Science communicators or science mediators?

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.

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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.

Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse: Establishing the Rules of the Game

Hello everyone,

On Sept. 27th Andy Hoffman shared on the Leopold listserv an article that he wrote stemming from ideas generated at the Leopold Fellows workshop in Palo Alto several years ago.
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Michigan Journal of Sustainability: Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse: Establishing the Rules of the Game
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I think this article strikes at the very core of what we are hopefully “about” as science communicators, having gone through the Leopold training. As such, I hope this article sparks some discussion among us, and I thought I would try to get the balling roll with one observation.

I very much appreciate the 12 Rules of Engagement cited in the article, and Rule #2 caught my eye in particular: “Recognize the rules of academia. An academic scientist can best enter the public debate from the security of tenure. Junior faculty members must remain aware that the academic model is an apprenticeship model, and young scientists must earn their place within the academic community through tenure before engaging in public discourse. The route to tenure is still based on academic scholarship, not public engagement. While one may choose to make brief forays into the public debate before tenure, public engagement should increase as one’s career advances.”

I think this is closely related to a special session that Leopold fellows put together for the 2012 AAAS on The Beauty of Benefits of Escaping the Ivory Tower (see this Leopold 3.0 post). In that session we talked about confronting and removing institutional barriers to public engagement within academe…..

Can we in fact engender change within our universities? Can we in fact reinvent how beans are counted? Is it possible for institutions to recognize outreach (including public and political discourse) as a form of scholarship, scholarship which for junior faculty can use in a small way toward tenure? What are appropriate levels of engagement activity for junior faculty (recognizing of course that not one size fits all and that institutional cultures are different)?

Scholarly organizations are at least beginning to recognize such discourse (e.g., the American Geophysical Union, the Association of American Geographers, etc.).

Structured Conversation on “Public Intellectualism”

The Leopold Leadership Program is designed to encourage academic scholars to play a larger role in public and political debates on critical environmental issues.  While I am excited to step more fully into this role, what some might call that of a “public intellectual,” I think that we need to be careful and cognizant that there are hazards along the way.  If we are not careful, we may find ourselves losing the legitimacy of the role of an objective academic scholar to being seen as an interested and subjectively biased advocate.  There is an important need to discuss and layout the landscape of public engagement for academic scholars.  So, to start this process, the following notes and questions offer a way to create a structured discussion on the questionHow to play (tactics, pitfalls) the “public intellectual” without stepping over the line to losing the objectivity of academia?

To begin the discussion, Roger Pielke Jr. (in his book The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics, Cambridge University Press, 2007) offers four roles that scientists can play in policy debates.

1.  Pure scientist:  Focus on research with no consideration for its utility—“more frequently a myth”

2. Issue advocate:  Focus on implications of research with a particular policy agenda—“reduce scope of  available choice”

3. Science Arbiter:  Seeks to stay removed from politics, but resolves positive questions from politicians  (ie. National Research Council)

4. Honest Broker: Seeks to integrate scientific knowledge with a stakeholder concerns by offering  alternate possible courses—“expands scope of available choice”

With this as a starting structure, here are a series of questions that can guide discussion on this important topic:

1.  How far outside our area of specialization can we drift in our public comments?  We have seen economists comment on climate modeling, and climate scientists comment on cap and trade.  Is this out of bounds for us as academics?

2.  On that count, where do we draw the line between being an academic and being a public citizen?  Certainly we can talk in the abstract about putting different hats on. But in practice it is not so easy or clear.

3.  When we get hostile emails, do we reply?  When we have hostile comments following an article or editorial, do we reply?

4.  Are there any outlets are illegitimate (journals, editorials, blogs, tweets, business conferences, skeptic conferences, etc)?

5.  Should we lend our name to notably political issues?  For example, there is a referendum on a Renewable Portfolio Standard here in Michigan (25% by 2025).  Is there any risk to my academic legitimacy by adding my name so such an initiative?  What if it was more extreme – a ban on all meat sales, to be extreme.

6.  Roger Pielke describes the “Honest Broker” as one who “expand the scope of choice available to decision-makers…and explicitly integrate scientific knowledge with stakeholder concerns in the form of alternative possible courses of action.”  He/she provides all information on a particular topic and allows policy makers and the public to reduce the scope (i.e. make a decision).  He differentiates this from the “Pure Scientist” (who focuses on research with no consideration for its use or utility. He adds that this role is more frequently found in myth than practice), the “Issue Advocate” focuses on the “implications of research for a particular political agenda,” and the “Science Arbiter” who will answer questions from decision makers to clarify research (i.e. the National Academies).  Do people agree with this structure, or do they find it too confining?

7.  Pidgeon and Fischoff argue that the current climate debate will require the coordination of multiple roles within climate science: “(1) Subject-matter experts to present the latest scientific findings, (2) decision scientists who can identify the most relevant aspects of that science and summarize it concisely, (3) Social and communication scientists who can assess the public’s beliefs and values, propose evidence based designs for communicating content and processes, and evaluate their performance, and (4) Program designers who can orchestrate the process, so that mutually respectful consultations occur, messages are properly delivered, and policymakers hear their various publics.”  Does this resonate with people?  Should academic scholars rely on others in the research process stream to disseminate their work?

8.  Do people have good role models of academics who stay academic scholars while wading into the public and political debate?

9.  How does the idea of playing the role of public intellectual change our publication strategy and outlets?

10.  Is this a role that can only be played at certain stages of our careers?

11.  How do we work this idea into the four part structure that Roger Peilke develops in his book “The Honest Broker”?

12.  What other questions are out there for how to play this role?  I feel that the terrain is not well mapped out.