Category Archives for Science communication

Beyond the Blame Game: Harvey’s Climate Coverage Shows Us How to Responsibly Respond to a Disaster

Climate scientists, science communicators and journalists have been doing a great job responding to Hurricane Harvey. This is the result of many years of hard work and lessons we’ve learned about being heard clearly amidst a disaster.

Not Communicating in Not an Option

There’s always discussion about climate change after a major weather event. Scientists can participate in that discussion or cede ground to climate deniers. This time around, I heard almost no one in my field say that we needed to wait days or weeks to talk about the long-term changes to our planet that are making storms like Harvey worse. The accelerated news cycle has probably contributed to that, but it’s also a strategic choice and a good one.

It’s About Trends, Not Just Today’s Storm

For years, journalists would ask scientists, “Can we blame this storm on global warming?” It’s a natural instinct and “blame game” style questions are often an outgrowth of how media outlets tend to cover politics. For scientists, research on attributing single events to climate change is not that far along. By contrast, the science linking long-term trends in sea level rise and heavier precipitation to making ALL coastal storms worse is quite clear. And importantly, it’s the latter science that is best suited to informing rebuilding and planning decisions.

Unfortunately, when scientists would answer “blame game” question by saying, “No, but…” journalists would naturally write stories downplaying climate links to storms. Scientists have learned their lesson. Now they say, “Here’s what we do know…” and talk about the long-term trends. Many journalists, too, have invested more time and energy in climate coverage, putting today’s storms in deeper context.

All the Pieces Matter

It’s impossible to separate politics from discussions of disasters. Harvey shows us how civic planning, long-term climate adaptation and community resilience intersect. ProPublica’s in-depth reporting on Houston’s infrastructure is a must-read. Hopefully, other cities will take heed before the next disaster strikes. And hopefully Houston can rebuild in ways that offer more protection to people. Disasters also remind us that our neighbors are often our best source of protection. Deep community organizing isn’t just something we need to strengthen our politics – it’s something we need to strengthen our relationship to one another as neighbors.

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Seven Guidelines for Making a Newsworthy Science Press Release

Every once in a while, someone in media or communications will declare the press release is dead. But the truth is that it just keeps evolving. And if you need to send information to a whole bunch of journalists at once…well, you need to write a press release. Understanding what goes into a good science press release is critical not just for scientists who have to write one on their own, but also for scientists who need to make sure they’re on the same page as their institutional communication staffers.

So here are seven guidelines to keep in mind when writing a release. BUT first – make sure you have your main messages done. Those need to get reflected in a release as well as any other communication you’re doing.

We should also define our terms before we dive in because I often hear the terms “press release” and “statement” used interchangeably, but they are definitely two different things. A press release is about something new and is written like a news story. A “statement” is a reaction to something else happening in the news and includes a quote from a credible source. In many ways, the purpose of a press release is to advertise a possible story to a journalist. By contrast, the purpose of a statement is to give a journalist a quote they can drop into a story they are already writing.

Okay, let’s get into it!

1. Press releases are for the press, not other audiences.

It feels odd to have to say this, but press releases should be written for journalists first and foremost. Too often, I see releases loaded up with attempts to market a university, sell a product, or propagate some political spin. Journalists don’t want that kind of fluff. They need hard news, facts and figures, and quotes that help put research in context for their audience. Using a press release as a conduit for other types of communication is a recipe for having reporters ignore the message. Further, doing so dilutes journalists’ impression of a source as relevant and useful, making them less likely to respond to future releases.

So the main thing I ask when editing a press release is this: Does it help a journalist do their job? If not, it probably doesn’t belong in the release.

Of course, we often face institutional pressure to include a lot of extra information in press releases. People want to toot their own horns, promote their pet projects and put in more and more information. A good press officer will push back, reminding everyone that a press release’s main audience is journalists. Additionally, we have plenty of other outlets where we can post things that aren’t immediately relevant for journalists, including blogs and social media accounts.

