What you’re getting into: 1200 words, a 4 to 6 minute read.
Paul Thacker argues in the New York Times that scientists should cough up their emails when politicians, advocacy groups and investigators request them. It’s an interesting thought experiment, but Thacker’s op-ed downplays the value of preventing scientific harassment and fails to make the case that disclosure is actually suffering as scientists defend themselves from various attacks on their work and reputations.
When research is paid for by the public, the public has a right to demand transparency and to have access to documents related to the research.
That’s true, but figuring out what constitutes “documents related to the research” gets to the heart of political and legal disputes on this topic. Unfortunately, Thacker’s piece doesn’t delve into these distinctions, despite a growing body of legal rulings on this topic.
For instance, it’s hard to think of any reason taxpayer-funded data and research shouldn’t be public, except for narrow cases like protecting patient privacy or national security. There’s also broad agreement among scientists, advocates and journalists, that correspondence with a funder about the scope and nature of a project should be subject to disclosure.
But a public university scientist’s correspondence with a colleague in which they criticize a peer’s ideas or rate the quality of a grad student’s work, for instance, should not be disclosed, scientists and academic groups have argued. Making such correspondence public, they say, harms researchers’ ability to freely bat around ideas, thus infringing on their ability to do their jobs and their right to free inquiry.
For these reasons, among others, the Virginia Supreme Court blocked a fossil fuel funded non-profit from accessing years of scientific correspondence among climate researchers. The Court said that these exemptions would prevent “harm to university-wide research efforts…and impairment of free thought and expression.”
Exemptions to disclosure laws vary greatly by state, of course – Texas specifically exempts scientific data related to oil exploration – so what gets fairly exempted in one state might not in another, or at the federal level. But it’s clear that courts recognize that there’s significant public interest in preventing harassment and protecting academic freedom at public universities.
Thacker writes that:
the harassment argument should not be used as an excuse to bar access to scientific research that the public is paying for and has a legitimate interest in seeing.
I can’t think of any scientific or academic society or group that has attempted to bar access to taxpayer-funded “scientific research.” We need to be clear here: these arguments are very rarely about access to things like scientific data. They are usually about things like funding and email correspondence.
Of course, we should sympathize with watchdog groups and journalists who already have far too tough a time getting public agencies to comply with FOIA requests. The Society of Professional Journalists, for instance, has a guide to helping reporters rebuff the many silly excuses they get, including from universities, that don’t want to disclose information which should obviously be public. But those problems with FOIA compliance are far broader than the narrow circumstances under which scientific societies and academic groups have asked for exemptions.
Further, it’s not clear that these narrow exemptions are causing the problems Thacker worries about. For instance, Thacker links to a recent freedom of information request that was rejected by a university on harassment grounds. Fair enough, but the rejection is from a British university, where freedom of information (and libel) laws are quite a bit different than they are in the United States. Further, the example involves a dispute among researchers for access to a data set, not an attempt by a politician, watchdog group or media outlet to get access to scientists’ inboxes.
Thacker also cites many examples of disclosure requests revealing corporate interference in science. Again, fair enough, but he doesn’t make the case that the narrow academic freedom exemptions scientists have asked for would have prevented any of those investigations from succeeding. Maybe they could, but there’s at least one high-profile example of an academic who tried to hide suspect financial ties by appealing to such exemptions and lost.
Thacker says that scientists contradict themselves when they embrace transparency on one front, but not another. For instance, scientists have objected to Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) demanding correspondence from NOAA scientists who authored a study that torpedoed a climate contrarian talking point. Thacker’s strongest argument is to point to another notable set of Congressional and FOIA-based inquiries targeting NOAA:
About 10 years ago, the agency released emails showing that officials in the administration of George W. Bush squashed a NOAA statement and that Bush political appointees were selecting which NOAA scientists could speak to the media based on their willingness to deny connections between climate change and hurricane activity.
Is this really a contradiction, though? Those investigations targeted political appointees in the administration who were silencing scientists. Disclosure of that political interference was clearly in the public interest. Rep. Smith’s investigation, by contrast, is much more muddled, especially since it started with questioning the validity of scientific research itself. In each case, scientists have supported efforts that prevent political interference in the scientific process.
