Mooney Kerfluffle redux, or How Science Journalists Don’t Get What The Average Scientist Is Up Against

Chad at Uncertain Principles wonders what the kerfluffle is with Chris Mooney. Chris wrote an Op-ed in the WaPo that summarizes this AAAS article. My last post was directed at the Op-ed, which was pedantic and useless, if not counterproductive. The AAAS article has decent recommendations that will never do what he hopes they will do, for reasons outlined below.
As a side note- I think most of the problem stems from the fact that Mooney isn’t saying things that 1) we don’t already know or 2) aren’t common sense. He also perpetuates stereotypes of the scientists who are poor communicators. It’s another one of Chris’s self-refuting positions: if we scientists are so arrogant, so unwilling to put up with being misunderstood, so hostile to any perceived stupidity, so wary, curmudgeonly and standoff-ish, then how can he cite a study that says the public generally holds a positive view of scientists? Things that make you go hmmmmmmm……
By and large, I’m willing to bet that these cretin scientists are the Occasional Communicators, the ones who don’t do outreach. They think facts should prevail, they take part in, for example, to an evolution debate and act cocky, with no debate training and unprepared for the subtleties of what is essentially a religious right performance, not realizing that 3/4 of the audience has been bussed in from a local church, as orchestrated ahead of time by the Disco ‘Tute. Yeah, instant turnoff for the audience at large. What Chris ought to be doing is drawing public eye to the effective science communicators (whether they be scientists or not). These aren’t the ones that make a public spectacle, so by and large the media only passingly engages them. (We love dirty laundry.)
Enough idle chit-chat. On to the global problems I have with the AAAS paper.
I agree with Mooney- “nip it in the bud” is a good idea. But the problem isn’t coming from your average joe, who generally has a decent opinion of scientists. There is a segment of society that is adamantly anti-establishment, which includes being antiscientific. We all know that anti-vaxers, for example, attribute a large part of their fears at Big Pharma. These traits are telling. They underscore a rejection of all things corporate, of all things modern, of advances in civil liberties. In a post-BP, post-9/11, post-Katrina world, there is a fear of corporate interests. There is great concern that business and government are in bed together, because capitalism, fascism, or communism, that setup doesn’t work for shit. Which is why the Luddite message resonates with the general public, who might otherwise trust scientists.
The way you “nip it in the bud” is not to give the Luddites a podium. You do so, you make those who would normally trust scientists nervous. Perpetuate the false controversy, even a little, and you’re doing the Luddites’ job for them.
Mooney is right: building trust as early as possible is a better response. It sure beats putting out fires. But the AAAS recommendations fail on two counts: 1. they don’t take into account the massive paradigm shift that must accompany their recommendations, and 2. are not as far-reaching as they should be. Not by a long shot.
For the latter: Giving people the tools to evaluate scientific claims is a better response. Teaching people to think statistically is a better response. Teaching kids how to detect pseudoscience will be a more effective response. Look, we’re poor on resources over here. What agencies and funding we have to devote to these issues, well, we are dwarfed by the opposition. Besides their ability to raise money and support thinktanks, they get free publicity from celebrities and the internet. We don’t. The AAAS recommendations don’t go far enough. They’re tactical. They deal with snuffing individual conflicts. We also need to target our meager resources at building trust with youth; lose the battle, win the war.
For the former: What we need is a massive shift in the way we perceive the role of scientists- Universities treat us as cash cows. We should be viewed, at least in part, as liaisons. Part of our professional responsibilities needs to be outreach. Outreach needs to be targeted, as Mooney suggests. But what I don’t think he gets is the scope of the changes he’s suggesting. They are too far-reaching to fit within existing job descriptions and expectations. Your average tenure-track faculty does not receive departmental support for any extended outreach, although this does vary widely by institution and department. Oftentimes “outreach” or “service” is defined in a professional setting- how many grant review panels are you on? How many journals do you review papers for? Are you on any departmental or university committees? It is all self-serving and insular. Academic entities depend upon the external money we bring in for survival, why the hell would they want us doing anything that doesn’t further the university and its bottom line, especially in this economy?
Real community outreach is often frowned upon by tenure committees, at least if you do it regularly. Here’s how tenure committees at research institutions view things: Brain Awareness Week comes once a year, ok. Go talk to the grade school kiddies. But give too many public presentations in the community? Better be to recruit students, else get your ass and your data to a professional conference. Blogging? Fuck that. You wanna write, you should be writing papers or grants. But not review articles, because they’re not novel enough contributions and therefore don’t count much toward tenure. Hell, writing a book on your own academic area of expertise carries zero weight with most tenure evaluation committees. You want to communicate your expertise then you need to build an international reputation with more papers, more grants, more committees, and more conferences. And more money to support our university staff. So any communication skills workshops you go to should be grant writing workshops. If you want to organize a public talk, do it by setting up a high profile session, forum, or entire conference at your next professional society meeting.
The fact of the matter is, researchers spend most of their time navigating IACUC and IRB red tape, constantly revising and submitting grants in an endless, near-hopeless cycle, frequently teaching (which ends up comprising much more than the10% effort outlined in their contract), occasionally mentoring, and rarely actually doing science. We put our kids to bed at 9pm and go write more grants or revise and resubmit an IRB for the 98th time, until 2am rolls around and we crash. How in the name of St. Gregory’s Sack are we supposed to find the time to build our outreach skills? The system does not support it. Full stop.
What outreach we do, we do on our own time. Without training or preparation. If we’re good at it, we do it until we burn out. If we’re not good at it, we make spectacles of ourselves and then get targeted by another Luddite group for the next debate, to keep the spectacle going and free publicity rolling. That’s how the crazies work.
The Bottom Line: The problem with Chris Mooney is that he doesn’t understand the problem. And the reason he doesn’t get it is because he has never been a scientist and doesn’t understand all the factors lined up against us. I’m not trying to be a dick here, I’m giving an honest assessment. Like I said before, his heart is in the right place. Heck he’s even right about a lot of things regarding public perceptions. But the basic mechanisms to facilitate what he proposes simply. aren’t. there. The resources aren’t there. The infrastructure does not support it. The academic lifestyle and administrative expectations are antithetical to it. The university system actively undermines it. Corporations quash it.
While blaming scientists for a broken system, perpetuating myths of the social outcast, and saying that ultimately we just need to listen might sound great, it does nothing to address the core issues. Chris- please, spend more time listening to the scientists too. There just aren’t enough hours in the day, and the deck is already stacked against us.