2. Embargoed releases make it easier for journalists to cover new research.

If you can wait to promote your research, offering an embargoed copy of a press release and the research itself to a targeted list of reporters is the best way to go. An “embargo” simply means that the reporters agree not to publish until a set time and date, usually a few days in the future. It gives them time to plan on coverage, dig into the research, interview scientists, and, importantly, pitch editors on a story. Usually, only a subset of reporters who regularly cover a topic get an embargoed copy. And note that an embargo is not an “exclusive.” That latter term means that one and only one outlet gets the story.

The alternative – blasting something out “for immediate release” – can wind up hitting reporters’ inboxes while they’re working on something else and usually results in less coverage or no coverage at all.

Do reporters break embargoes? Very rarely, in my experience. And if they do…well, that means someone covered your story, so it’s not a totally bad thing! If anyone ever breaks an embargo – intentionally or not – you can ask them to take a story down, but you probably won’t have much luck. Instead, you’ll have to alert everyone else who has the story that the embargo has been “lifted.”

When to lift an embargo? Earlier in the day is almost always better, especially since so many news outlets produce morning newsletters. A 6AM embargo is common and some organizations even say 12AM as a way of saying, “really, any old time in the morning is fine by us.” And, of course, don’t break your own embargo by publishing the research on your site before stories hit.

3. Quotes should be quotable, meaning they can be inserted directly into news stories.

Don’t use quotes for expository purposes. Use them to say something about why the research matters, what was interesting about how it was done, or what scientists recommend in response to their research, e.g. personal recommendations for the reader of an eventual news story, policy recommendations, or avenues for future research.

For examples, here’s an unnecessary, expository quote: “The eclipse will last for about two minutes and forty seconds and will cover more than 88 percent of the sun locally.”

These are objective facts that can be conveyed on their own and attributed to a source without them reflecting someone’s perspective.

Now here’s an example of a quote a reporter would find more useful: “If you stay home, you’re still going to see a really amazing astronomical event, but the total eclipse is worth the trip.”

It helps answer an obvious question a journalist would ask: “So…is it worth it to drive to where people can see the totality?” And it’s the type of quote a local TV or radio reporter would want to use to help their audience figure out their plans for eclipse viewing.

Institutions should also be wary of loading up a release with quotes. If too many spokespeople try to get involved in a release, it can quickly turn into a wall of text and disembodied voices that just isn’t very useful for journalists. If other people want to be on call to help answer inquiries, great, but adding too many additional voices to a release just makes it harder for journalists to sift through it and find the information they need. And in a lot of cases, journalists are only going to quote one person from an organization, anyway.

Finally, reporters are almost never going to use fluff quotes in which one speaker thanks someone else for funding or their hard work or partnerships. Unless the contribution someone made is truly newsworthy to someone outside an institution, save those quotes for a blog post or social media.

4. Subject lines and headlines need to grab the reader.

Journalists’ inboxes and newsfeeds are full of press releases. What gets a journalist to open an email? A subject line and headline that feels timely, interesting and relevant to their beat. (And, although this should go without saying, the research has to actually back up the headline!)

So a good headline for a study might be: “New study finds NYC subways could face more Sandy-like flooding.”

It’s new! It’s local. It gives the reader the most striking finding right away. Heck yeah, they’re opening that. Doubly so if they’re a local reporter in New York City. A TV or radio reporter who doesn’t cover science stories often might even pick up on that given local interest in the subway system.

A less compelling headline would be: “Researchers find coastal flooding growing more extreme.” This is more generic and doesn’t tell the reader anything unique about the research. Importantly, it’s missing what’s new! A beat reporter who covers science and coastal regions might be interested, but the TV or radio reporter is not going to notice it.

Of course, a big study about coastal flooding might have lots of compelling findings for different locations, which brings me to my next point…

5. Make modular releases.

It’s more work, but modular releases can really pay off. If a scientific study has findings related to all 50 states, it can be worth doing 50 versions of a release, or at least version for where findings are of possible significant interest. Similarly, changing up releases based on beat can be useful. A press release about a medical device might be of interest to a policy beat reporter, a consumer reporter and a business reporter. They’ll each be looking for a different angle and might even benefit from different headlines, different lead paragraph, and different lead quotes.

