Scientific Alert: The Medium is the Message


Marketing for Scientists, How to Shine in Tough Times. Kuchner, M. J. 2012. Island Press, Washington, D.C. 236 pp. $19.95 (paperback). ISBN 978-1-59726-994-0.

Presentation Skills for Scientists. Zanders, E., and L. MacLeod. 2010. Cambridge University Press, NY. 68 pp. $36.99 (paperback includes DVD). ISBN 978-0-521-74103-3.

Successful Science Communication. Bennett, D. J., and R. C. Jennings, editors. 2011. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K. 462 pp. $40.00 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-521-17678-1.

When I taught a course in science writing at the University of Alberta in Canada, I asked my students at the outset who they thought the most famous scientist in the country was at the time. Nine times out of ten, the answer was David Suzuki, a geneticist who once taught and conducted research at the University of British Columbia.

I then asked them whether they thought he was the best or most accomplished scientist in the country. Ten times out of ten, the answer was an emphatic “no.”

Why then, I asked, is he so famous?

After some discussion, the answer became crystal clear to all. Suzuki was famous because he was (and still is) a great communicator. Before he went on to host the Nature of Things, a long running television program that focuses on a wide variety of scientific issues, he helped found the immensely popular Quirks and Quarks, a one-hour radio show that continues to be produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and is heard in several countries. The success of those vehicles helped him launch a foundation that strives to shape public policy in an intelligent, scientific way.

Suzuki is not alone in his ability to communicate and frame complex scientific issues for the public. On the issue of climate change, we have James Hansen from NASA's Goddard Space Institute for Space Studies. On astrophysics, there is Stephen Hawking, and on water, David Schindler tops a long illustrious list. Not so long ago, we had James Lovelock championing conservation biology even though he is a chemist with a PhD in medicine.

There are, of course, many other scientists who are just as worthy of mention. But the fact remains that there are few members of the public who can tell you that Serge Haroche, David Wineland, Sir John B. Gudron, Shinya Yamanaka, and Saul Perlmutter were all recent Nobel Prize winners, that Stephen R. Carpenter was the most recent individual winner of the Stockholm Water Prize, or that William Laurance, Patricia Majluf, and Richard Primack were recent recipients of conservation biology awards.

There are many reasons for this disparity between public perception and what goes on in the scientific world. Rarely does a breakthrough today come from a small team of researchers led by a charismatic figure such as E.O. Wilson, Rachel Carson, Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, or Jane Goodall. Look through any scientific journal, including this one, and you will see that almost every article has multiple authors. This makes it difficult for the public to put a face on the research that is being conducted.

Science has also become increasingly specialized, and by default, exclusionary. More often than not, this is unnecessary. Take the study of geology, for example. There was a time not so long ago when concepts such as continental drift, paleomagnetism, and seafloor spreading were not beyond the realm of public understanding.

But as the American writer John McPhee brilliantly noted in his book Annals of the Former World (1998), the language of geology got derailed somewhere along the line. “Someone developed enough effrontery to call a piece of our earth an epieugeosyncline,” he wrote. “There were those who said interfluve when they meant between two streams, and a perfectly good word like Mesopotamian would do.”

McPhee could have applied it to conservation biology, which has come up with terms such as contingent valuation method, evolutionary-ecological land ethic, hedonic pricing, and romantic-transcendental conservation ethic. Pity the journalist then, or the person in the audience, who tries to figure out the difference between interference competition, interspecific competition, and intraspecific competition.

Scientists who use words and terms like these—and they are in the majority based on my thirty-plus years as a journalist—may be comfortable when they talk to each other, but when put in front of a crowd, or the media, they are hopelessly inept in communicating what it is they want to say. This can be both socially awkward and professionally dangerous, especially for scientists who are looking for a job or promotion or trying to influence public policy.

In the quarter century since William Bodmer (1985) tabled his landmark report on the Public Understanding of Science in Great Britain, for the Royal Society, there has been no end of books, education programs, and courses designed to help scientists, policy makers, and the media explain science to the public. Three of the most recent offerings approach the subject from different angles. In Marketing for Scientists, Marc J. Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, points out that science in the United States (and this could apply to most other western countries) has gotten a lot harder because of economic pressures that are compelling governments to cut their budgets and by cultural developments that have given rise to antiscience sentiments. Scientists, he warns, can no longer rely on journalists to communicate for them because newspapers are dropping science sections for lean news-you-can-use coverage.

The answer, he advises, is to get out there and market yourself. What follows is a step-by-step guide to success, which can be useful, albeit simplistic, and fun to read. I particularly liked the section “Archetypes and Scientists,” which young scientists can use to help brand themselves. Consider, for example, Carl Sagan as the innocent, Stephen Hawking as the hero, Jane Goodall as both caregiver and hero, Richard Feynman as joker and Richard Dawkins as the outlaw.

