This commentary was published May 16, 2010, in The Chronicle of Higher Education (registration required)
When it comes to persuading the American public about some of the most controversial issues of our time, today’s scientists too often get failing grades. Gallup polls show that only 39 percent of Americans believe in evolution, for example, while 48 percent say global warming is exaggerated and 46 percent say temperature increases are not due to human activity. And despite many recent court rulings asserting that there is no scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism, far too many parents still cling to that dangerous belief and refuse to have their children vaccinated.
Certainly some unscientific views arise from religious and political beliefs, but there’s another reason for such wrongheaded convictions, as well as for the public’s lack of scientific knowledge: Science suffers from its lack of a culture of explanation.
Scientists and engineers tend to communicate poorly in public controversies because—compared with, say, doctors and lawyers—their professions have not valued explanation. Their career advancement doesn’t depend on having lay-level explanatory skills. To progress professionally, scientists really need only to explain their work technically to other scientists—their colleagues, department heads, and granting agencies. But imagine what would happen to a doctor who couldn’t explain diseases to patients, or a lawyer who couldn’t explain the law to clients and juries. Their careers would be over.
A lack of public-communication skills also means that scientists and engineers do not think strategically about how to make their research work to their best professional advantage. For example, in 40 years as a research communicator at universities including the California Institute of Technology, Cornell University, Duke University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I never heard a researcher ask, “Who needs to know about my discovery?”
Many academic scientists might consider themselves expert explainers because a significant part of their job entails explaining research to undergraduates in their teaching. But even the most skillful scientist-teachers aren’t necessarily skilled science explainers. Speaking to “captive” student audiences is very different from communicating with any other lay audience, who often must be actively persuaded to be interested in a scientific topic.
Unfortunately, most science and engineering educators don’t even realize they need improvement. They don’t appreciate the potential benefits of communication training, so such training remains extremely rare on most college campuses. The result is that their students, too, graduate without knowing how to give a compelling public talk, write an interesting popular article, or create an engaging Web site. That puts them at a disadvantage in the job market because employers rank communication skills first in qualities they look for in an employee, according to Job Outlook 2010, the survey of employer organizations by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
Science would not have such a cultural deficit if scientists and those who educate them took a broader view of the value of communications than just immediate career advancement. They need to appreciate that their lack of skill and interest in lay-level communications limits their ability to reach audiences crucial to the success of their own research and their field. Such audiences include nonscientist administrators, potential collaborators in other disciplines, legislators, and donors. But even scientists’ communications with their own colleagues are less effective than they should be. By using the same skills that grab the attention of the local civic club or readers of a popular magazine, scientists could easily improve their seminars and papers.
Yet scientists seldom bother to emerge from their cloistered realm of jargon to learn “lay language.” They often miss even the simplest and most obvious opportunities to advance the scientific point of view in the public mind by merely adjusting scientific vernacular. Clive Thompson, a columnist for Wired magazine, suggests that scientists could short-circuit one of creationists’ major arguments against evolution—that evolution is only a theory—simply by changing “theory of evolution” to “law of evolution.” “It performs a neat bit of linguistic jujitsu,” he explains. “If someone says, ‘I don’t believe in the theory of evolution,’ they may sound fairly reasonable. But if someone announces, ‘I don’t believe in the law of evolution,’ they sound insane. It’s tantamount to saying, ‘I don’t believe in the law of gravity.’”
Similarly, scientists need to rethink their use of the term “believe” in talking to lay audiences, writes the theoretical physicist Helen Quinn in Physics Today: “For most people a belief is an article of faith; a hypothesis or a theory is not much different from a guess. … When a person hears ‘scientists believe,’ he or she may hear it as a statement of faith or a suggestion of uncertainty. Neither is what we intend.” She suggests that scientists would strengthen their authority by replacing “We believe” with “Scientific evidence supports the conclusion that,” or even “We know that.”
Beyond scientists’ being linguistically tone-deaf, their lack of a culture of explanation makes them strategically maladroit when explaining their work to lay audiences. Rather than tailoring their arguments to their audiences, they tend to believe that merely presenting the facts of their work will lead audiences to see the light on such issues as evolution.
Scientists’ reluctance to become activist-explainers of their work is one reason for the dismal coverage of research in the news media. Science coverage on the nightly news is so infinitesimally small as to be journalistic “noise”—a couple of percent of total coverage, according to the “State of the News Media” studies by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Such poor coverage closes an important gateway to science for the public, making people far less likely to understand the importance of scientific findings or consider the possibility of careers in science.
Despite poor news-media coverage, people are interested in science—so scientists don’t have lack of interest as an excuse for their failure to engage the public. According to the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2010, 80 percent of Americans reported they were very or moderately interested in new scientific discoveries.
Scientists may also be reluctant to enter the public arena because of a wrongheaded belief that lay audiences have a low opinion of them. For example, I once heard the director of a national lab declare to reporters at a scientific meeting that the public disparages scientists as socially inept, unattractive, or villainous. Yet in a 2006 Harris Poll, Americans said they trusted doctors (85 percent), teachers (83 percent), and scientists (77 percent) far more than journalists (39 percent), lawyers (27 percent), or pollsters (34 percent). According to the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2008, “more Americans expressed a great deal of confidence in leaders of the scientific community than in the leaders of any other institution except the military.”
Establishing a culture of explanation to capitalize on people’s natural interest in science would not be difficult. Better education and support for lay-level communication are essential first steps. “Communication for Scientists” courses should become a standard component of science and engineering curricula. Such courses need not be onerous additions to students’ workloads—a semester-long course would be enough to introduce them to basic techniques of explaining their work to the public. To help faculty scientists and engineers, universities should offer one-day seminars aimed at honing lay-level communication skills.
Also, more scientific associations should follow the lead of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society in establishing programs to encourage scientists’ public involvement. The AAAS operates a Center for Public Engagement With Science & Technology, and the ACS has established a Chemistry Ambassadors program. Those efforts support scientists with workshops and information about how to explain their work to students, lawmakers, journalists, and other important groups.
Scientists and engineers may argue that they are too busy to engage the public. Certainly, the demands of running experiments, publishing papers, writing grants, and managing a laboratory are considerable. But researchers will inevitably need to explain their work at some point—on their laboratories’ Web sites, in reports to administrators, in research descriptions for government agencies, and so on. By applying only a bit more effort and attention, they can make those explanations far more effective for lay audiences. They should also use a “strategy of synergy” to make one communication piece—like a news release or feature article—serve many purposes and audiences.
As the former AAAS President John Holdren—now President Obama’s science adviser—asserted in his address at the association’s 2007 meeting: Scientists and technologists need to “improve their communication skills so that they can convey the relevant essence of their understandings to members of the public and to policy makers. … I believe that every scientist and technologist should tithe 10 percent of his or her professional time and effort to working to increase the benefits of science and technology for the human condition and to decrease the liabilities. The challenges demand no less.”