Of course, that all takes more time. And there’s no way around it, good media relations work is definitely time consuming.

6. Give reporters everything they need to do a story.

Press releases should have email addresses, phone numbers and relevant handles for a press officer and / or lead researcher, not just a generic contact. Importantly, releases should have a link to where the press release lives or will live online – this is critical for making news easy to share on social media, especially for journalists who may be interested, but can’t do a whole story.

Press releases should end with “boilerplate,” giving journalists additional information about a researcher, lab, or institution, including relevant links to sites and social accounts that may be useful to their work.

The news is also increasingly visual. If there are any relevant images, charts or even videos from a study, it’s good to put them online and link to them in a release. Even if there aren’t visuals to draw from, consider generating an image with a few key takeaways about the research that’s sized for Facebook and Twitter. Journalists can share those images while appending their own commentary and reporting.

7. Set your expectations and put in the work necessary to achieve them.

Journalists are understandably weary of PR people sending them irrelevant press releases and myriad follow ups. Over the years, I’ve seen the efficacy of blasting out press releases to big lists of journalists plummet. Strong results come from newsworthy, targeted pitches that are based on understanding a reporter’s beat, their outlet’s audience and their interest in a given topic. And that, of course, requires time and people power. The bottom line is that the more widely a researcher or organization wants to get coverage, the more work they need to put into making that happen.

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Science as Service: The Role of Researchers as Public Advocates

I wrote a post-Science March opinion piece for Undark.org. The bottom line? We need to do more to help people see the public service role science plays and the tangible benefits it provides in our lives. Scientists also need to take on new advocacy tasks that they’ve previously figured might be someone else’s job, like making sure people get out and vote. Enjoy!

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For Scientists, Public Engagement Means Finding Their Advocacy Comfort Zone

I’m writing a series of posts on science communication and policy for Sigma Xi, the country’s leading scientific honors society.

The first installment covers how scientists think and talk about advocacy, including some social science reviews and advice from one of my old professors and a long-time Hill staffer who recently did a stint at the Food and Drug Administration.

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The March for Science is an Amazing Opportunity, Let’s Embrace It

The March for Science went viral last week and the scientific community is trying to figure out what it means. In my mind, it’s a major opportunity for scientists to become more engaged. Those of us who have worked in science policy and science communication for years should welcome new colleagues and friends aboard, share what we know, and help make the marches and associated events a success.

It’s also a good time for us to get real about the relationship between science and politics as well as each of our individual and institutional takes on what engagement, advocacy, and political action really mean.

Here are a few more thoughts:

The marches are part of a growing suite of engagement options for scientists. Scientists are increasingly interested in getting involved in policy and politics. The institutions that serve them have invested a lot of new resources on this front, but many scientists seem to be wondering if that’s enough. Indeed, part of the reason we’re seeing viral responses to efforts like 500 Women Scientists, Indivisible, Rise, the Women’s March, 314 Action, and now the March for Science is that people are looking for answers through new channels. They feel major urgency and they aren’t seeing that reflected wholly by the leaders in their community. Scientific societies and advocacy groups should be excited to see so many new efforts popping up and should find ways to channel some of this great energy into concrete, effective action. At the same time, there’s no singular or perfect way to be a scientist in public life. Some scientists will want to march. Some will want to Tweet. Some will want to meet with members of Congress. Some will want to work to make their universities more welcoming for everyone who wants to do science. Some will run for office. Scientists are human, after all, and importantly, they are also citizens who will interpret what citizenship means differently. The key is being clear about our values and what sort of public engagement we think is effective and why.

Scientists have marched before and it’s been super cool. In 2012, Canadian scientists marched on Parliament to protest cuts and censorship. By all accounts it was a successful event that helped highlight the valuable role science plays in public life. Similarly, when 500 Women Scientists participated in the Women’s March, I think everyone felt great about it, including other marchers who yelled, “Yay science!” when they saw researchers in lab coats. A scientists’ rally outside the American Geophysical Union last year was similarly well-received. Bottom line: this is not unprecedented, though the size and scope of this march may be a new thing for the scientific community.

