Originally published March 9th, 2014 at generalcirculation.blogspot.com
I often listen to my hometown NPR station's online audio stream in the morning. It fuels a constant low-level nostalgia for my childhood, and gives me a heads up on the ice storm or traffic jam that my mom will likely be calling me about later in the day.
This Tuesday's NPR Morning Edition featured an interesting case study in science communication that got me thinking about how much the impact of my scientific research depends on the time and energy that I'm willing to spend communicating it to others.
The NPR piece profiled some recent work by Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth, and others that looks at how parents process medical information on the safety of vaccinations. They found that parents who were originally least likely to vaccinate their kids will think that the vaccine is safer after being given correct medical information, but will then report being even less likely to vaccinate their kids. The basic scenario that Nyhan seems to be proposing is this:
Step 1: Person is confronted with information that runs counter to what they've previously thought Step 2: Person contemplates the possibility that the new information might be true Step 3: Person's sense of identity and intelligence is threatened by the new information Step 4: Person tries to find ways to prove new information wrong in order to preserve their ego Step 5: Person consequently does the exact opposite of what you were hoping for when you gave them the new information
Even though the piece was about public health, it gets to the heart of a question that I struggle with constantly as a climate scientist: What is my responsibility to communicate my work outside of the scientific community, and how do I do that effectively?
Climate scientists especially run the risk of telling people things that they don't want to hear, and Nyhan's work suggests that this can end up doing more harm than good, if you're not careful. Is the solution, then, not to communicate at all? But isn't that even less helpful and maybe even negligent?
Luckily, Wednesday afternoon gave me another chance to contemplate the issue. Three leading Princeton thinkers, Michael Oppenheimer, Melissa Lane, and Robert Keohane, were giving a lunchtime seminar on the Ethics of Scientific Communication. If there's one thing that graduate students universally love, it's a free lunch, so I was looking forward to both the intellectual and the physical nourishment.
Some of what O, L, and K said seemed like common sense (you can find a reference to the paper they've written on the topic here, as well as info on their research program on communicating uncertainty in climate science), but one aspect in particular stood out for me. Melissa Lane pointed out something that I suppose marriage counselors have known for ages: communication is a two way street--it's about the person communicating the information, but it's also about the person receiving it. In their talk, this came up mostly in terms of the communicator's responsibility to know her audience. But this raises an important question--What is the audience's responsibility in scientific communication?
If communication is a two way street, and the communicator has certain responsibilities to uphold, does the receiver have responsibilities as well? O, L, and K suggested five core principles that scientific communicators need to take into account in order to responsibly communicate their work: honesty, precision, audience relevance, process transparency, and specification of uncertainty. But what about the audience? Do they have a responsibility to make a good faith effort to put their prejudices aside when evaluating new scientific information? Does the burden of solving the problem that Brendan Nyhan raised lie with the communicator or with the receiver? What about society as a whole? Does society have a responsibility to prepare its citizens with a minimum level of scientific literacy, so that they can make use of important scientific findings?
I certainly think that scientists can do much, much more to train themselves to communicate effectively, but maybe there's some way to meet in the middle.
I suppose I'm left with more questions than answers. Though, half of being a graduate student is figuring out what questions to ask, so maybe that's not necessarily a bad thing (more on that next week). In the meantime, I should call my mom.