These issues are complex and it makes sense that watchdogs like Thacker want to draw a hard line on disclosure laws. In fact, they absolutely should. We benefit when transparency advocates push for more sunlight. But trying to paint scientists as hypocritical on these issues does little to advance transparency. For his part, Thacker concludes his piece with this admonition:
Scientists who profess agreement with transparency only when it is on their terms are really not for transparency at all. The public should be alarmed.
Scientists would argue that the public should be alarmed when politicians and advocates attempt to stymie scientific research they don’t like. The argument scientists and scientific societies have made, repeatedly, is that there is a public interest in disclosure and a public interest in protecting scientists from political interference and harassment. Thacker only acknowledges the former point, arguing that harassment is the price worth paying for fuller transparency.
Transparency advocates could do more to recognize that scientists are right to stand up against political interference in their work. The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund detailed some of the costs of dealing with harassing requests in response to Thacker’s oped, too.
At the same time, scientists can do more to be transparent, too. As the public demands greater transparency from legacy institutions – including government agencies and universities – scientists are in a position to push their institutions toward proactive disclosure, including data, methods, funding sources and funding agreements.
Regardless, these disputes over harassment, funding and email disclosure won’t stop any time soon. The best way for scientists – and the public – to enjoy the benefits of transparency and freedom from political interference is to embrace proactive disclosure. If everyone in science was more transparent, the outliers would stick out like sore thumbs, and scientists would be smart to get out ahead of public demands for more transparency.
(I wrote about these issues last year when I was working at – and blogging for – the Union of Concerned Scientists.)Continue reading
I finally caught up on my reading over the holidays and was pleased to examine a rich presentation of views on science communication from the University of Michigan.
The report is based on a conference the university held called”Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse,” which featured many of the leading lights in science communication, such as Dietram Scheufele, who smartly acknowledged that most debates involving science aren’t about facts, but about the “messy space” where science and values intersect.
Similarly, former Rep. Brian Baird (Wash.-D) challenged the participants to consider what flipping the conference’s title might mean and why the idea of “public and political engagement in academic discourse” tends to give us pause. It’s a thought worth contemplating: technology and democracy are making all institutions, including universities, more open to public participation – and public scrutiny. Academics are increasingly embracing that openness, along with greater transparency about their own values.
Andrew Hoffman, who directs the university’s Erb Institute, organized the conference, which also included keynotes from NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco and the always-positive, always-inspiring glaciologist Richard Alley. Hoffman’s book on climate communication, which I’ve reviewed previously, is an excellent resource for scientists, students and citizens on how people think about climate science and climate policy.Continue reading
John Abraham has a nice writeup in the Guardian about the American Geophysical Union’s science communication work. The organization’s Sharing Science initiative, in particular, is a growing hub for Earth scientists who are looking to convey their work with everyone from kindergartners to cabinet members.
I’ve worked with AGU staff for several years on member workshops and I was particularly struck this year by how ready scientists were to think through tough communications problems.
Like a lot of people who have run workshops with scientists, I’ve often found that I need to lead off by explaining why science communication is a good thing, why it doesn’t have to involve dumbing down your message and why it’s not up to somebody else (the media, the education system) to do it for you. More than once, I’ve had scientists ask me very critical questions about the very premise of even doing science communication in the place. Not that I minded — critical thinking and openness is one of the things I love about the scientific community.
But over the past year…I just haven’t had to do that. Scientists increasingly see and feel the need for better, stronger, faster, cooler science communication. And I think it’s easier than ever – thanks to the Internet – to see what happens when ignorance wins out over reason and conspiracy theories, misinformation and just plain goofiness on science-related topics proliferate.
Other societies are doing great work, too, of course, but I suspect AGU has been out front on a lot of communications work, in part, because Earth scientists are used to dealing with public controversies on two big hot-button topics: evolution and climate change. Importantly, it’s a society that’s open to lessons from other fields, too, including epidemiologists, tobacco researchers and historians of science.
