Herding cats and framing science

Plenty of e-ink has already been spilled regarding the panel on “Changing Minds Through Science Communication: a panel on Framing Science,” from this past weekend’s NC Science Blogging Conference (see Larry Moran, Rick MacPherson, Molly Keener, and Ryan Somma for examples). The panel was the least “unconference” session of the meeting, beginning with 10 min presentations from ocean conservationist and marine biology bloggers Jennifer Jacquet and Sheril Kirshenbaum followed by Chris Mooney, Sheril’s co-blogger, freelance writer, and author of The Republican War on Science and Storm World. The presentations were then followed by a vigorous Q&A discussion that ran about as long as the formal presentations (30-35 min).
At the relative last minute, your humble blogger was asked to introduce the panelists but planned to sheepishly allow the panelists to self-moderate. When I tried to sneak away, Chris Mooney said, “Well, you should at least select the questioners,” and I became the accidental moderator of the discussion. As compared to the normally staid sessions I have moderated at local and national meetings of my professional scientific associations, this was a new experience as I’ve never helped to guide such a contentious discussion.

Much of the discussion focused on ScienceDebate2008, a movement begun with the help of Chris and Sheril to enlist the support of Nobel laureates, university presidents, major professional societies, and over 10,000 concerned scientists and citizens to call for a presidential debate on science. The goal is to elevate the awareness of scientific issues in the selection of the next US president.
But more broadly, the discussion centered on how to increase public awareness of science as a topic essential to everyone’s existence in the face of media centralization and imbalanced attention to the exploits of wild, young celebrities. As Jennifer Jacquet noted in her presentation about the conflicts between scientists, journalists, and bloggers, Britney Spears is the *true* enemy.
One very astute questioner (tall, stylish white hair, eyeglasses) whose identity none of us seem to recall noted that Spears’ success has been largely dependent on the development of the wireless microphone – why aren’t we bloggers and/or science journalists using this example to help educate the public about a practical application of science and technology? In fact, the subsequent keynote speaker, science writer/blogger/author Jennifer Ouellette, noted in her Cocktail Party Physics blog that science, technology, and medicine lessons are apparent in many other aspects of Britney’s persona:

There’s a science and technology angle for you right there. How does wireless work? What are radio waves? Who invented the first wireless radio technology (a fine way to bring in the Tesla/Marconi debate)? It might even be fun to talk about microphone basics and how these two rather old technologies have been paired together and used in an exciting (and lucrative) new way. . .
. . .As for Brit’s pancaked layers of makeup — chemistry! (Also a certain degree of nanotechnology, since many high-end cosmetics now incorporate nanoparticles.). . .
. . .For health/medicine: Nobody knows for sure what’s ailing Britney, but rumors abound, and a few of them are even plausible. With the appropriate disclaimers, she certainly could serve as a useful jumping off point for a discussion of how to recognize classic bipolar behaviors, what causes it, how it’s managed and/or treated, and so forth. There’s probably some interesting materials physics involved in her hair extensions and skimpy outfits — and how the heck does it all stay on during even moderately energetic gyrations? Plus, check out those spiky-heeled boots: there’s some simple physics involved in how much pressure those kinds of shoes place on a woman’s feet. How about the physics of how she and the other dancers manage not to slip and slide all over the stage?

