08 April 2007

Science communication in a political climate

Scientists like to think that it is the evidence that they provide that sways thinking on such issues as climate change. Matthew C. Nisbet and Chris Mooney beg to differ. Were that the case, then we would not end up with the recent poll finding that "23% of college educated Republicans think global warming is attributable to human activity, compared with 75% of Democrats".

Nisbet and Mooney raise this issue in an article in the latest issue of the journal Science. They set out to dispel the notion of many scientists who "retain the well-intentioned belief that, if laypeople better understood technical complexities from news coverage, their viewpoints would be more like scientists’, and controversy would subside".

In reality, people approach science much as they do any other subject. "Faced with a daily torrent of news, citizens use their value predispositions (such as political or religious beliefs) as perceptual screens, selecting news outlets and Web sites whose outlooks match their own." From this we can conclude that it is against the Republican philosophy to believe in anthropomorphic climate change.

The press release put out to drum up interest in the article, Scientists must improve communication tactics, Science article proclaims, spells it out in a quote from Mooney. "In writing this article together, we argue that scientists shouldn't exclusively blame politicians and journalists for gridlock on issues like climate change. Part of the problem is that scientists carry with them the wrong assumptions about what makes for effective communication."

One problem with the scientists' approach to getting their message across is that they can be so convinced that they are right that they are dismissive not just of crackpots but of anything that smacks of religion. Not all scientists take this stance, of course, but a few well known media superstars certainly take this line.

Bad idea, is the message from Nisbet and Mooney. Instead, they suggest, "scientists must realize that 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."

They don't go into the implications of this for science writers. They are there though. While it isn't the writer's job to make the scientists' arguments for them, but to report what they say. But we all know that writers pick and choose the material they include in their articles. With luck they want to pick the bits that will convince their readers. Thus they are in the same boat as the scientists.

There isn't, then, any point in presenting an argument that the reader will dismiss. Then again, another issue is that if you write for a publication that reaches an audience of people who are naturally inclined in one direction, you may have an uphill struggle when writing about a piece of science that is at variance with their view of the world.

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