500 Women Scientists preparing to march outside the Air and Space museum. THEY ARE SO FREAKING COOL!!! Photo by @this_life

We can improve the relationship between science and politics, but we can’t wish it away. American politics has radically changed in the past 10 years and the prospect of returning to the post-War, bipartisan political order seems dim. But regardless, when we say we want to “keep politics out of science,” we’re engaging in what I would bluntly call a form of politics-denial. Politicians and ideologues will always try to interfere with and disparage science they don’t like and use science and scientists they do like in service of political arguments. At the same time, political choices influence the types of science that get funded. We should also remember that the politicization of science is not new, at all. Robert Oppenheimer had his security clearance stripped because of his political beliefs, including his skepticism about nuclear weapons policy. Even Einstein found his work attacked by reactionary anti-Semites, writing to a friend in 1920: “This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.” Fast forward to today and censorship and immigration bans are having concrete, material effects on science and the scientific community’s ability to serve the public. Of course this is political and therefore “politicized.” As I wrote after the election, scientists have to do a better job grappling with their relationship to power. So many parts of our community have been sheltered from politics, but we’re really in a different spot now. Scientists have also lost a lot of power and getting it back will involve both more effective engagement on the civic, education and policy front as well as direct engagement in the political process. We have to make the case for science and thankfully, we can, because science, done well, fundamentally serves the public interest and makes people lives materially better.

Marches are open and democratic; get creative. Some scientists wonder if a march is effective. Most people who participate in marches wonder the same thing! I would say to them: find a way to participate that’s effective for you and your audience. If you’re coming to DC for the march, do you want to meet with your member of Congress or the folks who represent your field to Congress at a scientific society? If you’re hosting or participating in a sister march, can you marry that with a teach-in on a local issue you care about? That’s the beautiful thing about big, democratic events. They are what we make of them! So let’s get creative and have a good time. This is new and it’s worth figuring out what we want it to be, together.

Given the above, you can see why I view negativity about the march as premature and unhelpful. Dr. Robert Young’s essay in the NYT expressing concerns about the march, for instance, presented it as if it’s a trade-off with doing in-person civic engagement at the local level. It simply isn’t, but those sort of responses are typical of some of the negativity we often see and hear in our community when someone tries something new. Slate’s Eric Holthaus has a good rejoinder, including links to other scientists’ commentary. Bottom line: if you don’t think the march is a good idea, come up with a better one and do that. It’s a big world out there and as Katharine Hayhoe once told me, we need to do a better job building each other up instead of tearing each other down.

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More and More Scientists are Ready for Political Action

This is such an exciting time for science communication. In my ten years working in this field, I’ve never seen such an outpouring of interest for engaging with policymakers and taking political action from American scientists.

Last week, I was happy to march with 500 Women Scientists and was even happier to hear other marchers yell, “Yay science!” as they saw fellow marchers in lab coats walking by.

500 Women Scientists preparing to march outside the Air and Space museum. Photo by @this_life.

I also wrote an op-ed for ArsTechnia about why more scientists should run for public office. 314 Action, which is taking the lead on this work, has more than 400 researchers who say they’re ready to take the ultimate public engagement step and run. (I’ve pointed my site RunForScience.org their way and look forward to working with them!)

And then there’s the Scientists’ March on Washington, which just went viral overnight. Wow! This is really happening. I love it.

It’s also interesting to think back to my time working in science policy during the George W. Bush administration. It’s slightly hard to remember, but that was before Twitter became such an important conduit for the science and political press. Back then, leaks and alternative means of speaking out were a bit more cumbersome. Today, in response to the Trump administration putting a freeze on agency Twitter accounts, more than 40 “alternative” science agency accounts have popped up. And memos about new agency policies are showing up on sites as far-ranging as Gizmodo and the Washington Post.

You can delete a Tweet, but you can’t delete the truth. 

