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.

A simple way to get the antiscience crowd to come around?

Chris Mooney- a man with his heart in the right place and absolutely no idea what do do after that. Don’t get me wrong, I like the guy. He’s a force for good when dissecting a scientific issue for the public. But Mooney has been trucking out this same “communication” bullshit for a few years now. As usual, nothing much is offered other than “listen to them”. I agree, communication is important, and scientists need to listen as much as talk. Ok….. then what? If, as he says, so many people only consider science as a small part of forming their opinions, what makes him think that they’re even open to changing their minds? By his own logic in the article, antivacc’ers are more interested in the science than the general public, yet impervious to sound interpretations of it. So are anti-evolution folk. So are climate change deniers.
Mooney: Listen the Fuck UP. Just because some segments of the population are interested in cherry-picking data doesn’t mean they have any interest in dialogue, in sharing information, in reformulating their opinions, in understanding the process of science, or in interpreting the data in light of the larger framework that they are willfully misunderstanding. This is true by your own logic.
Secondly- stop making the false dichotomy of scientists vs “the public”. Um, hello, we’re not always this misanthropic insular group that only shuffles between home and the lab by moonlight, shunning all interpersonal interactions. We have families, we take our kids to ballgames, we do our own sports clubs, we volunteer at churches and animal shelters, we go out on the weekends. Some of us engage in public outreach quite regularly, we tell the public about our research in a host of settings from evolution dialogues at colleges and churches to practical public health dissemination at dormitories. We answer questions and discuss the consequences of our research.
In fact, Chris, we are the public. Not every scientist is an expert outside their field. We rely on the news, Scienceblogs, Discoverblogs, SciAm, the NYT, and other popular outlets for our info and interpretations. We don’t always go to the primary literature for the same reasons “the public” doesn’t. When I need to know about global warming, I hit realclimate.org and The Intersection, because these sites distill the science well (btw thank you Chris and Sheril).
Mooney cites a Pew study that says the general public is generally positive on the scientific community, it’s the scientists who are wary of the media. Maybe if those in the media and popular press would stop treating us like a different species, “the people” who we don’t reach would feel less wary about trusting us when the data we generate challenges their preconceptions. Maybe if the media would stop treating everything like a “controversy”, and stop giving free air time for dissemination of misinformation, we wouldn’t have to spend our time debunking crap that was debunked 150 years ago (in the case of evolution) and could focus more on education. Here’s an example; anybody even remotely familiar with the “controversy” surrounding mercury and autism knows who Andrew Wakefield is. He gets mentioned in practically every article and gets the media’s “equal time” treatment, even though the guy is a total slime and we’ve known it for years. How many legitimate medical researchers, on the other hand, get more than a two-sentence quote? How many autism researchers fighting the good fight get profiled to the extent that Wakefield does? If you’re not in the field, can you even name an autism researcher on the other side of the line from Wakefield?
So what can scientists do? Well, we have to pull double-duty debunking misconceptions of the data and of scientists in general. Universities and especially tenure committees need to be more supportive of scientists devoting time to outreach, especially for those conducting the so-called “lightning rod” research. That means more settings where scientists take the practical side of their research and tell the public about it, before it becomes an issue (which admittedly is about the only thing Mooney lays out as a strategy, even though he doesn’t get into the nuts and bolts). Kids need to be made aware of how vaccines benefit them and the population as a whole. The general public needs to understand how evolution impacts their local ecosystems. We need to get out there and engage the public more, as scientists we’ve always fell short here. More scientists need to consider media-based careers, like Phil Plait. More scientists need to speak up in church if they hear bullshit getting peddled. More scientists need to sit on school boards. If you’re a scientist and you’re active in politics, find somebody like-minded in the opposing political party and organize a politics-free teachable moment where both sides of the aisle show up and see each other as human beings with common science-based problems that transcend their petty politics. Find ways to have teach-ins with legislators and staffers at the state and federal levels, if possible.
There, I’ve already done more than Mooney. I’ve made a couple concrete suggestions for how the problem needs to be addressed. Go check out PalMD’s blog post for a good response to Mooney’s article.
Let’s actually do more than just listen.

Rally in support of biomedical science today!!!

This will be the second year that UCLA will hold a rally in support of biomedical science and in support of well-regulated welfare-based animal research. The first one was held last year, and attracted over 700 people! Sci was (and is) unfortunately not in that region, but she remembered last year how excited she was for the people able to participate. She hopes that even more people will come out this year in support, and if you can’t, please lend your support by commenting over at the website!

And as another point of business, Sciencebase has posted his review of Open Lab, 2009!

The blogs represented are written by scientists, science students, science writers and science journalists. Some of them are deadly earnest. Others more light-hearted. Some are seriously interesting. All are fascinating in their own way and many fields of science are covered within the pages of The Open Laboratory 2009.

And now you can submit for this year!!! Let’s make sure that this year’s editor, Ben Landis, has even MORE posts to deal with than I did. Hehehehehe…

A Tuesday Note

Worry not, Sci is alive at this time. She is merely far more busy than usual. This, too, shall pass.
However, in this time in which there is no crazy neuroscience going on up in here (though I’ve got some stuff in mind), check this out. It’s post over at Isis’ place on languages other than English in science. It’s an eye-opening post for lots of reasons, but one that caught Sci’s eye was this:

