15 March 2010

Why science loses in the short term (but usually wins in the long term)

Over the last few months, there has been much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth about strategy and tactics over how to communicate with non-scientists, and how to regain public trust over issues like climate change. A good example of this was a recent email exchange between Matt Nisbet and Randy Olson.


When scientists... take action by responding with tit-for-tat attacks on climate skeptics, it... feeds a downward spiral of “war” and conflict rhetoric that appears as just more ideological rancor to the wider public.


There comes a point where the public DOES want to see the science community stand up for themselves.

People arguing that scientists are losing to denialists in areas like climate science because they have taken a poor approach to communication are perhaps mischaracterizing the problem. The problem of what approach scientists use to communicate with non-scientists is a real problem, but it is minuscule in these cases.

Scientists have to, you know, do science in addition to communication with non-scientists. Denialists, as far as I can tell, can devote 100% of their time to communication.

If scientists want to win, we need to find a way to support a dedicated crew of people whose job is to do nothing else but do public relations. Why don’t national academies and organizations for the advancement of science have full-time, professional communicators?

The only organization that I can think of that is even close to the sort of “think tank” person who seems to be so routinely called for media interviews is the National Center for Science Education. They do a heroic job, but there’s only sixteen people listed on staff, including some whose job is in no way related to science.

Allocation of resources is a major problem, and time is a 100% non-renewable resource. People who can devote time to that will, in the short term, win.

The good news may be that because scientists are responsible for generating new knowledge, that can help in the long term. Ultimately, denialists cannot create anything new.

Image from here.

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