Communicating research is a public service

cornelia dean

Book review:
Am I making myself clear?  A scientist’s guide to talking to the public
By Cornelia Dean.
Harvard UP, 2009. 274 p.

Journalists and researchers both have important roles to play in communicating science to the public. Anyone questioning the need for better science communication need only consider recent debates over topics including climate change and evolution. Misinformation is spread by parties with financial or political interests at stake. And even when accurate news is available, it’s not always accepted. In some quarters it’s considered a badge of honor to place faith over reason.

The public’s ignorance of science helps explain how otherwise savvy people can think that creationism or its ideological cousin, intelligent design, is appropriate for a science classroom.

It’s not news that we Americans just don’t know much about science. We tend not to reason probabilistically, we have a shaky grasp of facts, and we don’t understand the scientific process. Arguments about values are often presented as if they are legitimate scientific disputes. People become disenchanted and confused.

Cornelia Dean is a science writer for the New York Times and teaches college seminars on science writing. In this book she provides practical, political, and policy reasons why scientists and researchers should engage more vigorously in the public life of the nation.

The tectonic shift in the news industry is forcing journalists to cover science and other complex issues with fewer and fewer resources. Researchers could help. But many scorn the mass media as an arena where important research is all too often misrepresented or hyped. In fact their graduate programs and academic departments train them not to spend time on anything but research.

But Dean argues that communicating research to the lay public is important for society—and a valuable use of researchers’ time.

Communicating research is difficult for a number of reasons. There’s a poor match between what researchers do and what ordinary journalists think of as news. Researchers and journalists tell stories differently. Researchers go from evidence to conclusion. Journalists report the conclusion first, then they put in as much detail as they have room for—often leaving out facts the scientist thinks are crucial.

Dean argues that communicating science to general audiences is a public service that’s equally as important as doing the science itself. Scientists who explain their work and their motivations help the public understand and deal with what feels like a chaotic rush of technological change.

It’s helpful when scientific and engineering organizations issue formal position statements on matters being argued in public. For example, in 2008 the National Academy of Science issued a book explaining that the theory of evolution is the foundation of modern biology and medicine, that there is no credible challenge to it, and that accepting evolution does not imply a rejection of religion.

Some researchers object that it’s pointless to try to communicate seriously with people whose attention span limits them to a minute or two per item. But if you are interested in reaching an audience, Dean says, you must consider the capacities of that audience.

Even the act of talking to a reporter is a public service. A scientist may speak for an hour and then end up with only one sentence in the article or on the air. But don’t assume the time you invested was wasted. You helped that reporter understand the issue and improved the quality of the report.

Researchers also perform a public service when they write a letter to the editor, even if the letter is never published or aired. The process trains one to express yourself tersely and clearly, and the letter helps educate the people in the newsroom.

Institutions that employ researchers can help too. They should encourage and reward experts who take the time to communicate with the public and participate in public discourse.

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