Communicating Science

PD has an article about Communicating Science whose title I’ve shamelessly stolen, and a follow up imaginatively titled Communicating Science 2. Since he sideswipes Mooney, I’m all for it 🙂

I wrote an exciting and insightful comment there, which like everything I write anywhere got misinterpreted. So I’ve cleaned it up and put it here:

“Scientists should talk more” is (I think) just excuse making. In much the same way that you can be sure that when GW really starts causing trouble [see folks, I do believe really, I haven’t quite gone over to the Dark Side yet, and I still don’t understand RF], all the right-wing conservative folk will be laying into the scientists for failing to warn them loudly enough that there was a problem.

The clue is in the job title. Scientists do science. They are good at it (well, the good ones are. Just like anything else, there is a wide spectrum). They usually aren’t good at communication (do *you* remember the science-types at school?). People who are good at communication are the despised PR-types, journalists (ahem. sorry about that one), marketroids, etc. etc.. In fact, we science-types got an excellent lesson in the value of journalists communication skills when putting together the “global cooling” paper, which John Fleck immeasurably improved. But he didn’t do the science for it (well, to be fair, it was a historical-review type paper not science anyway).

What the scientists are saying is well known. You can find it in IPCC if you want. All govts employ enough speechwriters and tame semi-scientists to translate it into politician-speak if they want to hear. Generally govts don’t want to, because they know full well what the answer is: slow down, less economic frenzy, less bloated consumption. You see it written in minature in fisheries policy, where the science is if anything even clearer, and ignored.

I’m not saying that scientists shouldn’t talk. When I was one, I did, though in venues of my choice (and a couple of times on the radio, though that was uncomfortable). Anyone who wants to should. But don’t expect any upsurge in talking to lead to a change in policy, because lack of words isn’t what is holding policy back.

While I’m here, and in an attempt to distract you from my illogic, this reminds me of something I heard on the radio today: yet another report, this time to the UK govt, about how to prevent the banking crisis blah blah wibble, and how boards need better non-execs, blah. It is all nonsense. They are companies, dedicated to making money – that is capitalism. If they think taking risks is going to make them piles of dosh, they will find a way to do so. If you don’t want them to take risks, you need to find a way to make it unprofitable – perhaps by not propping the fools up when they collapse in a heap. But to do that you then need to make it possible to allow them to fail, which takes vigorous careful action, not something govts are over-fond of.

21 thoughts on “Communicating Science”

  1. The government couldn’t let the banks fail because everyone would have lost everything. There would have been nationwide riots, and Gordon Brown would have been hung from the nearest lamp post.

    [Yes. This is a failure of govt, to allow this situation, not of the banks -W]

    What angers me is that the bankers say they are being awarded the bonuses for taking risks. But what they are risking are my deposits, and their colleagues jobs, not their own personal pension funds. They will still walk off with a £1M pension fund come what may.

    [I think you’re mixing up investment and high street banks. They are to some extent interveaved, but not completely. They are not risking your deposits -W]

    Barclays share holders have lost their life savings, but the the profit from selling Barclays Global Investors Buisness is being used to give bonuses to Barclays staff.

    [Right. Barclays shareholders have got burned. This is the correct outcome: if you invest in a company that f*cks up, you should lose money -W]

    And why don’t the shareholders stop that? Because the shares are all owned by pension funds whose mangers are up to the same rip off games. They justify their high salaries because the bankers are paid well, and the bankers justify their bonuses because the pension fund managers are paid well.

    [There is a problem in that the largest blocks of shares are not owned by people with a direct personal interest in those shares performance. It isn’t clear how to solve that problem, which has been know for ages -W]

    And if a Labour government allows that, what hope do we have if Cameron gets elected.


  2. Okay, here’s a textbook example. Two press releases, about the same paper, both available at Eurekalert and at the respective university websites.

    First, the infamous Rice press release, with the pullquote that went ’round the world.
    Contact is a press guy, who got his release out first and got all the attention.
    Public release date: 14-Jul-2009
    Contact: David Ruth
    Rice University
    Global warming: Our best guess is likely wrong
    … said oceanographer Gerald Dickens, a co-author of the study and professor of Earth science at Rice University. “There appears to be something fundamentally wrong with the way temperature and carbon are linked in climate models.”

    How’d that quote play out?

    Results … about 1,650 for “There appears to be something fundamentally wrong with the way temperature and carbon are linked in climate models.” (up from about 1200 yesterday)


    Public release date: 16-Jul-2009
    Contact: Richard E. Zeebe
    University of Hawaii at Manoa
    Ancient global warming episode holds clues to future climate, UH Manoa researcher says
    (EXCELLENT instructive image included)
    “… To explain the entire warming, you would need a whole lot more carbon.”
    The consequence is that other mechanisms must have considerably contributed to the warming 55 million years ago. Unfortunately, these mechanisms are unknown at present.
    “There are a few ideas what may have contributed to the additional warming. But I don’t think we fully understand these events of intense and rapid global warming,” says Zeebe.
    How’d that quote play?