As disappointing as the election results surely were for many of us in the scientific community, it’s heartening to see researchers respond with grace, humor, and a deeper commitment to public service.

Of course, some scientists will say that political advocacy or action aren’t warranted or that scientists should stay out of politics. They’re free to think that, of course, but politics has way of failing to stay out of science and scientists’ attitudes toward advocacy are on a spectrum, from scientists that keep their heads down all the way to researchers like Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), who run for public office.

What we’re seeing right now is massive growth in the number of scientists who are finding that advocacy and political action aren’t just optional – they’re necessary to ensure that science and democracy continue to flourish.

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D’oh! How Science Communicators Can Responsibly Deal with Mistakes

I’ve written before about what to do when a journalist gets something wrong. But what about when a researcher or an institution is the one at fault? Mistakes happen, after all, from transposed figures to inaccurate press releases to the research itself getting corrected or – oof – retracted.

In such cases, science communicators should be transparent, thorough and quick to respond. It’s the right thing to do and copping to mistakes and working with journalists to correct them can actually enhance a source’s credibility over the long haul.

Take Responsibility for Corrections and Act Quickly

As a long-time NASA media staffer and former journalist once told me, when he has bad news, he wants to be the one to tell it. I think that maxim holds true for corrections. If someone else catches a mistake and starts complaining about it to journalists via comments, emails or on Twitter, a science communicator might feel like they’re on the defensive. A failure to respond quickly can even look suspicious to journalists.

When someone finds a mistake, science communicators should let journalists know as quickly as possible so they can correct it. Check to see if news aggregators and bloggers picked up the same mistake and contact them, too. Be thorough. Don’t leave a journalist out and put them in the position of having to explain to an editor why another outlet issued a correction and they didn’t.

In some cases, a mistake might warrant a more thorough review. Perhaps a key researcher got left off the press release approval email chain and now they’re going through it with a fine-toothed comb. If that’s going to take a while, it’s worth letting journalists know what’s been found so far while giving them a time by which you expect to have a fuller assessment.

It may be the case that only some of the journalists who covered a story conveyed the incorrect information. Communications staffers in damage-control mode may be tempted to just contact them and avoid having to tell other journalists who dodged the bullet that something went wrong. Don’t do it! Contact everyone who covered the story or expressed interest in it. If it looks like a journalist doesn’t need to update their story, let them know they’re probably in the clear up front: “I don’t think your reporting reflected this error or was based on it in any substantive way, but I wanted to let you know…”

If an institution blasted out a press release with an inaccuracy, they should also send a corrective note. Yes, it sucks! But they should do it anyway. Science communicators have to hold themselves to a very high standard.

This can be a messy process, for sure, but given how rapidly news spreads online and how quickly mistakes can get propagated through secondary and tertiary sources – especially partisan ones – it’s worth the effort.

Figure Out an Internal Review Process Ahead of Time

People have very different reactions when it’s time to correcting errors. It’s worth taking the time now – not when people are panicked about a potentially embarrassing or simply annoying error – to come up with a process for responding.

Save panic for the real emergencies. This is just a correction!

Assign a lead and backup in the communications team to handle corrections. Have a similar plan for how the scientific team should be engaged. Ask executives to lay out a process for when they should get a heads up and when they need to be at the table for decision-making. In short: have a plan now so the team doesn’t have to waste precious time figuring out who needs to be on a conference call or an email chain in the moment.

Everyone at an institution should agree on principles of transparency, thoroughness and speed in advance of an error. When a real correction comes along, that’ll make it easier for everyone to focus on upholding those principles rather than pointing fingers.

The truth is that corrections can hurt. Some people will react with initial denial. Our brains beg us to explain away mistakes instead of copping to them. Others may want to rush to correct the record, imagining worst-case scenarios and ruined relationships with reporters. Still others may use a correction to undermine someone internally or even try to throw them under the bus to a reporter (yuck!). More commonly, a junior staffer may find a mistake that obviously came from a superior who has sway over their placement and salary, so they hesitate to bring it up.

