Communicating Science to the Common (Wo)man

I’ve just finished the process of applying to grad school, which required defining my research interests and identifying the professor(s) in each department who I would be interested in working with. That identification, of course, required reading a number of their paper/conference abstracts and at least a few of their papers fully to really express why my interests aligned with theirs. While most of these professors’ work was tangentially related and relatively interesting, there were a couple I intend on following more closely, regardless of where I end up going to school. As I move into the next stage of my career, I’ll be adding these professors to my short list of academics whose work I read regularly.

I think every student has a list like this* whether consciously or not; so do most newcomers to a field. These lists represent a series of beacons we use to indicate where we should fall on a question, and whether or not the question is significant enough to even bother considering.

Similarly, most people have a list like this for life. For “personal” issues, we have our friends, family, and politicians. In terms of “public” issues, this is more likely to include journalists or media outlets we think give us reliable information. (Unsurprisingly, which outlets these are depends directly on your political persuasions, as does what we view as “reliable”; these implicit divisions further divide us.) But what about science?

After all, science is the pursuit of truth, and therefore the scientific data we are presented with isn’t biased by our political persuasion, nor does the science bias our politics. Right? Wrong. Maybe this would be true if we all read the literature directly. Maybe. But I recently ran across this blog post, which indicates we don’t even bother to read the literature. Regular people don’t read the literature, obviously. But even academics don’t read the literature and when we do, we’re not actually reading the whole article: the authors estimate that a published paper on average is fully read by only 10 people. Similarly, they assert that only 20% of the articles that are cited have actually been fully read by the citer. (I promise, I read all the articles linked in this post all the way through.)

The authors of this post recommend that professors – and those who are interested in becoming professors – write not only for other academics but also for the public by penning editorials, blog posts, and policy memos. They argue this is the way to make sure your work has a real impact outside your field. With this in mind, let me take you on a slight detour. (We’ll come back, I promise!)

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Naomi Oreskes is a professor at Harvard in the History of Science department. I’ve read her work with some regularity over the past couple years and I’m pretty sure I’ve cited (after reading!) something she wrote in literally every paper I’ve written since Junior year (as a Political Science major, that’s a reasonably large number of papers…). Professor Oreskes deserves, and has, a spot on my list of academics I read regularly. She has established herself as a forefront expert in analyzing the analysis of climate change, particularly in finding intrinsic biases in climate research. She has successfully incorporated a multitude of approaches, scientists, and studies to create meta-analyses of climate change research that have, to me, epitomized the type of work I want to do: academic studies with political (lowercase p) applicability.

And then the ivory tower came crashing down around me. Naomi Oreskes published a piece (There is a New Form of Climate Denialism to Look Out For) that very quickly got destroyed by people I follow on twitter, experts I latched onto last semester as I began working in the world of ecomodernism. In both substantive and ad hominem attacks, one set of experts I respected began mercilessly criticizing another expert I respected; when I read the piece for myself, I discovered she in turn had needlessly attacked four top climate scientists who have come out in support of nuclear power as climate denialists. Essentially, one person whose ideas I trusted attacked another person whose ideas I trusted as wrong, and I could no longer merely depend on her previous expertise as evidence of current expertise. I had to craft my own opinion for myself.

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When it comes to scientific issues, crafting an opinion is hard. Reading and synthesizing numerous academic articles is hard. (Heck, just finding the relevant journal articles can be hard – and stupidly expensive.) Turning all those facts from all those articles into a cohesive opinion on a complex issue is hard. That’s why students in the sciences lean on professors and academics they learn to trust. And that’s why much of the general public doesn’t try. They lean on their own experts, usually politicians and journalists, and sometimes the rare scientist/academic/professor who is particularly adept at writing for the common man.

This is where the call comes in for professors to write more blog posts, be open to more interviews, and participate in more community activities. But doing all of that is really really difficult. Many of those who are adept at it become publicists for labs, silently but effectively translating complex experiments and results into exciting discoveries everyone else gets to read about. Others become science journalists, and while they have an interest in communicating effectively to the public, they also have an interest in professors remaining niche communicators. After all, as Bloomberg’s Ezra Klein once wrote, “it would be a disaster for our profession [journalism] if academics became good at communicating what they know.”

Communicating science to politicians is so difficult that most politicians have science advisors who translate the translations (scientists -> publicists -> science advisors -> politicians). As nice as it might be to imagine that professors could start explaining tomorrow why their research is new, exciting, and important, the reality is that this isn’t a skill that’s been rewarded throughout their career. Niche publications and big-name journals are the epitome of academic success; widespread understanding might even indicate a lack of complexity in your research. The classes in scientific PhD programs that focus on – or even touch on – effectively communicating outside your field are few and far between. Not communicating to the wider world is okay, because you’re communicating with the profession, but this post implies that isn’t true either. The fact that so many academics have their work entirely ignored by both the public and their profession should be devastating. And yet, somehow my only response is to shrug my shoulders and say que sera sera. After all, I have a list of experts to refine.

*(My list includes Dan Kahan, Kay Husbands Fealing, Kelly Greenhill, and Erik Nisbet, among many others; these are the ones whose research tangentially relates to this post)

Where do you fall on this issue? Should professors write for the common man? Where do we draw the line between discussion, debate, and vitriol? And who is on your list?

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