    Results … 4 for “I don’t think we fully understand these events of intense and rapid global warming”

    Well, hey, to be fair about the comparison, give the second one 2 more days. Maybe _both_ of them will get full topics and be extensively quoted at WTF.

    Same paper, though you can barely figure that out.

    This belongs at the top of the stories about what’s wrong with science education these days.


  3. We couldn’t let the banks fail. We could, however, have stepped in (a) to punish the bankers with massive fines, jail-time, and lifetime bans from handling other people’s money; (b) to entirely eliminate the bonus culture: nobody should expect a bonus simply for doing OK; bonuses are for doing one’s job exceptionally well; (c) to turn banks back into banks, not trading houses for increasingly complex financial instruments; (d) to introduce trading qualifications: the collapse of the industry have made it clear that they don’t understand their products or basic concepts of macroeconomics or risk management; (e) to limit the size of any single company: “too big to fail” should mean “too big to exist”; (f) to limit the leverage and exposure of any single company.

    [(a) why? wouldn’t that be lawless? (b) Disagree. Banks are commercial institutions, it is up to them how they run their business. (c) seems quite plausible: re-create the high-st-bank vs investment bank distinction that the US threw away a little while ago. (d) not at all convinced. (e) Yes; this requires courage from the govt (f) no, do e instead -W]


  4. a) not lawless because they have fiduciary responsibility including the requirement that they follow banking regulations, which are laws. b) they are a REGULATED commercial business, which means it is not just up to them, if you want to know what happens when they are not regulated google “bank runs”.


  5. While the Rice press release was abysmal (and hugely quoted), the Manoa press release a couple of days later was well written, clear, and illustrated with this excellent image of the actual drilling core:

    Hrynshin’s watching it:

    I notice searching the lovely pullquote from the Rice PR folks that Google’s count on it varies by several hundred within a few seconds. The septics are starting to truncate the quote losing the period, the first words and so on, so you’ll find more instances of its spread if you search for smaller chunks of it; the total is still rising.

    Results … about 1,720 for “There appears to be something fundamentally wrong with the way temperature and carbon are linked in climate models”


  6. when GW really starts causing trouble … all the right-wing conservative folk will be laying into the scientists for failing to warn them loudly enough that there was a problem.

    On what basis do you make that claim? Most right-wing conservative folk will push hard for measures to combat and adapt to GW. But not while it continues to be a cause liberalé (pardon my French) with precious little supporting evidence for the alarmist position.


  7. Stoat:
    >> laying into the scientists for
    >> failing to warn them loudly enough

    > precious little supporting evidence

    It’s obviously the fault of people like Broeker.
    They should have been much louder.


  8. [I think you’re mixing up investment and high street banks. They are to some extent interveaved, but not completely. They are not risking your deposits -W]

    It is not me that is mixing these things up. The governments, using the slogan of “Choice”, has allowed the building societies, high street banks, and investment banks to merge into a few monolithic institutions. My deposits, whether in Barclays Bank or the Woolwich Building Society are being used by Barclays International to speculate in the junk bond market. I have “No Choice”, because all the other banks have also bought over building societies and are doing the same. Northern Rock, which had not been taken over, also speculated, and the main building soceiety which remains, Nationwide, took over my and other local building society, and is turning itself into a bank. The “free market” in banking that has been created has led to me having less choice. In other words I am less free!

    [Right. Barclays shareholders have got burned. This is the correct outcome: if you invest in a company that f*cks up, you should lose money -W] But when they were making big profits the share holder should have benefited, but it was paid out in bonuses to the directors, etc. When the directors f*ck up the company, the shareholders lose out and the directors walk off with huge pensions, claiming it is because of the risks they had taken!

    This was not the first time in history that directors have defrauded shareholders. It’s the government’s duty to prevent that happening – by regulation. Moreover, it was not just risking the share holders’ money that these guys were being givien bonuses for. It was also for inovation. That means finding new ways of defrauding the government, by avoiding paying tax.

    [There is a problem in that the largest blocks of shares are not owned by people with a direct personal interest in those shares performance. It isn’t clear how to solve that problem, which has been know for ages -W]

    The reason the problem has not been solved is because it is not in the interest of those who could solve the problem to do so. The pension fund managers, the bankers, and Gordon Brown all benefitted from the system as it was. The pension fund managers and the bankers were in bidding war for “the best brains” forcing all their salaries and bonuses up.

    Gordon Brown loved it because it meant there was more money around and he calimed it was his doing. He can’t fix things now, because that would be tantamount to admitting he caused the crash.

    But the fundamental point is that a free market is not one without government controls. A free market is one which the entrpeneurs cannot manipulate. A natural market, one without government contol, is one dominated by monopolies, with the investors, the providers of capital in a capitalist society, being ripped off by the entrpeneurs.

    I am not advocating a socialist society, just a well regulated capitalist one.


