeGrasse Tyson has a good video illustrating this. I saw it on a UK website.

David said...

Thanks Barbara. I think the idea that "the US is falling behind" has been tried, and while by some measures that's true, it strikes me as xenophobia's second cousin. I'm just one guy, but I really think the first step is what I said - making sure many more people actually know a living scientist. Familiarity undercuts many of the inferences of science's critics. But this community has a ton of brainpower behind it and I'm very hopeful.

Beachton said...

Brainpower isn't the problem, it's introversion. Us science types tend to become reclusive, particularly as we become less valuable professionally. I'm happy to participate online, but that's it for me. I can't handle interaction with regular people. I don't mean to make it hard on you, but this is kind of the crux of it. Are you sure you want people to know scientists? We might not be very likable. Might be worthwhile to just elevate a few with actual social skills to popularity. Then after they've fulfilled their social obligation they should be allowed their privacy.

Even Neil DeGrasse Tyson says his dream is to live alone on a tropical island with internet. I'm living that hermit dream, and it's WONDERFUL. This is not a good trend for your project though.

Zuska said...

POLITICAL ACTION. We are not gonna solve the issue with more science, but with political action. Maybe we need to consult with some political scientists about how to run an effective media campaign for science. I am serious. Totally we need a panel on this. Also, planning for an outcome, rather than "wow, we really talked that one out awesomely!" would be great.

And also also: I would TOTALLY watch the DNLee Show.

KateClancy said...

I like Zuska's idea. Does anyone know any poli sci people? I know one or two but don't think they work on the kind of stuff that would be useful here. Anyway, they could be part of the working group through the year then we could make them come to scio13 :).

Unknown said...

Zuska and Kate, Jonathan Gitlin has started an entry in the #scio13 planning wiki ( http://scio13.wikispaces.com/Program+Suggestions ) called "Science policy (not politics). Why it matters, how to make things happen". In his first iteration of the entry, he cited this blog post as inspiration, so you might consider collaborating with him on that entry.

Another topic on the wiki is "Tackling Science Denialism with a Systematic Game Plan Based on Science Values and Compassion" by Emily Willingham, which also cites this post.

I'm planning one or two other entries on the wiki (when I get time tomorrow or on the weekend) that focus on identifying and developing strategies to help scientists as they engage. This angle will include reference back to Craig McClain and Miriam Goldstein's session (see Miriam's Storify here – storify.com/MiriamGoldste/why-scientists-hate-and-fear-the-media-scio12-sess – which I am also hoping to build on/modify for this session topic.

Needless to say, it's so great that this blog post has spawned such a range of interesting and important discussions. Win.

Jonathan said...

Yep, I'd be happy to work with others to refine the idea.

Kate - to be clear, there's a difference between science policy and political science.

David said...

yeah, ummm... I'm not really a political scientist, but I did spend 5 years working for a Senator, I've been a registered lobbyist, and I develop strategic PR campaigns around issues. I've worked in political communications of one kind or another for about 20 years. So hopefully that qualifies.

KateClancy said...

Yeah, that sounds like it counts ;)

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