I gained an even greater appreciation for Ouellette’s skills after hearing her speak and going back through her blog – what a gifted writer she is to have on our side – and she uses pop culture to explain very complex concepts, such as Paris Hilton in discussing particle/wave duality.
But back to the panel discussion. I found two very strong undercurrents: one faction of the audience seemed resigned to the fact that nothing can be done to elevate public understanding of science and that a presidential debate on the topic was a futile effort; the other was a somewhat smaller group of discussants who felt that we need to work with the media we’ve got (Mooney’s words, I believe) and start back toward returning science to the public discourse as it was in the days following Sputnik. A third, less-vocal group led by Gabrielle Lyon contends that we don’t give the public enough credit for being interested in science, an observation emphasized by the fact that 79% of the attendees were not scientists.
I personally took some grief in saying that a presidential debate on issues of science that affect the public would have to be accompanied by the print and televised media enlisting qualified science commentators to help analyze the discussions. Laughter and taunts ensued. But listen, the loss of science from the public discourse did not happen overnight and even a centerpiece topic like anthropogenic global warming may not be cataclysmic enough to put science back on the national agenda.
My subsequent thoughts have been how might we increase science literacy in the US, a country where more than half the citizens do not believe evolution accounts for the development of life on the planet. Sadly, I saw a fair bit of resignation on the part of scientists in the audience at the SciBlogCon – there’s nothing we can do given the current situation of our media. But I submit that we can continue to be engaged and do what we can to disseminate scientific information and its impact on society. We can speak at local Science Cafes/Cafe Scientifique gatherings. We can get involved in the public outreach programs of our universities. We can even blog about science.
But even these approaches only appeal to people who already hold an interest in science.
I was watching Chris Matthews last night on MSNBC (really) and noted his graphic that voters have become less interested in the Iraq War and are now more interested in the state of the economy. Perhaps this is where we scientists can appeal to the public about our importance. Science fuels economic development. As Josh Rosenau pointed out the other day in comparing North Carolina and Florida, North Carolina’s economic development over the last 50 years has been aided by investment in education and science infrastructure that has helped to soften the economic blow dealt by the loss of the manufacturing sector. Florida, with its ongoing public school standards resistance to the teaching of evolution, may be unwittingly stunting its economic development down the road (although despite the current school board fights, major research institutes are infiltrating the state.)
Our challenge in transforming science into a topic as media-worthy as Britney Spears is to appeal to other issues people care about. The impact of science on the economy isn’t flashy, but it is something people care about. When people I meet at a bar learn I am a scientist, they invariably ask about whether we’ll ever have a cure for cancer or whether the latest herbal remedy on the internet can help their Uncle Leo with his lung cancer. The average Joe or Joanne really does care about science, but in ways that impact them. Health and medicine are a relatively easy sell, but I also take time to tell folks other ways that science helps us, right here in our own communities:
When I get a new research grant, yes, it pays a fraction of my salary and that of my student, technician, or postdoc. But research grants also pay the indirect costs associated with the conduct of research. This means that my research grant also pays for administrative assistants, the guy who picks up my radioactive waste, the woman who delivers our mail and boxes of cell culture plasticware, the people who wash our glassware, the custodial staff, the groundskeepers, the parking attendants, the facilities and maintenance specialists, and so on. A healthy scientific enterprise doesn’t only help the scientists themselves; it has direct impact on the economic situation of a wide range of people. That’s the local story and one that might also be used to talk to the public about the role of science before we even get to issues of gadgets, pollution, health, and the technology in your automobile.
MSNBC journalist in attendance and past-president of the National Association of Science Communicators, Helen Chickering, also shared at the conference her frustrations as a science reporter in getting airtime for her stories. However, the gem that came out of her contributions was that we scientists can best infiltrate the media by becoming friendly with our local network affiliates. Local stories often feed the national networks and cable news channels, so it behooves us to establish good relationships with our local reporters.
Here’s another example – I didn’t know Sheril Kirshenbaum before she enlisted my help in an ocean issues communications group. I am not a marine biologist but I have been a huge shellfish fanatic since the late PharmDad gave me my first plate of little necks on the half-shell. No healthy estuaries, no shellfish. Too much fertilizer run-off, no shellfish. No healthy oceans, no marine creatures that currently serve as a source for some of our most interesting cancer drugs in clinical trials. More folks than I care about these kinds of consequences.
The ocean analog is another good one to help scientists understand that every effort to educate the public, no matter how small, will have impact on somebody – you know, the story about the kid who is told that throwing beached starfish back into the ocean won’t make a difference since thousands are strewn up and down the beach; the boy then holds one starfish and says, “Well, I made a difference to this one.”
We can bemoan the sorry state of our media and the attack on the conduct of science by the current presidential administration, but we can each do our own part to elevate public awareness of the value of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. To resign to the opposing forces is to give up on our future.
Addendum: As Bill Hooker alluded to in the comments below, another way to help directly is to take up the call from a Wisconsin AP Biology teacher looking for guest-bloggers to engage with her student on prearranged topics. The details are over at Bora’s place.


