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.

The Rightful Place of Science

So I’m sure you’ve all heard by now that, in Obama’s inauguration speech, he spoke of putting science “back in its rightful place”. Since then, Seed, our Benevolent Overlords ™, has started the Rightful Place Project, and has asked all of us what IS the rightful place of science.
It’s taken Sci a little while to formulate her thoughts, and being that she is usually a creature that delivers teh scienz rather than teh politikul opinyunz, it’s not assured that this will be a masterful oration on this subject, like those found at Highly Allocthanus, Orac, Dr. Isis, Zuska, Ed, Chad, Bora, ok, well everyone, pretty much. Sci does not promise anything so eloquent.

Continue reading

Complete speculation on the health of John McCain

Some people have been noticing erratic behavior from republican nominee John McCain lately. His most recent seems to be slight, but rather odd. Specifically, he appears to have developed ptosis— a drooping eyelid— which could of course be related to any number of causes, from an autoimmune attack on cholinergic receptors such as that seen in myasthenia gravis, to diabetes.
Ptosis can also be the result of a brain tumor that affects the oculomotor nerve (cranial nerve III). Sudden development of the condition at old age following multiple bouts of melanoma (which has a penchant for metastasizing to the brain) would seem to be cause for concern, so I wonder if any neurologists would like to weigh in?
McCain also seems to be hiring a very expensive makeup artist who may be assisting in the coverup of the condition. I really, really wish he’d release his medical records in full so that people can stop speculating about the ramifications of a chronically ill president with a potentially untreatable brain tumor, and his vice president with all the foreign policy experience and political saavy of a Hun.

Charging women for their own rape kits?

This is one of those things I simply can’t fathom. How does a woman pretend to be pro-women and then charge other women for basic forensic services following a rape?
She justifies it as necessary to cut taxes. Which begs the question: how much of a tax burden did sex crimes place on the town of Wasilla?
If your answer is “not much”, I simply can’t understand how this basic service now becomes the responsibility of the victim, who has to rebuild her life after a traumatic event. (Unless you’re one of them thar self-loathin’ wimmen who blames the victim, but that’s another can ‘o’ worms.) Certainly there’s got to be some books to burn or a librarian to fire, which will save a lot more money.
If your answer is “a lot”, doesn’t that mean you’re soft on crime? Rapists are running rampant through the community? Placing such a burden to your community that it’s going bankrupt, and there is absolutely no possible to make up the shortfall? What kind of dog-and-pony show are you running with your police force over there?
If cutting taxes is a priority over violent felonies like sexual assault, why not just start cutting the police force? I’m sure you’d save a whole lot of money there. Start with… say… your ex brother-in-law.

“Hoosiers for the Hot Chick”

McCain is bitching about supposed sexism from Democrats when this is what is being worn by Indiana delegates at the RNC?
What a bunch of bullshit.
By the way, ignore my previous post. That was IRONY, dammit 🙂

Most. Accidentally. Inappropriate. Campaign. Photo. Ever.

This is so many degrees of wrong. Start your “so this is how Palin got the job” jokes if you want, but please remember that HER DAUGHTER IS IN THE FREAKIN’ PICTURE TOO YOU SICK BASTARDS.
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