23 May 2012

Self-defeating prophecy

Here’s a screenshot of day two of the Sackler colloquia on science communication from the National Academy of Science, where the most diversity you see is in tie colour. (That John Holdren is a wild man. A coloured tie?)

Now, admittedly, these are all presidential science advisors. By definition, you have to have attained a certain stature to be a contender for that gig. And it’s a historical group, in that it reflects appointments that in some cases happened decades ago.

But looking at this picture made me look at the speaker list for the Sackler colloquia. How many speakers are not old white guys? Maybe a quarter to a third to the speakers were women. (Update: 8 out of 36, or 22%. From here.)

Fortunately, this didn’t reflect the actual number of audience members, which Jamie Vernon estimated was more than half women.

Even David Pogue, who lit up the room with a killer talk, showed this slide as an example of scientists who are skilled at communication.

While better on diversity, I was disappointed that he showed this as an example of the current state of the art in science communication. He includes someone who is dead (Sagan) and someone who isn’t a scientist (Gore). That’s our A-list team? One, maybe two, living scientists as skilled communicators?

I do not recognize the woman in the lower left corner; can anyone help identify her? It was someone Pogue interviewed for one of his PBS series, which he followed with the joke: “There is a non-white, non-male scientist.”

I will say that Pogue’s talk exemplified one important lesson: he is willing to show himself looking silly and vulnerable. You have to be willing to put away your ego to communicate.

Then there was the irony that I was better able to tweet about the meeting while I was in my office in Texas than someone who was actually in the room. The previous day, Karyn Traphagen had been tweeting about the talks (which was how I was able to learn about the meeting). This morning, she tweeted:

I have to leave the auditorium whenever I want to tweet or be online.

When it got asked online if there were any professional science writers on the agenda, David Ropeik wrote:

Intense politics over the agenda led to control by some academics gently but firmly dismissive of those w/no academic (background).

Combine these with complaints about mediocre PowerPoint on the previous day, and watching these colloquia has become an object lesson in why science communication is struggling. There are useful lessons here, but not in the way it was planned.

Update: There were no Republicans on the presidential science advisor panel. That’s another interesting indication of how the Sackler meeting was planned.

Related links

Science communicators need to lead by example


Kyle said...

I find this comment interesting: "Intense politics over the agenda led to control by some academics gently but firmly dismissive of those w/no academic (background)."

What is NO academic background? Is a BS/BSc in science enough? MS/MSc? How about those "alternative" careers post-Ph.D. that are always mentioned (and which most Ph.D. holders must resort to in lieu of a tenured faculty position)?

Heck, I don't know if I'll ever have a faculty position, but if I worked as a science writer, would I be qualified enough? Just because Carl Zimmer isn't a scientist, he's a great communicator of science. Scientists can read his work and follow the science. That seems a big enough hurdle for me.

Anonymous said...

What is the point of having people just because of their skin coloration or the shape of their genitalia? "Yes, I will select you because your match the blackest spot on my skin color chart" I would rather go for quality, than some arbitrary flavor of the month PC acceptable bozo.

Zen Faulkes said...

Ponto: I do not suggest having someone on only because of their sex of ethnicity.

I do suggest that there are plenty of people who are neither white nor male with relevant expertise and skills. And when there are such people, it’s bad to pass them over.

This won't happen in every case. If you want a panel on presidential science advisors (an interesting topic), you’re restricted in who your guests can be. The picture could not be anything but white men. But there’s no reason the entire conference has to look like that.