Friday at AAAS

I’ve really enjoyed the first day of the AAAS conference. Although I can’t possibly talk about all the panels that I attended, a couple of them stood out. So I’ll give an overview of the salient points I took away from these symposia. (Please don’t hold my rushed writing against me! I have no time for editing.)

The first symposium I attended was titled Communicating on the State and Local Level: How Can Scientists Support Policy Makers? Eugenie Scott, Director of the National Center for Science Education spoke on Communication, Policy, and Evolution. She told of her personal story battling with the Arkansas school board in the 80’s and what scientists can learn from that experience. (To break the suspense up front, the school board decided to not allow the teaching of creationism.) In this case, some of the best allies for the scientists were local clergy who did not like the idea that teachers would give one explanation for creationism Monday through Friday that pastors would have to modify on Sunday. She emphasized the frustration that scientists feel when their fact based statements are countered (with equal weight) by non-fact based opinions on creationism. Scott reminded scientists that they have one vote, just like everyone else, but that even though scientists do not have power, they do have influence. Science is necessary but not sufficient to win cases such as these. A more integrated approach is necessary that includes understanding the values of the people affected by the ruling. Stephen Schneider, professor at Stanford and author of “Science as a Contact Sport” spoke next on Communication, Policy, and Climate Change. He addressed the best way for scientists to communicate with the media and with the public directly. Among other issues, Schneider spoke of advocacy and the risks involved for a scientist when wearing an advocacy hat, popularizing science, understanding your own biases, and using analogies to convey risk to non-science audiences. “Know thy audience, know thyself, and know thy stuff” are his three commandments to communication. The first does not need explanation, but it is often overlooked by scientists. By the second, he was referring to a scientist’s strong or weak points while being interviewed. If you are not good at sound bites, then be sure that the interview you have agreed to is more in depth, or get some practice before proceeding. The third commandment, know thy stuff, ended Schneider’s session as he said, “Watch out for what you say, they might hear you.” Be able to back up your words with science.

This is already getting too long, but I want to say a bit about the next symposium I attended, A Wobbly Three-Legged Stool: Science, Politics, and the Public, organized by Lewis Branscomb of UCSD. In this symposium the panelists addressed the triangle relationship between these three parties, as a new model replacing the old model which was more linear (lacking the relationship between scientists and the public). Daniel Yankelovich of Public Agenda shared the results of his research on public perception of science policy issues. He says that scientists make three erroneous assumptions: 1) the public makes up its mind once it possesses the relevant facts and information 2) the message the scientists give is the same message the public receives and 3) messages are transmitted in real time. The first is wrong for several reasons. One reason is that facts are secondary to a sense of inclusion—or “what does this information mean to me”? The second assumption is wrong for many reasons including inattention, the difficulty of interpreting probabilities, sources of noise, and cognitive dissonance with previously held beliefs/thoughts. The third assumption is erroneous because it takes time to absorb new information—sometimes a long time. Jean Johnson also of the Public Agenda followed up with what scientists can do better to communicate their messages with respect to energy and climate change. 1) Talk about climate change and the energy crisis TOGETHER. They are intertwined, but this relationship is not communicated well enough. 2) Spend less focus on the facts, and instead focus on the CHOICES. (She gave an analogy to scientists talking of climate change to a scenario in which your doctor tells you that you have cancer. The doctor then proceeds to tell you why he/she thinks you have cancer, the confidence with which he/she knows you have cancer, the biological process of cancer, and then walks away before telling you your treatment options.) 3) Don’t ignore ECONOMICS. People need to know what a solution will cost, and what it will cost if nothing is done. Neal Lane, former science advisor to Clinton, head of NSF, and now professor at Rice University, finished the symposium by reminding us of his Citizen Scientist proposal. We need scientists to be able to tell anyone “this science is important to you because…” He emphasized that this conversation needs to be two ways (scientists can learn a lot from non-scientists), and that a change in graduate and post-doctorate education to include public engagement is necessary for such changes.

There is much that I’m leaving out, but I think this is a good start for discussion among FOSEP members. How can we all be better citizen scientists and create 2-way dialogue with the public?

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One thought on “Friday at AAAS

  1. Andrew J Bonham

    Like I posted on Mr. McMillan’s opening AAAS post; thanks for posting about the sessions for those of us who can’t attend.

    As a PhD Biochemist, I definitely empathize with “frustration that scientists feel when their fact based statements are countered (with equal weight) by non-fact based opinions.” That might as well be all you see on the evening news these days.

    As regards science, politics, and the public: I think there needs to be a influential body; maybe a consortium of Journal publishers or a grassroots effort; that exists for one purpose– to distill recent scientific insights into understandable, palatable, sound-bites for the lay audience. Like a branch of Science or Nature or PLoS or whomever, that hired Public Relations experts and really “sold” the science. Not distorting the science, but making it into something applicable and clear and, most of all, EASY. And I want a pony as well, while I’m wishing for the sky.

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