In science communication, everyone should feel like surfacing and responsibly correcting errors is an important, if unpleasant, part of their jobs.

Be Clear About Corrections on the Web

Along with having a ready plan with your team, it’s important to have a consistent policy for issuing corrections on an organization’s website. Consider posting a correction policy for public consumption. It’s worth being transparent.

Many media outlets, of course, are grappling with the same issues. Slate was an early adopter among news sites for using the limitless publishing format of the web to make corrections not only more transparent, but also a regular weekly feature.

Slate is relatively transparent about its corrections and even compiles them in a round-up.

Institutions do themselves a disservice when they try to bury corrections. Quietly updating web copy after a mistake has been discovered is routine. Sometimes people don’t notice. Other times they screengrab the before and after and make fun of the institution on Twitter. The Internet has a long memory and journalists have copies of original press releases in their inboxes. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. We can’t pretend it wasn’t.

So what to do? Annotations, strikethroughs and footnotes with anchor tags are my preferred method for issuing – and consuming – corrections. They allow the reader to see what was there originally and what changed and why. In extreme cases, where multiple corrections are required, it may be worth creating a corrected copy and an original copy to preserve readability, but for almost all other instances, these context-heavy systems are sufficient and respect the audience in a way that opaque updates do not.

What else?

I seriously hope I didn’t make any mistakes in this post, of course. But if I made an error of omission, let me know! I’d love to hear more about what works and doesn’t work when we have to – gulp – make a correction.

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Zombie Myths, like John McClane, Die Hard

Right before the Christmas break, I posted about climate scientists’ experiences combating zombie myths for Poynter. As we know, some myths seem to defy factchecking, particularly conspiracy theories. I argued that journalists (and scientists!) need to do more to illustrate the dangers of basing policymaking on misinformation:

“…fact-checking is based on the unstated premises that facts themselves matter and that reliable evidence is necessary to make sound policy. Climate denial challenges these very premises….If there is a main lesson we can draw from climate change coverage it is this: Explicitly stating the facts is not enough; we have to be clear about what happens when they lose out to lies.

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How Can Journalists and Scientists Grapple with Lies and Personal Attacks?

Journalists are making sense of our fractured media environment and the growing prevalence of outright lies and propaganda in American political discourse. There are some parallels to how scientists have been grappling with the same trends, especially on climate change.

Here are two key points to keep in mind as we think about more effective reality-based communication.

  1. There’s a greater need to be clear about our assumptions regarding why facts and expertise matter.

James Fallows at the Atlantic produced some essential reading on how journalists can handle Trumpian-level lies:

Our journalistic and political assumption is that each side to a debate will “try” to tell the truth—and will count it as a setback if they’re caught making things up. Until now the idea has been that if you can show a contrast between words and actions, claim and reality, it may not bring the politician down, but it will hurt.

Explaining how that assumption is being challenged – and how dangerous it is – is a job worth taking up. It’s also worth noting that this degradation of political discourse has been happening for a long time and has recently accelerated. We’re in a different place now. For journalists like Fallows – and for scientists – “facts” are still descriptions of objective reality. For political ideologues, “facts” are fluid and one’s embrace or rejection of a set of “facts” is a marker of political identity, not one’s sober assessment of reality.

As Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump supporter, told Fallows in response to his article, “There is no such thing anymore, unfortunately, as facts.” Their radio exchange is well worth a listen. They are using the same words to argue about entirely different cultural views on what constitute a “fact” and indeed, the nature of who serves as an arbiter of accepted truths in society.

Stepping back from these philosophical debates is important, too. They can be a rabbit hole. Facts and expertise are important because they are the basis for sound public policy choices, whether its how to manage a nuclear stockpile or warning people about the dangers of smoking. Political misinformation and lies are dangerous not just because they are wrong, but because they turn into terrible public policy choices that hurt people.

For instance, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) has been clear about why he rejects climate science:

“I thought it must be true until I found out what it cost.”