There’s a lot to learn when PhDs take on science communication. For scientists, societies are often the very first place they turn to for help. AGU is right on to create a “positive feedback” effect of their own when it comes to fostering accurate, effective science communicationContinue reading
What you’re getting into: 900 words, a 3 to 5 minute read.
Framing is one of the most important concepts in public communication. The term can get thrown around loosely, but in my mind, framing comes down to how we define problems and, as a consequence, how we think about potential solutions.
Most scientists and technical experts tend to define problems on a spectrum, whether it’s the risk of ecosystem collapse, temperature ranges for a warming planet, or the potential side effects of medication. When policymakers and members of the public approach these same issues, though, they often think of such risks in binary terms: Can we save these wetlands? Will we blow past the 1.5 to 2 C warming goal? Does this pill need a warning label?
Often, scientists wish they could help people see things their way: with the risks on a nuanced spectrum. In order to do so, they may have to speak binary first.
In 2009, Gladwell wrote, Toyota engineers were having a lot of frustrating conversations with customers who thought their cars had undergone “sudden acceleration.” In some rare cases, there were problems with people’s accelerators. But most of the time, the problem was human error: people were unconsciously hitting their accelerator, something drivers do with much more regularity than we tend to assume. Normally we just tap the brakes to slow down, get our feet back where they’re supposed to go, and go on driving. But Toyota drivers were worried, likely as a result of extensive media reporting about possible problems with the vehicles.
Gladwell elegantly captured the disconnect:
The public…didn’t think about the necessary compromises inherent in the design process. They didn’t understand that a car was engineered to be tolerant of things like sticky pedals. They looked at the part in isolation, saw that it did not work as they expected it to work—and foresaw the worst. What if an inexperienced driver found his car behaving unexpectedly and panicked? To the engineer, a car sits somewhere on the gradient of acceptability. To the public, a car’s status is binary: it is either broken or working, flawed or functional.
Toyota had to help their employees “reframe” their message. Yes, they could talk to customers about sticky pedals and design tolerance, but they first had to acknowledge that customers simply wanted to feel safe in their cars. Toyota went so far as to offer to replace perfectly fine vehicles if people felt unsafe in them. According to a management expert Gladwell interviewed, it completely turned things around. Instead of feeling ignored, customers started sending “love letters” to the company. (Gladwell doesn’t address this, but I’m assuming Toyota didn’t have to actually replace thousands of cars unnecessarily. As with many other such offers, it’s the thought that counts.)
A former colleague was testifying before Congress about fisheries once. He told a committee that there was a 95 percent chance a certain fishery would collapse over the next several years without intervention. A Congressman responded by asking him to come back when he was 100 percent certain.
If you’re a scientist reading this, I know you’re shaking your head. One of the bedrock truths in science is that nothing is 100% certain. Even if the fishery collapsed, perhaps scientists would cautiously state that there was 99% certainty that all the fish were gone based on available data.
The Congressman was demanding a binary answer: tell me if it will collapse or not, yes or no. But science doesn’t often doesn’t do binary, especially on topics that the public and policymakers see as controversial.
In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made big news when it announced that scientists were 95 percent certain that industrial carbon burning and other activities were causing global warming.
In attempting to explain where this basic conclusion of climate science sits on the certainty spectrum, the AP’s Seth Borenstein asked researchers what else in science enjoys that same level of certainty. He got some interesting answers, including the link between smoking and lung disease.
Most people, myself included, have not internalized certainty levels and percentages the same ways scientists have. What made Borenstein’s article particularly effective was that it translated a spectrum frame to a binary one:
Importantly, both of these questions are useful and both of these answers are accurate. We don’t have to choose between them and, in fact, people might ultimately need both frames to understand scientific evidence about societal risks.
What you’re getting into: about 3500 words, a 12-18 minute read
Scientists often assume that journalists are on their side when it comes to educating the public about scientific topics. That’s true for a lot of basic science, like, say, when journalists write about the discovery of a new exoplanet or explain the work of a scientist who just won a major prize. Those typically aren’t controversial topics, so scientists and journalists alike are simply trying their best to explain some cool science.