8 Responses

  1. Spot on, Evil, spot on. I was just covering these points with some of my peers who do real outreach. The NIH actually has a grant mechanism (R25) for this- getting the $$ helps a little but even so tenure committtees are going to take a dim view.

  2. Well said.
    On the positive side, I recently spoke with an NSF program manager who said there is a cultural shift happening across the agency on this front. It’s becoming far less acceptable to only write “train graduate students / postdocs” in your Broader Impacts; now you must instead present a very concrete plan for scientific outreach to the public. My inner-idealist dares to hope this will some day trickle down into the decision making processes of tenure and promotion committees.

  3. The system does not support it. Full stop.
    Halle-frickin-lujah! Blame scientists all you want but scientists are going to do what it takes to keep their jobs and feed their labs and families.
    Only one correction on your suggestion to Mooney to listen to scientists – for St. Gregory’s sack’s sake, listen to real practicing scientists and not blowhard pontificators who presume to speak for science yet haven’t published a paper in ten years.
    As I read the list of workshop participants in the full-length AAAS publication, at least many of those are practicing scientists. However, most of them are senior scientists who either have tenure or are in otherwise secure positions. The younger women and men who can really engage the public are slogging it out to survive and may not be the ones Mooney commonly encounters.

  4. Very well put. I’m going to delete the blog post I was writing and just redirect here.
    It REALLY gets on my tits when we are exhorted to communicate better and then profered either no suggestions or weak, watery pap like that OpEd piece. The current institutional infrastructure does not support scientist-advocates or scientist-communicators.

  5. Brilliant, oh my Sci-brother. These are excellent points. We can yell at scientists all we want about doing more outreach or listening to the public or being better communicators, but right now the system really just discourages us from doing so. I can’t tell you how much it gets in my grill that “service” means only “service to the university/department”.

  6. Brilliant, oh my Sci-brother. These are excellent points. We can yell at scientists all we want about doing more outreach or listening to the public or being better communicators, but right now the system really just discourages us from doing so. I can’t tell you how much it gets in my grill that “service” means only “service to the university/department”.

  7. But wait, you need to read the full paper that is coming soon, the OpEd was just a taste. We’ll of course overlook the fact that of 250 thousand readers of the OpEd that now have been reaffirmed with the stereotype of arrogant elitist bastard scientist, 2 maybe 3 will read the full paper.
    I sometimes think Mooney is establishing a career as a mega-troll feeder. I mean people who distrust scientists, science, whathaveyou must be thrilled with all his current writings.

  8. Namnezia-
    1. I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately research AND teaching are no longer supported in many departments, schools, or even institutions. You either get paid to teach the majority of your time or you are a PI full time. At least on paper. Deviation is not encouraged.
    2. A wonderful program and I commend you for doing it. Unfortunately it just feeds into my point that there’s not enough to address the root problem with any efficacy. But- don’t give up.
    3. A valid point, and anyone who does should be applauded. But what they really need to do is become the driving force for that institutional realignment; after all, these are the same people on the assistant prof’s tenure committee, yet our assistant profs still feel under the gun. Why the flying fuck is that? These are our future; young, bright investigators with their fingers on the pulse of the latest cutting edge research, with the capacity to learn these communication skills we so desperately need. And we need EVERY single able-bodied communicator to win this war.

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