Response to Nature’s "Speak up for science;" We Have to Do More

January 9, 2015
Aaron Huertas
Former contributor

Nature just published a helpful piece from Virginia Gewin on how scientists can deal with people who criticize their work.

I liked the piece and I’m always happy to see scientific journals and scientific societies help researchers communicate. That said, I want to add a few other considerations to the discussion.

Good-faith criticisms from other scientists

It’s easy for novel debates in evolutionary science to be misconstrued as challenges to well-established theories.  Source. New Scientist cover from 2009, via and PZ Myers.

It’s easy for debates in evolutionary science to be misconstrued as challenges to well-established theories. Source: New Scientist cover from 2009, via and PZ Myers.

Gewin interviews evolutionary biologist Kevin Laland, who felt that some of his peers were misrepresenting his work on how organisms can change their environments. He decided to work with them on a paper that laid out where they agreed and disagreed. It took 26 rounds of editing, Gewin writes, but they were able to publish a journal paper on the topic together.

This is a solid approach for scientists who find themselves in disagreements with peers. Such collaborations can help scientists hone their work. And by working together, scientists can avoid needlessly or unintentionally maligning one another’s research in the media or other public forums.

Dealing with disputes constructively can also help the public see that established science remains clear. It’s easy for contrarians to take disputes like the one Laland had with his peers to falsely argue that scientists are divided on core, established science.

Bad-faith criticisms from outside the scientific community require special responses

Science in an Age of Scrutiny -- UCS

UCS’s guide to dealing with scrutiny of one’s work.

Unfortunately, scientists have to deal with criticisms of their research from politicians, ideologues, industry groups and a peanut gallery of bloggers, too. When people from outside the scientific community attack research, they usually play by the rules of political campaigning (anything goes) rather than the rules of scientific discourse (you have to prove what you claim).

In those cases, scientists need to be more careful. The people attacking them are often interested in undermining a scientist’s reputation, not learning or finding common ground. So rather than responding piece-meal to critical blog posts or Twitter messages, scientists should consider publishing a comprehensive FAQ that answers all the criticisms they’re receiving. That way, they can easily point people to it — making responding less time-consuming — and make it more difficult for critics to twist their words.

Communicating the science well is necessary, but often insufficient

I loved this line in the article from meteorologist Marshall Shephard: “If we aren’t there speaking on the science, people skilled in messaging, such as attorneys and lawyers, will fill the gaps.”

He’s absolutely right. It’s equally important to bear in mind that when scientists speak about work that has bearing on public policy issues, their audience is often “filling in the gaps,” too, based on their own values and preconceptions.

Gewin cites research by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who found “that researchers can boost acceptance of their message when they rely on highly regarded, apolitical sources of information and visually present statistics that invite the audience to draw their own conclusions.”

Developing Create Dialogue on the Issue of Climate Change

Jeff Kiehl at the National Center for Atmospheric Research leads audiences in guided discussions about how they want to respond to scientific findings. This is an excellent model for scientific talks and it’s one other researchers can emulate. Click here to watch a recent webinar he conducted for the Climate Voices project.

I think that’s often true and I think scientists often need to do more, too, especially on issues audiences perceive as contentious. For instance, an ecologist presenting to a group of ranchers should bear in mind what’s important to that audience and that audience’s values. Ranchers are probably most interested in keeping their ranches thriving, for example, which can depend heavily on changing temperature and precipitation conditions. At a basic level, helping an audience see why science is important for them should be part of scientists’ communications checklist, too. And if the audience’s preconceptions about the science have been clouded by politicians and interest groups, it’s even more important.

Scientists can also be transparent about their own values. In an important lecture he gave last year, NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt argued, “In my view, it is impossible to divorce public communication from advocacy, and scientists should not even try. Instead, we should acknowledge and embrace the terminology and, in so doing, define clearly what our own values are and exactly what we are advocating for.”

On topics like climate change especially, Schmidt is absolutely right. People already have strong perceptions about what motivates climate researchers, so it’s important for climate scientists to tell their own story.

Schmidt also rightfully points out that seemingly uncontroversial things like advocating for better discourse around scientific topics or advocating for increased science funding also involve value judgments about which scientists can and should be transparent.

What’s effective, what’s right, and accounting for individual tastes

I was also happy to see the Nature piece because so much of the discourse about advocacy and communication in science strikes me as theoretical rather than practical.

We can spend a lot of time arguing about what scientists “should” do, but the scientific community is incredibly large and diverse. Individual scientists will continue to advocate and communicate with their own distinctive styles and goals. Therefore, the most important question in my mind is how individual scientists can communicate most effectively to specific audiences.

It’s also worth acknowledging that scientists don’t give up their free speech rights – or their duties as citizens and recipients of taxpayer-supported grants – when they get their PhDs. They can approach science communication as a craft and improve their skills over time.

If there’s a common theme in Gewin’s piece, it’s that science communication is a long-term learning process; that’s absolutely the healthiest perspective.