“Like Coca-cola advertisements, it's [marketing] a way of connecting to the public,” says Kuchner, who has contributed to more than 100 research papers and published articles in journals such as Astrophysical Journal, Nature, and Astrobiology. “It explains why people don't just like the taste of Coke. They love it like they love the familiar innocence of a Teddy Bear.” Kuchner goes on to discuss public speaking, the internet and emails as ways or tools for promoting oneself. Being a country music songwriter, as well as a scientist, he understands that to sell something you have to know what the other side wants and needs.

A stripped down, more practical version of this kind of approach can be found in Presentation Skills for Scientists, which comes with a DVD. It was written by Edward Zanders and Lindsay MacLeod, specialists in the field of communication. The book is aimed at busy scientists who have no formal training in presentation skills, but are often called upon to present the results of their research. Initially, I thought that much of the advice offered in this book was too obvious and far too simplistic. “Look interested and show pleasure,” they advise. “Keep sentences short and simple.” But having attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1990s, when a course in etiquette was both necessary and useful for many students, I reconsidered. Sometimes, the best and the brightest scientific minds just don't have a clue when it comes to communicating with the public. This might be a good place to start. The one big criticism I have about this approach is that it is, like Toastmaster's International or a guided tour of London, a one-way form of communication rather than a dialogue or discussion that scientists like E.O. Wilson are so good at when they speak publicly.

This is important, as Simon Lock notes in an essay published in Bennett and Jennings’ book Successful Science Communication. Without a mutual understanding between scientists and the public, he argues, any attempt at discussion becomes a “dialogue of the deaf.”

Lock is a teaching fellow in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at University College, London. Society, he suggests, has been struggling with a deficit in scientific knowledge since the 1980s when Bodmer issued his landmark report. Lock acknowledges that progress had been made by social scientists, but he argues that most of what they have to offer has been rejected by the public and by policy makers because it is impenetrable.

Although a lot of old ground is covered, this book stands out because the editors have used various authors to frame the subject in a way that most everyone can understand. For example, it helps that James Hannam, an author and graduate in physics who now works for Ernest and Young LLP, describes in one chapter how and why scientists have attempted to educate the public since ancient times. For Greek philosophers such as Plato, science was status—a way of earning respect while making a living. For the Romans it was more about art. In the early modern and modern era, science came to be seen as a tool for reform, a form of entertainment, and a platform for progress.

Gone are the days, however, when science was seen as “a disinterested search for the truth,” as Richard Jennings points out in his essay in the same book. Jennings is an affiliated research scholar in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. We now use science, he suggests, to exploit natural resources, create pharmaceuticals as well as household products with ingredients so small they can enter the human body in ways that were once unimaginable. This kind of science, says Jennings, raises a number of ethical issues that could, in theory, result in a widespread antiscience movement if scientists lose the trust of the public.

We've seen this playing out in the climate-change debate in recent years. Despite overwhelming evidence that supports the fact that we are heating the planet at an unprecedented rate in human history, there are still a lot of people out there, including many politicians and a few scientists, who don't believe it.

As a journalist, I am tempted to argue that this is not the fault of the media. I like to think that scientists and journalists are on the same side. But I know that the late Stephen White was correct in dispelling that myth in the essay he wrote in Bennett and Jennings’ book. The media today comes in too many forms to be counted on to be as reliably intelligent and predictable as scientists would like journalists to be. Just watch Fox News or scan through blogs on the internet and you will see what I mean. It's a mine field out there, and if a scientist asked my advice, I'd tell them to be very careful where they tread these days.

That doesn't take scientists off the hook. Rightly or wrongly, some scientists simply refuse to frame the results of their research in a way that is meaningful to the public. In his essay in the same book, former New York Times writer Andrew Revkin points to the scene in Paris on 7 February 2007 when the lead authors on the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2007) tabled their report. The media largely ignored one of the authors, Susan Solomon, because she insisted that it was not her role to prescribe policy options. Coauthor James Hansen, however, went on to do just that and then followed up by publicly criticizing President George Bush and endorsing Al Gore for the presidency. Revkin wisely takes no side in this debate, but he does a terrific job of explaining why there was no clear winner in scientists’ approach to climate communication.

There is no doubt that books such as these have something to offer scientists who are trying to develop or improve their communication skills. But science would be better served, I believe, if more universities made it mandatory for students to take a course in communication. It's not going to solve the problem entirely—not all great minds can be trained to do everything—but there would be less need for remedial training and self-help books such as these. Would I use any of these books if I were still teaching the science-writing course? I likely would if students insisted on me recommending something in print. But based on what I have learned in the classroom, there are, as there are in all things in life, better ways of teaching people a skill than simply getting them to read a book on the subject.