Chris Mooney offers a few suggestions on how the scientific community can win back its political influence in America.

From the FEB/MAR 2006 issue of Seed.

megaphone.jpg Credit: Lise Gagne

I recently spent two and a half months during a book tour across the United States speaking about political attacks on science. At universities from Caltech to Oberlin, I heard a recurring series of questions from my audiences: How can scientists combat the political distortion of science? How can they defend evolution? How can they win back America, and better translate what they know for the public?

These aren’t easy questions to answer, since they go beyond hard and fast matters of scientific accuracy and into the more nebulous realm of political communication and strategy. So over the course of my travels, I began to formulate my response, mindful of the conditions that have prompted such a political awakening among scientists in the first place.

What the scientific community—not just scientists, mind you, but people who care about the role science plays in building a better society—is realizing is that scientific knowledge itself is politically vulnerable. We’ve seen the Bush administration’s assaults on science on issues ranging from climate change to Plan B emergency contraception (the “morning after” pill); we’re witnessing a newly resurgent anti-evolutionist movement that’s spreading community-to-community and state-to-state. And we’re frustrated with a national media that seeks to hear “both sides,” even on subjects (like evolution) where no scientific debate actually exists.

Coming to grips with science’s newly exposed political and cultural vulnerability will require scientists to emphasize a rather different set of skills than they’re used to privileging. Although it’s not true of all scientists, too many have grown accustomed to the security of their labs and university communities, occasionally lamenting the American public’s poor understanding of science but doing little in a concerted way to improve it. And small wonder: American science rewards the publication of peer-reviewed research, but offers little incentive for scientists to communicate and translate what they know to the public. So scientists in the US have little practice when it comes to crafting a message or winning a political debate, and their inexperience sometimes leads to ill-advised actions that have the tendency to backfire.

It’s becoming possible to craft a communications strategy that’s based on a rich understanding of how the human mind actually operates.

Consider the scientific community’s engagement (or lack thereof) with the anti-evolutionist Kansas State Board of Education. When the Board called hearings on evolution, the scientific community boycotted. When the Board began to rewrite state science standards, compromising biology education, the National Academy of Sciences denied the Kansas Board permission to use their copyrighted educational material. The scientific community’s distrust of the Kansas Board is understandable. But such actions make scientists look like haughty snobs and elitists who simply refuse to engage with ordinary Americans—an already prevalent stereotype that hardly needs reinforcing.

What we defenders of science must realize, if we want to combat political attacks effectively, is that we have much to learn about political communication and strategizing. Ideally, and in the best spirit of science, we should view the current political quandary as a problem to be addressed through trial and error—empirical attempts to determine what actually works when it comes to translating science for the general public.
Ironically, followers of regular politics are catching on to something that doesn’t seem to have dawned on most scientists yet: It’s actually possible to study empirically which public communication messages work and which don’t. It’s even becoming possible to craft a communications strategy that’s based on a rich understanding of how the human mind actually operates—one that, if properly executed by scientists and their supporters, could help rescue scientific integrity in America while better informing the American public. If we want to defend the knowledge that science has brought into the world, perhaps we should consider drawing upon the talents of researchers—social and cognitive scientists—who have brought empirical methods to bear on the study of effective political communication itself.

Take the firm Cultural Logic, an innovative communications consulting company run by psychological anthropologist Axel Aubrun and cognitive linguist Joseph Grady. Aubrun and Grady use empirical techniques to determine how the American public actually thinks and, thus, what types of messages can positively change the way they understand an issue. They stress the importance of accurate but succinct explanations that can help the public get past cognitive blocks that impede their understanding of complex issues.

The firm Cultural Logic suggests talking about a “carbon dioxide blanket” encircling the earth.

Facts alone, note Aubrun and Grady, aren’t enough to educate people; instead, facts must be carefully packaged (or “framed”) in the context of narratives or explanations if they’re to enhance knowledge. Consider the technically complex issue of climate change, where attacks on science have been rampant and the public has been deeply confused. Grady and Aubrun have found that as an explanation, the “greenhouse effect” simply confuses people. Few Americans have any firsthand experience of greenhouses, and they don’t grasp the proposed analogy between carbon dioxide (a gas) and glass walls. So instead, Grady and Aubrun suggest talking about a “carbon dioxide blanket” encircling the earth—an explanation that instantly helps people understand why a heating effect is taking place. Sure, it’s a metaphor and shouldn’t be taken literally. But then, so was the concept of an ozone “hole”—a phrasing that instantly allowed the public to understand the issue of ozone depletion and that helped to galvanize political action.

When it comes to defending evolution, another communications thinker—the celebrated Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff—has other useful suggestions for the scientific community. The United States is, of course, a very religious country; one in which many fundamentalists attack evolution but also one in which many moderate Christians support it. In this context, Lakoff explains that scientists ought to be defending evolution by highlighting scientists who are able to reconcile evolution with religious faith. The ideal messengers to reach the public on this issue, then, would be evolutionary biologists who are also practicing Christians. People, in short, like Brown University evolution defender Kenneth R. Miller, a practicing Catholic and author of the book Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution.

Similarly, Lakoff agrees that scientists did a poor job dealing with the Kansas Board of Education. What they should have done instead, he suggests, was to launch a comprehensive national campaign to explain evolution to the public, emphasizing how “converging evidence” from a wide range of areas—the fossil record, radioisotope dating, genetics, and many other disciplines—all independently confirm and strengthen the evolutionary account. In short, the scientific community should be promoting a positive message that teaches the public why evolution is such a powerful scientific theory, and about how scientists weigh evidence.

These are just a few suggestions from communications experts who are themselves scientists, and whose work is oriented toward finding scientifically-tested solutions. Their empirical approach to communication ought to be second nature to scientists more generally, and to those of us who care about science. But it isn’t. To be sure, most scientists have figured out how to communicate to their classes or to explain their work at dinner parties. But the American public doesn’t have the same level of background knowledge, or the same attention span. It learns in sound bites; in brief snippets at best.

Those of us who care about science had better learn to address and win over this audience, and not just on specific issues like evolution and climate change. We must also explain the nature of the scientific method and the societal importance of scientific knowledge. “One of the biggest explanatory holes that’s waiting to be filled by somebody is: What is the role of science in a democracy?” notes Cultural Logic’s Joseph Grady. It’s a massive challenge, but then, so was every other challenge that scientists have faced. Luckily, the scientific method has led to spectacular successes. Now we must apply that method to the greatest and most crucial challenge of all—teaching the American public.

Originally published February 13, 2006

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