Trump, in a more meandering way, made a similar assertion to the NYT. They don’t embrace climate change misinformation because they are enamored of it or because they hate science – they embrace lies because it justifies the policy outcomes they want. So while factchecking their outrageously wrong claims is great, we also have to remember where the public interest rests. Ignoring climate change hurts people. Failing to plan for rising seas, extreme heat waves and droughts hurts people. Lying about climate science doesn’t reduce the harm from climate change; it’s just an excuse for kicking the can down the road and letting the problem get worse.

We don’t need an argument about why Sen. Inhofe’s misguided beliefs about climate science are wrong.  We need an argument about why he isn’t protecting Oklahomans from increased climate risks.

Finally, the lies about voter fraud are perhaps even more illustrative and damning. Trump supporters now believe – thanks to lies – that millions of people, including non-citizens voted illegally. It’s worth watching this video of a CNN reporter trying to source the voter fraud claims Trump supporters have internalized. The Trump supporters don’t care. They and the reporter have entirely different views about what “facts” are in this context.

This lie and many like it will continue to be used to justify laws that rob people of their right to vote, a right mentioned more times than any other in the Constitution. If that is not a threat to democracy, I do not know what is. So journalists can factcheck these claims all they want, but it is the policy outcome based on the lie that is the most dangerous, not the mistaken beliefs.

Facts – real facts – and expertise matter. When politicians start making up their own reality, we go to very dangerous places, indeed.

 

2. There’s a greater need to explain why you do what you do.

Because scientists and journalists both value objectivity, they have a tendency to avoid talking about what drives them to do their work. Such public discussions, they think, are too personal and they would prefer pure focus on the work. Their professional norms encourage them to play the ball, not the player and to bristle at outside criticism.

But in contentious debates, failing to give audiences a sense of why you do what you do invites them to make their own assumptions, including negative ones. For researchers, audiences make bad assumptions about how scientists procure grant money. For journalists, audiences cry out with evidence of bias or favoritism. These attacks aren’t organic, of course. They are lies told by ideologues who find science and journalism politically inconvenient.

These lies must be fought with the truth. As media reporter Michael Calderone put it:

If journalists don’t engage in such discussions, they’re ceding the debate to those looking to vilify and delegitimize the press at a dangerous moment in history when soon-to-be-most powerful person in the world has already laid the groundwork for doing just that.

I’ve written previously about how scientists can do more to explain what motivates them. Perhaps journalists can consider some similar steps.

All of our old assumptions about institutional power and norms are being challenged. Everyone who care about facts – real facts – has to step up.

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Science and Politics Post-Election: Where Do We Go From Here? Lessons from Carl Sagan

 

I have been thinking these past few months of Dr. Carl Sagan. In his last interview, conducted with Charlie Rose in 1996, Dr. Sagan said the following:

We’ve arranged a society based on science and technology, in which nobody understands anything about science and technology. And this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces. Who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it?

This was Dr. Sagan, with all his clear-eyed skepticism brought to bear on our world. But his appeal – his moral courage, really – came from his deeper, unwavering optimism for our species. These are the first two quotes from The Demon-Haunted World, his user’s guide to scientific thinking:

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Carl Sagan testifying before Congress regarding nuclear winter.

Carl Sagan testifying before Congress regarding nuclear winter.

Of course, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump didn’t talk much about science during their campaigns. This was not an election based on issues. But this was the first election in U.S. history where the role of expertise itself – be it scientific, academic or security-related – actually divided the candidates.

During her acceptance speech after the primaries, Clinton said she believed in science, citing climate change, in particular. Donald Trump, meanwhile, has called climate change a hoax. That statement, along with Trump’s pending withdrawal of the United States from an international climate agreement, drew unprecedented criticism from more than 375 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

Further, more than 1,200 members of the scientific community echoed these concerns in another letter, citing Trump’s embrace of conspiracy theories and the alacrity with which he and his running mate made discredited claims about vaccines, evolution, and the link between smoking and lung disease. They joined many other experts in making similar statements condemning Trump and praising Clinton, including Nobel Prize winners, historians, economists and nuclear launch officers.