The second we start talking about anything perceived as controversial outside the lab, though, the rules of engagement can dramatically shift. It’s incredibly easy for scientists, science communicators and journalists to talk past one other when we’re dealing with topics like climate change, vaccines, evolution and genetic engineering, as well as science funding. And it can happen when journalists hold scientists and scientific institutions accountable, too.
The good news, I think, is that we can do better. And doing so requires being clearer about when we’re talking about science and when we’re talking about competing values and how science fits into societal debates.
Below, I offer a story, some observations and suggestions. I‘d love to hear more.
I talked past a reporter pretty badly back in 2011. Members of Congress had invited several scientists to testify about whether or not the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to reduce heat-trapping emissions were justified. One member — a lawyer by training — used his time to pepper scientists with loaded questions while demanding simple yes or no answers, a standard tactic at such hearings. Of course, that’s anathema to any scientist.
Here’s how a major news outlet ended an article about the hearing:
Mr. Griffith also wanted to know why the ice caps on Mars were melting and why he had been taught 40 years ago in middle school that Earth was entering a cooling period.
“What is the optimum temperature for man?” he asked. “Have we looked at that? These are questions that, believe it or not, I lay awake at night trying to figure out.”
The scientists promised to provide written answers.
Like a lot of folks working on climate science communication at the time, I thought this was a problematic ending. To a reader unfamiliar with these issues, it could sound like these were mysterious questions for which science had no good answers. (Briefly, here are answers on Mars, 1970s climate science, and why rates of change are more worrisome than absolute temperature.)
I fired off an email to the reporter, arguing — quite well I thought — that his reporting was unfair to the scientists who testified and detrimental to public understanding of science.
He told me, in so many words, that edifying the public about Martian climate variance wasn’t the point of his article.
First of all, I hadn’t been the first person to contact him, so he felt like he was getting pressured (reporters hate that) and his reporting on the hearing was accurate. That was, in fact, what happened at the hearing and an informed reader, he argued, would know exactly where the politicians and scientists stood in relation to one another. Further, his story also focused on an exchange in which a representative made it clear that climate science — and risks from industrially driven climate change — were well-established in the scientific literature.
I realized that in his mind, my complaint wasn’t really about science; my complaint was that he hadn’t beaten up a member of Congress for giving scientists a hard time.
We also had different audiences in mind. My complaint was based on the assumption that the article’s audience would be otherwise uninformed about climate science or policy. He assumed that readers would be well-armed enough to draw their own conclusions.
Maybe I was right, but that and $3.25 will get you a Chai Latte at Starbucks. The point is that I was telling him to do science communication and he was reminding me that he was doing political reporting. In the ensuing years, I think journalists have done a better job reminding readers where climate science stands when politicians challenge or reject the evidence, but the exchange taught me a broader lesson: just because a story has a lot of science in it doesn’t mean it’s going to get treated like a science story.
Journalists and scientists do both care deeply about accuracy and credibility. It’s tempting to say that it’s because the noble ideals of both professions rest on uncovering the truth and boldly going where the facts lead, regardless of one’s beliefs or biases. And, yeah, okay that’s true, but the day-to-day is a lot more brass tacks: in both professions, credibility is currency and too many errors over time can sink a career.
Real errors are a problem, of course. And scientists and journalists are both sometimes guilty of intransigence when people point out errors in their work. Regardless, both professions benefit from the self-correcting nature of the larger enterprises around them. A bad story will get factchecked by other outlets in ways that are similar to how a bunktastic scientific paper will fail replication by other scientists.
The problem I’m writing about isn’t really about factual errors, though; it’s about what happens when science-related stories move out of the lab, into the world, and yes, into the political arena. We need to be careful about how we think and talk about accuracy in that context, because it’s easy to talk past each other based on assumptions about what audiences know and what role journalism is playing in a given debate.
This is important to get right because science is still the best tool we have for learning about the world and journalism is still the best tool we have for informing the public about what those scientific tools have uncovered.
Scientists care deeply about what policymakers and the public think about their fields, especially on issues that are perceived as controversial. When politicians and interest groups seek to highlight, inflate and manufacture controversies, scientists’ desire for accuracy often puts them in the position of wanting journalists to downplay or actively challenge those outside attempts at influencing the public and focus on what is well-established among scientists.
