Monday, April 09, 2007

We’re Right, Who Cares if We’re Boring?

PZ Myers issues a bit of a screed about scientists framing messages, and why scientists are perceived at being bad at “communicating”. His conclusion is that scientists shouldn’t need to speak so slowly and use such small words in order to frame their topics properly, and that the media and public need to claw their way to the deeper understanding of nature that scientists have.

He implores, “[j]ust don't ask us to do all of a huge subject like evolution in a couple of snazzy sentences. . . .” I would ask, why not? You could start the elevator message with the importance of understanding evolution is, as citizens, to be able to participate in the public debate about a range of issues, including endangered species, global climate impacts, genetically modified foods, pesticides in agriculture. You can’t be a good citizen if you don’t understand evolution. (Here’s some supplemental reading on “elevator messages”, for those who are interested).

How about that for starters? After you get that across, then you can start telling stories about natural history, with themes related to evolution. I’ve always liked how Stephen J. Gould makes natural history and by extension, evolutionary biology, come alive. More scientists could stand to learn to interact with the public in the same way he did.

PZ even has the start of an elevator message:

In the battleground I play in, the evolution/creation wars, I know that the majority of the public are victims. We share common values: they are promoting their particular beliefs not because they are stupid or evil, but because they care about living in a good society, because they want their children to grow up economically successful and personally happy, and they are convinced that evolution threatens their personal bliss. (They're wrong, of course, because they've been lied to, but they don't know that.) One effective tactic for our side is to hammer on those shared values, and point out that good science is essential for economic competitiveness, for medical progress, and to improve everything from agriculture to reproductive biology.

A practical suggestion I would have in crafting this message is that people may not be inclined to listen if they feel that their intelligence is being insulted. This observation is based on my experience with risk communication and public involvement associated with hazardous waste site cleanups – the fact that we experts knew more than the community members about the technical topics actually matters very little in the process of engaging them as stakeholders and trying to get their acceptance of a particular cleanup option.

In the original Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney paper that Myers is commenting on, it says:

On these highly politicized topics, scientists need to stop thinking that technical knowledge, alone, suffices to drive decision-making or change minds. That's simply not how the media works, or how the public perceives and processes information. The article (which I'll post as soon as available) ends with this coda:

Some readers may consider our proposals too Orwellian, preferring the traditional model of safely sticking to the facts. Yet scientists must realize that these facts will be repeatedly misapplied and twisted in direct proportion to their relevance to the political debate and decision-making. In short, as unnatural as it might feel, in many cases, scientists should strategically avoid emphasizing the technical details of science when trying to defend it.

This is an astonishing admission to make nearly 50 years after “The Two Cultures”. Flawed as it might have been, Snow’s essay still should have been a wakeup call for those scientists interested in the social relevance of their work to find tools for communicating to tough audiences.

PZ also takes the media to task for why scientists are perceived as poor communicators:

Now we may suck at giving the attention-grabbing 15-second sound bite, but that's not what we do. We are experts at explaining complex subjects which do not fit into the format expected of television news, but hasn't everyone noticed that television news is utterly useless at transmitting substantive information? Instead of complaining that our culture's class of experts at technical subjects aren't sufficiently pithy for a dumbed-down, low-bandwidth, superficial medium, why aren't we fastening the blame on the media for inappropriately using our experts' talents?

Ok, at this point, it’s useful to recall the phrase, “never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel” (supposedly from Mark Twain), or its 21st century equivalent, “never pick a fight with someone who buys bandwidth by the gigabit”. If getting your message out is important, you have to know more about what you’re up against.

The news media are in the business to make money, and must deliver a product that their customers desire. The customers of the media are advertisers, and the product being delivere are readers or viewers. If narrative, violence and conflict are what bring the eyeballs to the advertisers, that's what the media outlets are going to provide. The news media are biased towards what's "new" and "fresh", something not oriented to extended analysis of a topic. Visual depictions get more attention than text. Bad news is more compelling than good news. So, for example, melting ice floes don't do much to highlight the story of global climate change. However, add a couple of drowning polar bears to the picture, and people start to take more notice.

For me, the most important thing to understand about the news media is the need for narrative:

The news media cover the news in terms of "stories" that must have a beginning, middle, and end--in other words, a plot with antagonists and protagonists. Much of what happens in our world, however, is ambiguous. The news media apply a narrative structure to ambiguous events suggesting that these events are easily understood and have clear cause-and-effect relationships. Good storytelling requires drama, and so this bias often leads journalists to add, or seek out, drama for the sake of drama. Controversy creates drama. Journalists often seek out the opinions of competing experts or officials in order to present conflict between two sides of an issue (sometimes referred to as the authority-disorder bias). Lastly, narrative bias leads many journalists to create, and then hang on to, master narratives--set story lines with set characters who act in set ways. Once a master narrative has been set, it is very difficult to get journalists to see that their narrative is simply one way, and not necessarily the correct or best way, of viewing people and events.

It is this hardening of news into master narratives, combined with the media's tendency to reinforce the status quo and to appeal to fairness (i.e. presenting both "sides" of an issue, regardless of how wrong one side might be) that thwart the introduction of scientific thought into public discourse. If the master narrative is that there is disagreement among experts about the fact of global climate change, that's going to resonate more than the fact that those who disagree are marginal scientists or being paid to disagree. If the master narrative is that there is a plausible model in addition to evolution and natural selection to explain biodiversity, that combined with the appeal to "fairness" will compel people to give intelligent design a chance, regardless of how scientifically wrong-headed it is.

Overcoming these master narratives, not complaining about them, is the task faced by scientists who want their ideas heard in by the public. So, I'm lining up with Nisbet and Mooney on this one.

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