Trump’s rise — and his narrow victory — should make us question the degree to which expertise will continue to matter in politics. We know that it does when it’s time to make policy, but on the politics, its salience is simply low and will probably remain so. Repeated warnings from experts across disciplines and across the political spectrum fell not on deaf ears, but on deeply disengaged and distracted ones. It is tempting to blame others for this problem, including politicians who abandoned their Constitutional principles to support Trump as well as media coverage that too often balanced bigotry, threats of violence, repeated falsehoods, attacks on the democratic process itself and sexual assault with email servers. But such complaints will not change anything, certainly not history.

It is therefore up to the scientific and academic community itself to become a more powerful political constituency. As Dr. Sagan once said about our planet, help will not come from somewhere else.

What lessons do we take away from this as science communicators who care about public policy? Here are a few, which broadly apply to other experts, too.

  1. While people still appreciate and respect the work that scientists do, the scientific enterprise itself is far removed from most peoples’ day-to-day experiences. We need to continue to communicate about the value research brings to people’s lives with an emphasis on memorable, accurate stories and well-tested messages, repeated often, from a variety credible sources. This must also include helping people understand why scientists do what they do, be it curiosity, a sense of service, or excitement at the prospect of finding something new.
  2. We live in increasingly cloistered information bubbles thanks to the algorithmic mirror of social media and demographic sorting. That makes it easier for conspiracy theories to spread and for serial fabricators like president-elect Trump to lie without political consequence. Social scientists, science communicators, social media companies, and mainstream media fact checkers must dedicate themselves to figuring out how they can debunk and prevent the spread of conspiracy theories in the future, lest they take permanent hold as a basis for governance.
  1. We must support, protect and defend scientists at public agencies, especially federal agencies. Environmental scientists, in particular, are going to see their budgets cut and their free speech rights squashed by political appointees, especially their right to speak to journalists. Organizations such as Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund and the Union of Concerned Scientists, where I worked for many years, are well-positioned to do so.
  1. Scientists should engage more personally and deeply at the community level and with the stakeholders who use their scientific research. And they should explore how they can collaboratively create science that serves their communities. We must combine citizen science with scientific citizenship.
  1. More scientists should run for and win elected office. Holding scientists and expertise in high esteem was an integral part of the post-war political order in the United States. That political order is dead. Scientists can no longer rely on many of our political systems and institutions to be responsive to the weight of evidence, especially on contentious issues. Instead, scientists must earn their place at the decision-making table the same way everyone else does, by organizing and participating in our vibrant, contentious, messy democratic process. Scientists will only be listened to when they build and wield power, both on their own or through allies. This isn’t just about the small number of scientists in Congress, either; we must look to scientists to become more engaged members of their local communities, serving on boards and councils, on committees and in state legislatures.

Of course, many scientists and science communicators are already doing all this. What I am saying is that we need more. Scientists who think this is someone else’s problem need to come off the sidelines. And scientific leaders have a further responsibility to foster more leadership in our community, through mentorships, fellowship programs and the simple grace of building each other up instead of tearing each other down.

Finally, we must care for each other. We need to face great difficulty with great creativity and drive. Dr. Sagan is no longer with us, but his legacy lives on in all of us who have dedicated our careers to the sciences. As Sarah Myhre and Tessa Hill put it last year: “Be brave. There has never been a more important time to be a well-spoken member of the scientific community.

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Update, 11/11 at 4PM: The American Physical Society just retracted a fawning statement about Trump’s win after members pushed back. Scientists and scientific organizations will have to choose between appeasement and opposition and it’s going to be about way more than funding.

In the Guardian, Jack Stilgore and Roger Pielke Jr. argue that scientists have to work with a Trump administration to “remain relevant” or risk jeopardizing “the constructive role that we should play in policy and politics.” This is a false choice. Scientists are already relevant to policymaking at all levels of government and opposing a Trump Administrations’ attempts to gut politically inconvenient federal science would be both a constructive and moral choice. Australian scientists faced a similar choice and they stood up for themselves and their colleagues, prompting a reversal of anti-climate-science policies from their new government.

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