FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: March 10, 2010
Science's lack of a "culture of explanation" is a fundamental reason scientists too often lose in public debates over such critical topics as global warming, evolution teaching and childhood vaccinations, asserts Dennis Meredith, author of a new book Explaining Research (Oxford University Press). Scientists' lack of explanatory skills also hinders communication with their own colleagues, he said.
"Scientists and engineers tend to communicate poorly in such public controversies because--compared to, say, lawyers and doctors--their culture has never valued communication," said Meredith. "For one thing, unlike those professions, scientists' career advancement doesn't depend on having broad communication skills. But imagine what would happen to a lawyer who couldn't explain the law to clients or juries; or a doctor who couldn't explain diseases to patients. In contrast, to advance in their careers scientists only need to explain their work technically to other scientists. Of course, many academic scientists teach undergraduates, but I've never heard of a scientist losing tenure because of being a lousy teacher.
"This cultural flaw means that 'Communication for Scientists' courses in colleges and universities are extremely rare. So, science and engineering students emerge from their education not knowing how to give a compelling public talk, write an interesting popular article or op ed, or create an engaging Web site," said Meredith.
"Besides creating a deficit in communication skills, this educational shortcoming means that scientists and engineers do not think strategically about their communications," said Meredith. "In fact, in forty years as a communicator at universities including Caltech, MIT, Cornell, and Duke, I never heard a researcher ask the strategic question 'Who needs to know about my discovery?'"
However, this cultural shortcoming would disappear if scientists and those who educate them took a broader view of the value of lay-level communications, said Meredith. "They need to understand that, for example, their lack of skill and disinterest in lay communications limits their ability to reach audiences critical to the success of their own research and their field. These audiences include non-scientist administrators, potential collaborators in other disciplines, legislators and donors."
Also, said Meredith, scientists' reluctance to broadly communicate their work is one reason for the dismal coverage of research in general media. "I confess, I have been absolutely stunned by the findings of journalism surveys that science coverage by national TV news and newspapers is so infinitesimally small as to be journalistic 'noise' --a couple of percent of total coverage," he said. (He cites the "State of the News Media" studies by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.) Such poor science coverage in general media effectively closes an important gateway into science for the general public, said Meredith.
The lack of a culture of explanation also reduces the effectiveness of scientists' communications with their own colleagues, said Meredith. "Scientists can use the same communication skills that grab the attention of the local civic club or the readers of a popular magazine to improve their scientific seminars and papers."
Scientists are also reluctant to communicate in the public arena because they have been inculcated with the wrongheaded belief that the public has a low opinion of them, said Meredith. "This corrosive message often comes from the top of the science hierarchy. Too often I have heard scientific leaders comment publicly that they believe the public sees scientists as socially inept, unattractive or villainous."
On the contrary, said Meredith, surveys consistently show that the public has the highest respect for scientists. What's more, he said, Hollywood casts scientists and engineers in the role of heroes far more often than as villains. To prove the point, Meredith surveyed more than 140 movies featuring scientists, discovering that they were portrayed as heroes at least six times more than as villains. "Movies ranging from Avatar to Volcano featured scientist-heroes. And I found the same overwhelming preponderance of heroes in TV series such as CSI," said Meredith.
"And the hero-to-villain ratio is actually higher, because I found that most of the so-called scientist 'villains' were not really evil, but more often guilty of over-ambition, or suffered inadvertent destructive effects of their research," he said.
"Such findings of public admiration for scientists should not only boost their self-esteem," said Meredith. "They also mean that the next time a scientist stands before a lay audience to advocate for adequate research funding, argue for policies to alleviate global warming, or debate creationists, he or she can do so confident in having the considerable advantage of being seen as a trusted, credible, hero."
The book Explaining Research is a comprehensive communication guide that covers how to develop a communication strategy, give compelling talks and create quality Web sites, posters, photos, animations, videos, e-newsletters, blogs, podcasts, and webinars. The book also explains how to write popular articles and books, persuade legislators and donors, produce effective news releases, work with journalists, serve as a public educator, and avoid communication pitfalls. An accompanying online supplement, Working with Public Information Officers shows researchers how to develop productive working relationships with research communicators.