Sunday, January 20, 2008

Changing Minds Through Science Communication

 
There are lots of things going on at the North Carolina Science Blogging Conference but the session I'd most like to have attended was on "Changing Minds Through Science Communication." The speakers were Jennifer Jacquet, Sheril Kirshenbaum, and Chris Mooney.1

The next best thing to being there is to watch the videotape of the session (below). I must say I'm somewhat underwhelmed. Most of the presentations seemed to be mouthing the same old unsupported platitudes that we've been seeing for the past year, including a shot at Richard Dawkins.

There's was a great deal of talk about getting US Presidential candidates to engage in a science debate sometime in the next few months [Science Debate 2008]. Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum spent a lot of time talking about this. How many people think this is a worthwhile way to spend one's time? What are the chances of it happening? If it does happen, will it advance the goal of effective science communication or is there a chance that it will do the opposite? If it doesn't happen, what message will that send about the importance of science?

The goal of the science debate is to use politics and the media to teach the general public about real science (e.g., evolution, global warming, stem cell research etc.) What if the media and politicians trump the process and use the debate to promote anti-science? Going head-to-head with these groups and trying to beat them at the framing game seems a bit naive to me. Am I the only one who thinks this? Since when have candidate debates stuck to scientific facts?

What if a candidate shows up with a list of ten scientists who think that the effects of global warming have been exaggerated, and has ten scientific papers to prove it? What if a candidate says that opposition to stem cell research is based on morality and not atheistic science? What if several of the candidates advocate teaching the controversy in biology class? Aren't we just begging for trouble? Aren't we just giving the kooks an opportunity to refute science during a "science" debate?

There's a good reason why real scientists avoid public debates with creationists. Perhaps science bloggers and science journalists should think about those reasons before promoting a debate on science. They might not get what they're wishing for.




1. Would it have been impossible to find an active full-time research scientist to participate on this panel? I find it frustrating that scientists are being criticized in a forum like this without being given a chance to present the other side of the case.

8 comments :

  1. The idea is not to have the candidates choose the panel, but the scientists and science-friendly politicians who have signed on would do the format and the questions.

    So far, using MSM journalists to do the panels has led to misdirection and "shows of hands" that really tell us nothing.

    I have talked to Shawn Lawrence Otto, who is on the steering committee and he is confident that it would be a fruitful exercise.

    As far as the Framing issue goes I am starting to thing that the forces behind it are actually starting to do more harm than good because they are creating a "meme" that scientists can't communicate. That is plainly bullshit, but if people get that idea then they may pay less credence to what scientists say.

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  2. Mike Haubrich FCD says,

    The idea is not to have the candidates choose the panel, but the scientists and science-friendly politicians who have signed on would do the format and the questions.

    So far, using MSM journalists to do the panels has led to misdirection and "shows of hands" that really tell us nothing.


    Hmmm ... let's work through the logic here.

    Scientists are really bad at communicating science. Journalists are experts at communicating so they can teach the scientists a thing or two.

    Professional journalists have done a really bad job at moderating all the presidential debates that have taken place so far.

    Therefore, if scientists take charge of the debates, we will have a really meaningful debate about important issues.

    Is that correct?

    Well, at least it might be fun to watch. I look forward to watching Francis Collins question Mike Huckabee.

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  3. There's a good reason why real scientists avoid public debates with creationists.

    Since you oppose "real scientists" (whatever that means in your worldview) against creationists, I am assuming that what you really mean is "darwinists don't debate creationists". Well, we all know why darwinists avoid debates...

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  4. Well, we all know why darwinists avoid debates...

    Yes, because 'darwinists' just make stuff up off the top of their heads without any supporting evidence, whereas over the last century and a half creationists have patiently documented countless examples of intelligent design in action!

    Welcome to bizarro world. mats will be your guide.

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  5. Larry Moran said:

    Scientists are really bad at communicating science. Journalists are experts at communicating so they can teach the scientists a thing or two.

    Larry, did you read my last paragraph?

    I don't know how you came to this conclusion from what I wrote.

    I thought I made it clear that I think that the "frame" that scientists are poor communicators is harmful because it is not true. I also thought that I made it clear that the journalists have done a piss-poor job of moderating the debates, especially when it comes to trying to find out whether or not the candidates respect the need to use science to help resolve pressing issues.

    It was Mr. Frame who proposed Francis Collins as a Science Adviser, not Shawn Otto. And I wouldn't think that Collins would be the best choice for a moderator, either.

    So,what logic are you questioning?

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  6. Matts,
    The earth is millions of years old. The noachian flood as a theory of geology is pitifully obvious mythology. You should know better, since you fully KNOW you are simply pig-ignorant about geology, paleontology and taxonomy.
    Some advice: If you don't know anything about a topic, keep your mouth shut. If not, you may swallow a fly. Or two.
    Alas, we have about as much probability of convincing Matts about his relatedness to all life as we have of convincing him that islam is not fascism. h will continue to proselitiz on this blog, mainly repeating the sam phrases over and over again; evolution is not science, it has nothing to show, the code did not write itself...he micgth as well be throwing pamaphlets. He may soon degenerate into a complete copy&paste mode.

    Matts in a nutshell: A christian bigot in every one of his opinions; a phony, bigot poser for christianity, as plain as a pea on a plate. As fake as a three dolar bill, both as a christian and as a person.

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  7. Not about the IDiots debate, but here is Nicolas Negroponte of MIT presenting his laptop computer project: One Laptop per Child.

    http://videos.howstuffworks.com/ted-conferences/1775-nicholas-negroponte-talks-at-ted-about-one-laptop-per-child-video.htm

    I think he does a good job of presenting the issues. Scientists can communicate.

    Here are some rather technical lectures by Richard Feynman. But besides the technical physics side, he does talk about how science works.

    http://vega.org.uk/video/programme/48

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  8. The damage to the public understanding of science that could be done with presidential candidates talking about science (and presumably getting a lot of it wrong considering the vast majority have not studied it past a high school level) is very dangerous.

    It would however be nice to know a bit more about who each of them turns to for science advice.

    I think we just need to realise that the direction of research will not come from Presidents and head of state, but the people in charge of the funding bodies who whisper in the ears of politicians and make them promises to get enough money to ensure the sciences are well funded.

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