But when those same outside interests groups focus on controversies, it’s journalists’ job to report on them. Their commitment to fairness means bringing in all the stakeholders in a debate and reporting what they believe and why, even when it cuts against the science.
So sometimes, when scientists are demanding accurate reporting, what they’re really asking is for journalists to critically assess inaccurate views from outside the scientific community. Journalists can’t always do that, especially on deadline when they’re covering noisy policy fights. I‘d argue that this often puts the onus — rightly or wrongly — on scientists to repeatedly make their views clear to journalists and media outlets. That means consistently reminding journalists what scientists have to say about these topics and why prevalent misinformation is wrong.
Of course, journalists have a responsibility, too. They can’t pass on inaccurate information simply because there are quote marks around it. Journalism professor Jay Rosen, for instance, describes several ways reporters can handle political disputes about established climate science ranging from explaining the ideological roots of rejecting climate science to simply noting what the science does say in their own journalistic voice. Additionally, media outlets have a special responsibility to report on industry attempts to influence the public and policymaking, whether on climate change or toxic chemicals.
The bottom line is that scientists and science communicators shouldn’t conflate their disappointment with some media reporting with their deeper disappointment in a society that is often simply out of step with scientists on a host of topics. It’s journalists’ job to report on science-related societal controversies accurately, but it’s not journalists’ job to actively push the public toward established science. That also means that science communicators and scientists need to think more about how they can help journalists do effective, accurate reporting around contentious societal debates.
There’s another type of complaint scientists often have with reporting on and around science: the story is going to be abused by people who want to attack the broader scientific field.
For instance, scientists understandably gripe about the “Darwin was wrong” trope that regularly pops up in biology reporting. In 2009, New Scientist even used it as the title for a cover story. Scientists bemoaned the choice, noting that creationists quickly hopped on the article as “evidence” that mainstream biology was in shambles.
Of course, anyone motivated enough to pick up a copy of New Scientist probably already has their mind made up about the theory of evolution, but scientists rightfully worry about how groups outside the scientific mainstream will use — and more often, abuse — reporting on scientific topics. It can happen with any scientific finding, even seemingly routine ones, on vaccination, industrial agriculture, dietary and nutrition choices, and anything anyone wants to pick a fight about for reasons that usually have nothing at all to do with actual science. Because scientists enjoy so much public trust, advocates always want to have science on their side, so they’ll comb through literature, trade reports, and science-related press releases and media coverage hunting for anything they can use (and dismissing what they can’t).
Ideally, media outlets should anticipate this sort of thing.
Here’s that New Scientist cover.
And here’s how National Geographic arguably handled it better with a clear message for people who bothered to crack the magazine open.
Of course, science communicators and scientists would probably much rather see something like this.
To which a science journalist might say: love the Warhol thing, but where’s the conflict for a good story?
Scientists and journalists had to artfully deal with a rather odd combination of substance and perception recently when a NASA-sponsored study — by accounts, an outlier — found that Antarctica is gaining ice mass overall even as the West Antarctic ice sheet continues to melt, as sea levels continue to rise, and as global warming goes on broadly in line with what scientists have been saying about it for decades.
At first blush, the study’s findings are a head-turner that runs counter to the simple main message the public has heard from scientists for decades: global warming melts ice and raises sea levels pretty much everywhere. Of course, there are a lot of nuances under that statement, which scientists have talked about repeatedly, especially when it comes to the rate of melting and the geographic differences between places like Greenland and Antarctica, but at the headline level or broad public awareness, this was surprising news.
Predictably, ideological media outlets that routinely criticize mainstream climate science used the study to try to throw cold water on climate science. Here’s an opinion writer taking a fat, sloppy swing at it in the UK’s Express:
Nothing like ALL CAPS to make the CREDIBILITY OF YOUR ARGUMENT clear.
Some mainstream outlets jumped on it as a surprising study. From their perspective, it wasn’t their main job to beat the public over the head with the basic science on global warming and melting ice sheets or to correct what those ideological sources have said: it was their main job to report on a new and interesting “man bites dog” science story.
