I have always thought about science communication in terms of bridging worlds that don’t know how to talk with or understand one another. For example, when I look at data, like those in the chart below by the Pew Research Center/AAAS, depicting the wide gaps between scientists and the general public on a variety of scientific issues, I have always seen a form of communication breakdown. In fulfilling our “social contract” with society, our task then becomes one of stepping outside the confines of the ivory tower and communicating with the public by listening, engaging, and relating.
But in some cases, this framing may not be quite right. At times, the gap is created, not by a lack of understating, but by an open resentment; the public is deaf to the conclusions of the scientific community, not because they don’t understand science or the scientific community, but because they actively don’t like how they have been treated by scientists. It’s an issue of tone and respect. There are some within the scientific community who hold view of the public in low regard (perhaps because they themselves have been treated with disrespect). There are others who subscribe to a view of scientism that elevates the natural sciences in relation to all other ways of knowing the natural world and holds “the view that the characteristic inductive methods of the natural sciences are the only source of genuine factual knowledge and, in particular, that they alone can yield true knowledge about man and society.” They are dismissive of the arts, the humanities, religion, and pragmatic experience as ways to know and understand the natural world, and they can be quite aggressive in expressing that dismissive attitude.
Many of us know what it feels like to be the recipient of such disdain and derision (for example, from climate skeptics) and have learned how to deal with it, generally by accepting it as part of the terrain and ignoring it (here is a nice essay by Aaron Huertas on the topic). Trolls will always use the comments section, private emails and separate blog posts as a form of cyber-bullying. But how do we handle it when those same tactics are being used by other academics; either on members of the general public, or even on us? How much harder does the job of science communication become when that activity precedes our efforts? What kind of a negative residue do they leave? We know more about the attacks on scientists because we read about and relate to them personally. But how much do the attacks by scientists enter our sense of the communication landscape?
We need to consider how the tone of some in the scientific community alters the landscape on which others in the scientific community seek to communicate. We need to learn to both communicate and mediate science, and the latter requires a different set of skills than the former; such as dispute resolution, negotiations, conflict de-escalation and an ability to be seen (even more) as an objective and trusted neutral party. Our efforts must not be targeted just with the public, but also with the community of scientists. This inward effort makes our challenge far harder than much of the science communication literature lets us believe. And, it may be worth considering whether the context and expectations of a scientist do not naturally align with that of a mediator – it is a significant shift, one that we may not be suited to fill. For example, can we really be seen as neutral to science when we are, in fact, scientists?
Leaving that question aside for now, we as aspiring science communicators need to recognize that there are both opportunities for engagement and obstacles of animosity and hostility on all sides of the scientific debates in our country. There are people – including some within the scientific community – who have no desire to bridge any scientific understanding gaps, and who hold the differing views of others in very low regard and with deep derision. And they may even hold our efforts at bridging in similar resentment as being appeasers or “accommodationists.” This makes our role more complicated. We are not just communicating science on a landscape of open engagement and understanding; we must also mediate science on a landscape of open hostility and warring factions.
My thanks to Tracey Holloway and Jessica Hellman for helpful feedback on this essay.