  9. Hank,

    Thanks for that tip off. It supports my thesis that the models are faulty and underestimating the dangers.

    Cheers, Alastair.


  10. I think Monbiot has suggested that enviros–or perhaps “The Left”– should fund an “anti-Marc Morano”. Of course if that happened, Marc Morano would pillory them for “politicizing the science”.

    [QS says that is Chris Mooney’s bad idea. Of course, they may be copying – I don’t know whose bad idea it was first -W]


  11. William, on the subject of better science communication, you could consider linking to your global cooling paper in your post – not everyone who reads the post might know what you’re talking about. It’s here for anyone who’s interested:

    Click to access i1520-0477-89-9-1325.pdf

    While I generally think “not behaving like Roger Pielke Jr.” is a good idea, a small amount of self-referential links in a post is okay.

    [I keep forgetting where it lives. Thanks; I’ve linked it now -W]


  12. Actually, no. If you read S. Bloom’s comments, I think the (anti-Morano) notion makes a bit of sense. I would even like to see a kind of “rapid response” website where blog refutations of the latest nonsense Morano and co. crap out could be aggregated and easily found. Very useful for sympathetic journalists, for example.


  13. Don’t y’all think DeSmogBlog handles the Morano stuff well enough? They are professional PR people; they became ashamed of how their profession was contributing to the problem. They seem to watch it carefully and comment promptly, and did so aggressively enough to provoke significant retaliation. Our nitwits cover it well enough:
    For the full irony you have to look at how internet gambling was praised as free enterprise until a law against it, slipped into a different act, became useful against a Brit who funded desmog. The US pr sites immediately quit calling it internet gambling, and started calling it money laundering. Conveniently the US was then grabbing foreign nationals off airplanes for offenses against only US laws, you’ll recall. The people operating US gambling casinos of course were also beneficiaries. I recall mention the US was going to start looking at all bank transactions to detect internet gambling and maybe other illegal activity.

    It was an amazing confluence of interests. Last I heard Barney Frank was working on the repeal, and details of the massive call-monitoring operation are dribbling out too.


  14. Here ya go. This is the sort of thing that measures whether you’re being effective in the world of US public relations:

    Monckton and Bolt defame John Lefebvre : Deltoid
    Why Prohibitions on Internet Gambling Won’t Work … Not only is there a money laundering charge that carries 20 …. Lance, read the older Hyopocri, er, Heartland website


  15. Nailed:

    He writes:

    (Read the rest of the article to find more examples, including the Gingrich-media complex–if you can stomach it)

    There’s been a lot of talk with the release of Unscientific America about how to communicate science to the public. But we have realize that this isn’t an educational problem, but a propaganda one. To combat that, we need organizations–and they will need money–that can competently knock this propaganda down. I’m not sure that’s a role for scientists as much as it is political operatives, since this would go well beyond policy prescriptions. In other words, a scientist could decide to join this effort (and that would be worthwhile), but a scientist could also go to Wall Street (or could have, anyway): this is flat-out political warfare. I’ll have more to say about this later this week hopefully.


    who documents examples including this:

    “… I started thinking about this back when the “conservative” position was pro-logging. Remember how they mocked the spotted owl? (The spotted owl is an “indicator species,” or a shorthand way to judge the health of an entire ecosystem.) I wondered why the logging industry was a cause for conservatives, but not the fishing industry, which was greatly harmed by the logging practices advocated by conservatives. The answer turned out to be that a guy who ran a corporation that had made a ton of money looting S&Ls (how come no one remembers the S&L Crisis?) had bought a lumber company and was destroying all the old-growth redwoods was hooked into (i.e. paying) the conservative movement. (Please read the links and follow the links there!) And so the “conservative” opinion became that logging old-growth forests was a good thing. Cash payment was the reason for this core pillar of conservative ideology. (The whole thing ended up paying off even more handsomely, probably thanks to more conservative movement backscratching.)…”
    (Hot links to sources are in the original)

    [Hmm yes, this isn’t a matter for finding the facts – which are largely known – but communicating them, and also selecting which are fit for public consumption. It isn’t clear that is a science role -W]


  16. Yeah. I watched the scientists respond to the issue by emphasizing the science — habitat size needed for successful reproduction, edge effects when blocks of old growth are broken up — about this particular owl and protection.

    None of which mattered in hindsight.

    Hell, we might as well have been trying to argue for protecting an almost equally shy and hard to study endangered Pacific Northwest forest species:


  17. The FedEx story is the one Mikethemadbiologist leads off with.
    There are many more. I’m glad some scientists are becoming aware of how the world works. Thanks to the public health people, in particular, for actually researching how spin and PR and money are used. That’s the best educational material I know for anyone in the sciences who wants to read more.

    If I’d stayed in academia and finished that PhD in honeybee genetics thirty years ago, I too might have kept my innocent faith that politics gives a damn about science longer.


  18. How about we improve communicating science by getting rid of the Huffington Post?
    Before their fact checkers, if any, let anyone post anything ever again?


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