We regret to inform that several of the labs belonging to the CGC have been severely damaged by the high magnitude earthquake that affected central and southern Chile last Saturday, Feb, 27th. Specifically, the labs of CGC Director Miguel Allende and Investigators VerĂ³nica Palma and Alvaro Glavic, whose labs are located at the Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad de Chile, suffered significant damage and loss of equipment and materials. Besides the physical impact caused by falling, there was flooding due to a broken water main which further increased the damage. Losses are estimated in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and work will likely be interrupted for weeks or perhaps longer. More seriously, irreplaceable reagents, stocks, samples and experiments were lost.
A large number of colleagues around the world have offered to help with the replacement of lost equipment and by hosting CGC students in their labs until the situation is normalized. We sincerely thank all of these generous offers for assistance in these difficult times. Anyone wishing to collaborate should coordinate with the Vice-rector for Research at the Universidad de Chile, Dr. Daniel Wolff. We know that efforts are being made in Europe, the US, Japan and Australia already, so it would be ideal to coordinate among the different donating institutions or individuals. We are exploring ways in which to finance transport of such materials and therefore, this should not be a concern to donor institutions or individuals. Please contact Miguel Allende regarding these matters.
To provide an idea of the type of equipment that needs to be replaced, we have compiled a list of the principal items that were lost or seriously damaged (for many, we still don’t know the cost of repairing them to determine whether it is worthwhile to do so):
Fluorescence Dissecting scope, (Olympus MVX10 with 4 filter sets, 1X and 2X objectives)
Digital camera for microscopy (Leica DFC300FX)
Zeiss Fluorescence microscope
Laminar flow hood for cell culture
Cell culture CO2 incubator
Inverted microscope for cell culture use
Dissecting scope with teaching oculars (Leica)
3 dissecting scopes for microinjection of embryos
Light sources for dissection microscopes
Tabletop refrigerated centrifuge, rotors OK (Beckman)
Eppendorf Centrifuge
Analytical balance and pH meter
Gel documentation system with digital camera
3 pressure microinjectors (2 MMPI, 1 Narshige) with micromanipulators
Culture flask shaker
PCR machine (Perkin Elmer)
Capillary glass puller (Narshige)
Power supply and gel chambers (agarose and acrylamide)
There is a large number of miscellaneous smaller items that are typical of developmental biology labs, but that are more likely to be replaced locally.
We will try to expand this list to include the needs of the other Chilean developmental biologists that were similarly affected. We are also trying to establish a monetary fund to receive cash donations and we will try to make this information available as soon as possible. For now, it is possible to make cash donations in the U. S. through the Society for Developmental Biology (SDB); contact is Ida Chow. In Europe, coordination is being carried out by Roberto Mayor at UCL, London.

There’s more over at Isis’, but the pictures are what broke little Sci’s heart. That cell culture room made my heart stop.
And it’s not just the equipment. It’s the grad students that make Sci sad. Months, YEARS of your data, gone like that, things broken beyond repair. It reminded me of a time when we heard about the evacuations surrounding Hurricane Katrina, and the grad students at my uni heard of New Orleans grad students and post-docs filling their cars with reagents and cell cultures instead of clothing, of taking mice and rats in their cars so they wouldn’t suffer in the storm. I remember looking at my post-doc at the time, and hearing her say, “someday, that could be us”. Right now, it’s grad students in Chile, who never had a chance to get their stuff out, and who might even need to start over in foreign labs, with different projects, knowing that an earthquake just added years to their PhD.
We’re not all developmental biologists here, obviously. But I know even in neuroscience there are Leica microscopes, analytical balances, pH meters, PCR machines, gel chambers, pullers. Maybe someone just shut down a lab and there’s equipment sitting around. Maybe you just replaced your old machine with a new one.
Maybe you could think about seeing if these scientists could use it.

More on Animal Research

The website Speaking of Research, a site devoted to spreading accurate information about the uses and benefits of animal research, has put part of my previous post on their site (no worries, they had permission). They have also put up a great aggregate of the recent posts from the science blogging community on animal research. Sci thinks it’s very sad that all of this had to arise from the nasty things that happened after a previously successful debate, but she is also glad that such things are being discussed openly, and is thrilled to receive so much support for her work and the care with which she treats her animals. So check out Speaking of Research, and make sure to keep an eye on Adventures in Ethics and Science, where Janet is continuing to talk about animal rights violence and alternatives.

On Animal Research

Recently, one of my beloved SciBlings, Janet, was one of the speakers at a UCLA Dialogue on the ethics of animals in research. Although I was more than a little afraid for her (of course her name, address, email, and phone were instantly posted all over the activists websites), but Sci’s fears turned out unfounded and the dialogue apparently went off very well. You can see a full video here. Everyone remained respectful, the session was carefully moderated and educational for everyone.
Well, almost everyone.
Fast forward to last night, when I found out that one of the speakers, Dario Ringach, a neurobiologist, was being harassed again. Again. Harassment before got so bad that he stopped performing primate research in 2006. But he came out to speak, in a respectful dialogue about animals in research. He’s a brave man. And for his reward for his respect and his willingness to engage, he got this:

As the pictures indicate, neighbors came out from many of the near-by houses, took leaflets and talked to activists about how much they hate their neighbor Dario for doing “hellish primate experimentation.” One, in fact, gave an activist the name of the school one of his offspring attends! Activists plan on legally leafleting the school in order to educate fellow students what their classmate’s father does for a living.

(via Orac)
They’re going to target his children. What they are doing is technically legal. They are going to frighten the crap out of his kids, possibly make them lose their friends, all because their DAD used to do primate research and SPOKE UP IN A DIALOGUE. Nice people. They’ve already done it before, banging on the windows of the house at night and scaring Dr. Ringach’s wife and kids. Ringach already has to have a hired guard outside of his house. This sort of thing makes Sci so angry that she’s almost incoherent. The very hypocrisy of it all makes me livid.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

At SciOnline 2010 this year, I was lucky enough to snag a copy of the new book by Rebecca Skloot, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks“. I’d been looking forward to reading it for a long time, so I plunked myself down when I got back, and despite some serious other time sinks on my part, managed to blast through it in about three days.
So here we go.
HeLa.jpg

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