10 thoughts on “Herding cats and framing science

  1. A nice thoughtful post on a thorny topic. 🙂 Personally, I think Gabe Lyon is correct: we don’t give the public enough credit when it comes to interest in science. They ARE interested, just not at the level scientists want them to be. Most people want the Cliff’s Notes version, somewhere between an AP story and an in-depth discussion of the technical points.
    But occasionally someone wants to know more, and that’s where, as you say, each of us can do our part: we make a difference one starfish at a time. Integrated media platforms could — I see “could,” because it could all go horribly wrong as it develops 🙂 — help make that difference by offering more information at lots of different levels, including original papers, science blogs, hyperlinks, and so forth.
    I’m with you on not resigning the fight. Lots of other folks are, too.

  2. Personally, I think the problem is that the general public thinks science = boring. They are thinking of what they have been exposed to in school and memorization of seemingly irrelevant facts. However, when people ask me what I do and we start talking about science, I can tell that they really have an interest in what science is, how science is done, and how science relates to their lives. On an everyday basis, though, they don’t equate what they are interested in with science. As scientists, we need to show them that science can be fun and interesting and not just a bunch of memorized facts and equations. One way that this can be done, is what you suggested–showing people that science is relevant to them. Sometimes scientists have a hard time doing that because they tend to see science as fascinating regardless of relevance and don’t understand why others don’t agree. This is where journalists can really help scientists.
    The problem, I think, with science and the media is that neither side really understand how the other one operates. Misconceptions about “the other side” abound and that sort of atmosphere makes it difficult for us to work with one another. I think there needs to be more opportunities for scientists and journalists to meet and discuss how we can work together. Each side has important information to share with the other and we can be valuable tools for each other. Fighting over whose fault it is that the public isn’t interested in science isn’t going to get us anywhere. Nor is throwing in the towel. We need a fresh approach.

  3. From the original post:

    we need to work with the media we’ve got (Mooney’s words, I believe)

    Uh-oh, you’ve made Mr. Grumpy come out of his shell!
    What does that platitude even mean? I thought we were inventing new media, what with blogs and podcasts and all. This is the problem with Teddy Roosevelt’s advice about doing what you can with what you got where you are: it’s not so easy to tell what you’ve got, when your resources are technological and adaptable.

    Florida, with its ongoing public school standards resistance to the teaching of evolution, may be unwittingly stunting its economic development down the road (although despite the current school board fights, major research institutes are infiltrating the state.) […] The impact of science on the economy isn’t flashy, but it is something people care about.

    OK, let’s say that you’re a scientist, I’m a concerned parent, and we’re at a PTA meeting. You say, “We have to teach evolution in our schools, because evolution is the central concept in biology, and the biotech sector is a big part of our economy.” You’ve got my attention — that’s step zero! Job well done.
    But then I say, in all innocence, “There’s a big controversy among scientists about how well-established this ‘theory‘ of evolution is. Shouldn’t we teach all the evidence and present all the points of view? I mean, our children won’t be prepared for the biotech industry if they don’t really understand the science!”
    Presto, the school board votes to slap stickers in all the biology books — “This book discusses evolution, a controversial theory proposed by some scientists” — and the money which could have gone to buy new books gets earmarked instead for the Cheerleader Uniforms account. Hey, at least our daughters will look good when they’re strutting their stuff at the Friday pep rally. . . .
    Jennifer Ouellette:

    Personally, I think Gabe Lyon is correct: we don’t give the public enough credit when it comes to interest in science. They ARE interested, just not at the level scientists want them to be. Most people want the Cliff’s Notes version, somewhere between an AP story and an in-depth discussion of the technical points.

    Sounds plausible. Of course, that’s just the level which the “old media” isn’t so good at addressing. TV can hit the “sweet spot” between a wire service writeup and a scientific journal article — witness Cosmos and Connections and The Descent of Man — but those are all major undertakings requiring significant financial investment. If we work only with those “old media”, we’re screwed, blued and tattooed.

  4. It’s a little far down the page, but I did throw in some of my thoughts about the presentation here. Like Gabe has mentioned (and as was reinforced here), I think the public really is interested in science, at least science that they think impacts them on a personal level. Everyone has an opinion about evolution, stem cells, global climate change, etc., but the problem often tends to be where they’re getting their information and what they’re basing their opinions on. Like someone else at the conference noted we can’t force anyone to pay attention or to check out a book or start subscribing to a peer-reviewed journal, but at the same time I don’t think it’s true to say that the general public “just doesn’t care” about science. They do (at least in a vary narrow aspect), but it’s what we do with that interest that seems to be the most controversial part of this entire issue.

