The changing face of science communication

All the reports from the inquiries into the climategate issue are worth reading. It is the nature of thoughtful inquiries that not only are problems identified, claims checked and unjustified accusations refuted. There are also usually some suggestions for improvements.

I think the attention that has been paid to issues like peer review, importance of statistical analysis, making public data available and the handling of freedom of information requests has been worthwhile. Hopefully scientific  institutes, professional bodies and scientific journals will pay attention.

The Independent Climate Change email Review which reported last week  made interesting comments on the communication of science and the role of scientists in this. Mike at Watching the Deniers has written a thoughtful article on lessons we can draw from this report on this and other matters. It’s well worth a read – I recommend it (see The chief lesson of Climategate: the depths of our naivety).

Failure of news media

I think one thing we have learned is that the mainstream media failed in providing useful and objective information during the “climategate” fiasco. Clearly conservative media disgraced themselves with an obscene public feeding frenzy and are now looking rather silly. While they will maintain their influence with the tea party crowd and similar stongly conservative minded people their credibility with most people must now be at rock bottom.

But even the main stream media was influenced by the hysteria at the height of climategate and often felt the need to use some of the rhetoric, to accept some of the claims of suppression and distortion of data. And to go out of their way to give prominence to the claims of deniers – the usual “balance” problem.

Part of this is due to the fact that the main stream media is poorly staffed with science journalists and has been loosing many of them of late. The other aspect6 is that5 the whole Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) process is aimed at informing governments and policy makers – not the public. Consequently there has been a lack of good material – even for journalists – aimed at informing the public on the issue/

Mike quotes a couple of very important sections from the report:

“The scientific literature is relatively opaque to non-specialists. Scientific understanding that is transmitted into the public domain must be comprehensible to non-specialists, make appropriate and not excessive claims, and include careful statements of the uncertainties surrounding that understanding…” ICCER Report page 40

“Therefore, the Review would urge all scientists to learn to communicate their work in ways that the public can access and understand; and to be open in providing the information that will enable the debate, wherever it occurs, to be conducted objectively. That said, a key issue is how scientists should be supported to explain their position, and how a public space can be created where these debates can be conducted on appropriate terms….” ICCER Report page 42

Given the failure of the mainstream media to communicate properly on this issue the second paragraph is important. It is encouraging scientists themselves to take more responsibility. To develop the skills and find the forums for communicating complex ideas to the public.

And it is suggesting that scientists should be supported in this task. I interpret this to mean institutional support. Recognition of public communication as a positive skill for career advancement. The provision of resources, time money and access to appropriate audiences.

This need for scientists to be involved in publicising there is science is woder than just the climate issue. Recent years have seen several issues, klike genetic engineering of crops and animals, which have promoted pblic concenr and discussion. There will no doubt be similar isses in the future – for example nano-technology whcih will concenr the public.

Recent discussion amongst science groups in the USA have raised the need for scientist involvement in this discussion at the earliest stages. Preemptively, as it were. This could do much to alleviate public concern based on ignorance or mistaken ideas.

Importance of internet and blogosphere

In a section of the report entitled The Changing Forum for Debate and the Blogosphere the report says:

“The development in recent years of the internet as a vehicle for easy, instantaneous transmission of news and opinion has changed the nature of the debate about scientific issues. Prior to these developments, scientific debate largely took place in journals and conferences that effectively excluded the public from active engagement. Experts tended to introduce their conclusions to the public in ways that were difficult to challenge.”

“The mode has now changed ….. the conventional mechanisms of peer reviewed publication of results,….. has been paralleled by a more vociferous, more polarised debate in the blogosphere and in popular books.” ICCER Report page 41/42

There is no doubt the debates on issues like climate change are more polarised. But it is also true that the internet and the blogosphere is where much of the public gets their scientific information on contentious issues.

I think this means that scientists must participate more often in those internet and blogsphere forums. They must actually build a space on those forums for their communication. The reports appeal that “all scientists to learn to communicate their work in ways that the public can access and understand” is relevant here. So is their request for scientists to be “supported to explain their position, and how a public space can be created where these debates can be conducted on appropriate terms.

Support required from science employers

This section of the report finishes with:

“The learned societies may have an expanded role to play here in encouraging debate. We would also commend the work of bodies such as the Science Media Centre at the Royal Institution for encouraging and helping scientists to take their work to lay audiences through the media, and advising them on how best to do this.” ICCER Report page 42

We can see a practical example of this in New Zealand with the formation of the NZ SciBlogs platform which currently hosts or syndicates about 30 local scientific bloggers.  Maybe there is scope for local learned scoeites to improve their internet presence and participate in the blogosphere.

But I see the local institutions, especially the Crown research Institutes,  as being able to do the most to promote scientific presence on the internet and blogosphere. But at the same time, I see them as doing the least – and actually dragging their feet with this responsibility.

Local scientific institutes have had problems of  a culture of secrecy and competition. This has been promoted by funding mechanisms and also by the commercialisation culture which promoted intellectual property issues. And through all this we have the problem of bureaucracies fearful of allowing staff to participate in public discussions or disputes, fearful of legal action and controversy.

Finally there is the personal attitude of scientists themselves. Many have and are taking to public participation and blogging enthusiastically – and proving very effective. However there still appears to be a residual attitude that communication to the public and popularisation of science is somehow unworthy. The attitude that caused many of Carl Sagan‘s colleagues to be critical of him.

I guess that is a cultural thing. As more and more scientists do be come active on the internet and blogosphere, and as such activity becomes recognised in personal assessment and career prospects, this will surely die out.


Similar articles

Enhanced by Zemanta


Leave a Reply: please be polite to other commenters & no ad hominems.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s