USA Today, with its incredibly broad audience, probably captured that reaction best:
Other journalists and outlets, notably Chris Mooney at the Washington Post went out of their way to put the study in deep scientific and policy context. They and their editors even used valuable headline space to address potential misinformation about the study, something that almost never happens when outlier studies get big coverage.
Andrew Freedman at Mashable took a similar approach in his reporting, while the headline took on the inaccurate narrative about the study directly.
Of course, Mooney and Frbeedman are well-versed beat reporters with arguably more engaged audiences. That’s the exception, not the norm, and the onus is still on scientists and scientific institutions to anticipate inaccurate takes on new research and plan their communications accordingly.
For it’s part, NASA’s social media account tried to squeeze as much nuance as it could into 140 characters:
— NASA (@NASA) October 30, 2015
Still the agency’s press release might have done more to emphasize what is known about long-term ice loss and sea-level rise globally. Interestingly, the study’s lead author was pretty blunt about how people outside the scientific community would misrepresent his research in an interview with Nature.
“I know some of the climate deniers will jump on this, and say this means we don’t have to worry as much as some people have been making out,” he says. “It should not take away from the concern about climate warming.” As global temperatures rise, Antarctica is expected to contribute more to sea-level rise, though when exactly that effect will kick in, and to what extent, remains unclear.
Such awareness is common among scientists working in controversial fields and they should be open about it, just as public health researchers devote plenty of time and thought to how their own studies are received. It’s all about helping audiences — and reporters — enjoy an accurate view of the science.
Buzzfeed’s Brooke Borel recently wrote about controversies surrounding biologist Kevin Folta and communications work he did related to GMOs, some of which was done in coordination with biotech companies running anti-labeling campaigns. Naturally, pro-and-anti GMO forces attempted to assign ideological positions to Borel’s article, but there was another thread of more interesting criticism (at least for me). Some scientists complained that the article would 1) provide more ammo for anti-GMO groups attacking Folta and other scientists and 2) discourage other researchers from doing science communication.
Borel’s response was straightforward and sensible. In a series of Twitter messages she wrote: “As science writers/journalists/etc, we hold a strange position sometimes. I love science. I admire scientists. But it’s also my job to think about both critically. My job as a science journalist is not to advocate for science and scientists at all times, no matter what.”
Indeed, scientists are often public figures who can and should face public criticism from time to time: many enjoy taxpayer support and they are often trusted, powerful figures in society. So even while scientists and science communicators rightfully condemn politicized attacks on researchers, they should also expect and even welcome journalistic scrutiny. Another journalist, Rose Eveleth, put it well, too:
Journalists don’t work for some vast “Science Is Awesome” campaign. Our job is to report, the good and the bad. To hold folks accountable. — Rose Eveleth (@roseveleth) October 21, 2015
When scientists get involved — or unwillingly find themselves involved — in public communication on controversial science-related issues, we’re not in the world of pure science reporting any more. In these debates, scientists are just one of many actors pushing for their voices to be heard above the democratic din.
Even science education and science funding choices aren’t purely about science. As climate scientist Gavin Schmidt has argued, any societal debate that involves science also involves value judgments.
Science gets inserted into these debates in perfectly accurate as well as questionable ways all the time. It can be tough for journalists and scientists to figure out how to best respond. But I think we can all do better.
Far be it from me to pontificate about a host of complex problems without at least suggesting some solutions. Here are a few ideas for how scientists, journalists and media outlets, as well as press officers at scientific institutions can help address these issues. (I’d love to hear feedback and talk about additional ideas.)
For journalists (and media outlets)
For institutions and press officers
A few additional thoughts based on some feedback from Lexi Shultz, director of public affairs at the American Geophysical Union (and a former colleague):
On climate specifically, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research curated a lot of great resources as part of their Climate Voices initiative. If you’re interested in helping audiences sort through how their values relate to scientific findings, I strongly recommend this presentation by Jeff Kiehl, who not only has degrees in natural science, but who is also a licensed analyst. (Pretty cool, huh!)Continue reading