  5. “What does that platitude even mean?”
    That Rome wasn’t built in a day? That the voyage of a thousand miles begins with a single step? That there’s no sense reinventing the wheel?
    I’ve never been much for the techno-blogger-utopian view. It’s not just that corporate media hold so many of the high cards, it’s that journalism is tough. Running a newsroom, let alone a media empire, is a full time job. The notion that I and my friends will supplant Science Times, let alone Nightline, let alone local TV news just doesn’t make sense.
    Yes, my readers, Abel’s readers, Blake’s readers and Jennifer’s readers are all better informed than the majority of people who rely on local TV for their news, but that’s because our readers know to seek out knowledge. We’ll win with that demographic, but it’s worth noting that the most popular post in Sb history remains the Pure Pedantry post about Britney Spears. That’s what the public’s looking for.
    The smart thing to do, and what Chris Mooney advocates, is using that knowledge to improve coverage. Whether it’s talking about the science behind Britney’s wireless mike or the biotech behind her physique, there are ways to talk about science in ways that people who don’t normally watch NOVA can appreciate.
    People are doing it now, and more and more young scientists are realizing how critical it is to do so, and to be at those school board meetings to respond when someone misconstrues what a theory is.

  6. I think that a nice step is science blogging. It is really exciting to have the availability of scientists in an easy to understand and interactive venue. A concept is a bit too much for the reader, no fear, many sci-bloggers or those who comment on their blogs, will happily clarify.
    So for that step to work, one has to have some interest in science already. Another great tool, is fiction. In today’s culture, that means more to tee vee than books, but both are important. With shows like the CSI franchise and Numbers being as popular as they are, I think it is easy to say that tee vee can be a great venue to rouse interest.
    The last important issue, is one with no easy answer, that of the personalities. Getting to the kids is very important. Mr Wizard was absolutely brilliant at this, unfortunately, the best to come since is Bill Nye and even he doesn’t measure up. Several other kid’s science shows, range from abysmal to downright schizophrenic.
    We also need folks like Carl Sagan. Seeing him speak when I was eight and again when I was eleven, probably did more than any other single thing, to rouse my interest in science. It would be wonderful to see more personalities like his out there. Those who can so eloquently describe the awe-inspiring wonder of the natural world.
    Considering this, something that could also be helpful, would be to put some focus, not just on common or visible applications of science (though I think this is absolutely brilliant and a great thing to see), but on the things we don’t understand or have a hard time grasping. The big bang, the notion of truly dizzying years of time.
    Ultimately, I think the most important thing, is to draw the children. Kids tend to have a natural interest in science and how it can explain aspects of their world. Once they are hooked and hooked fairly solidly, they are in for a lifetime of curiosity and enjoyment. They are also in for a lifetime of awe and wonder.
    One last note. I also think it would be helpful to get away from this interconnection of science and atheism. Give people enough of the awe and wonder that can be found in the natural world and religion will naturally become less and less important to them. When they realize that the natural world is full of sacred, even spiritual notions, that have nothing to do with faith or religion, the religion becomes rather hollow in it’s face.

  7. Britney Spears is the enemy, huh? Well if we can’t beat her by talking about her wireless technology and anti-depressants, why don’t we join her?
    Science is not boring. Maybe the problem, though, is that scientists are boring. I agree with DuWayne that we need more inspirational speakers, more great communicators who are willing to give science an attractive face. More celebs, Britney style.
    The problem is that many of us look down on “pop science”, and are especially snobby about scientists we believe to be media whores. (I should probably disclose that I’m in the UK, where I think the science establishment’s disdain for performance art outdoes any other country’s). So even those scientists who have the skills to become the Britneys of our trade are relucant to do so.
    As for blogging, well, I do it (http://www.wisdomofwhores.com). But I don’t know of a single colleague in Europe who regularly reads science blogs (or any blogs for that matter) let alone writes them.

  8. Elizabeth Pisani –
    There are plenty of Euro science bloggers, a couple who blog here, at Seed’s science blogs. There are also quite a few people who comment on them. Hell, mine isn’t even a science blog, though I occasionally touch on issues related to science and about half my hits are from European and middle east educational institutions.

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