Say it again, and again, and again, and again …..

Since I’ve been focusing a bit recently on science communication I thought I would briefly discuss a paper by Simon Donner called Publish or perish: finding the balance in science communication. The reason for my title is that he suggests we could learn from Frank Luntz who said:

There’s a simple rule: You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you’re absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time.

However, Simon’s paper makes a subtler argument that is very interesting, and really worth considering. We work in environments where we’re encouraged to promote our research publicly. This is for the benefit of the researchers, but also for the benefit of their institutions, and sometimes the funding agencies. The problem is that this can lead to research being over-hyped and being presented as having somehow challenged some fundamental aspect of our scientific understanding, when it really does no such thing.

It’s important to promote one’s research publicly, but also important to present it in an appropriate context. Public understanding of science is going to be poorly served if the public is continually presented with suggestions that some piece of research has overturned a paradigm, when it really has not. This could lead the public to conclude that there is much less agreement about the science than is actually the case. As the article says,

[i]f the goal is to advance public science literacy and public support for science, we need to always place our findings in context and be cautious of the promotional aspect of the media release culture.

In my view this is an important issue and this basic suggestion is – in my opinion – well worth considering; scientists really do need to communicate in a responsible manner that both highlights the interesting aspects of their own research, but also does so in a way that stresses how this fits within the broader scientific picture.

A great deal of research is aimed at clarifying the details, rather than over-throwing a consensus, and it’s important for the public to understand this, both in terms of understanding how science typically works, but also in terms of understanding the strength of our overall scientific understanding.

Links:
The third episode of John Cook and Peter Jacob’s Evidence Squared podcast covers some of the ideas discussed in this post.

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13 Responses to Say it again, and again, and again, and again …..

  1. Francis says:

    The juxtaposition of this post with the one about the deficit model is interesting. Is the real problem with climate change communications simply that the proponents haven’t been at it long enough?

    Luntz also is noted for a couple other strategies: a. demonize your opponent, especially through your choice of language; b. hit the voters in the pocketbook.

    While I can’t recommend the first strategy, he’s right about the second. Until the proponents of policies for reducing the emissions of ghgs have a unified message about the impacts of ghgs on individual voters, they will face an uphill battle. Below, I was recommended to read a book published 10 years ago! Where is the ongoing regular publication of studies that re-examine, refine and push forward the economic impact research?

  2. Is the real problem with climate change communications simply that the proponents haven’t been at it long enough?

    I did wonder that. We continually hear that it’s been shown that the deficit model has failed, but I’m not sure over what timescale that applies. If we do continue to promote our scientific understanding (i.e., say it again, and again, and again,…) will it eventually be accepted, or are the other factors so strong that there really isn’t any chance of this working?

  3. JCH says:

    So I’m going to say it again after saying it again and again… the GISS Land and Ocean Data has not updated on Wood for Trees since 2016.83.

  4. russellseitz says:

    I am growing sick and tired of faculties that regard advertising as a part of their science curriculum.

  5. David B. Benson says:

    Have I stated the bit about how we are headed for the mid-Pliocene with global temperatures over 2–3 °C warmer than now and sea levels about 25 meters higher than now often enough?

    And how hard it will be just to keep it from becoming worse than that?

    Beginning to feel like Cassandra; right but ignored.

  6. I think we need to distinguish between scicomm for new research, and scicomm for established knowledge. Much of what is communicated in the area of climate change for the general public is in the latter category, so ducks the issues about hyping of papers. It is not hyping of Manabe & Wetherald (1967) to say that they put to bed for once and for all, any suggestion of a ‘saturation’ effect raised 67 years earlier. Repeating this point ad nauseum is needed, and actually, getting into a discussion that suggests that new work is required to resolve this question plays into the ‘science is not settled’ charge. For settled questions, crisp clear statements are required.

    As to the ‘deficit model’, I think this is overplayed. For the vast majority of the population, they are largely poorly informed as to climate change, but often hungry for enlightenment. So they will be open to clear communications (and as Hawking said of his book, A Brief History of Time, each equation would have halved his readership). For the Lamars, Ridleys, etc of this world, the deficit model does apply … But then why are we even wasting our time trying to convince these ideologues in the first place? They are small in number and impervious to evidence.

  7. Richard,
    You’re right that a lot of climate science is presented in a way the reasonably reflects our overall understanding. However, I have seen some papers presented in a way that makes me go “oh dear, I know how that result is going to be twisted”. So, I think there is still merit in thinking about how the way one presents something could be interpreted, especially as there are some who need little encouragement to twist results to suit their agendas.

    As for your second paragraph, I think I’ve made a similar argument before. In a basic sense, I don’t really know how else scientists should engage the public. I realise that there may well be more effective ways to do so, and that some of the public are quite well informed (so shouldn’t simply be treated as empty vessels to be filled up) but ultimately some people are looking for information and sometimes the role of scientists is to provide that information.

  8. I cannot disagree with the first paragraph, but I have a subsidiary question. Is it the job of a primary paper, written for a specialist audience, to phrase itself in a way that is amenable to general or journalist scicomm? I would suggest not, as the language and concepts and scientific forms of expression are not designed for that. But that is no excuse for Nature (picking a Journal at random 🙂 ) using a catchy title that does not really reflect the body of the work, or hypes it. The problem I think often lies with science journalists and othera who want aeye-catching line. But the contrarians like Ridley are masters at twisting the science …

    Joanna Haigh, Royal Society fellow and council member, pointed out to DeSmog UK that while “Ridley claims not to dispute the science, he then disputes climate sensitivity estimates with selective citations”
    https://www.desmog.uk/2016/10/18/scientists-reject-gwpf-climate-denial-lecture-delivered-royal-society-world-s-oldest-scientific-academy

    Is there a formular for drafting a paper which is incapable of being twisted by Ridley? A kind of Ridley-Proof linguistic device? If there is it probably involves 20 sub-clauses, with caveats and disclaimers that defeat the scicomm objective and make the paper completely unreadable.

  9. Richard,

    Is it the job of a primary paper, written for a specialist audience, to phrase itself in a way that is amenable to general or journalist scicomm?

    I don’t see anything wrong with this, if it is possible to do so and to still present the information. Also, if it is a potential contentious topic there is still merit in making sure that what is presented is presented in a way that is difficult to misinterpret.

    Is there a formular for drafting a paper which is incapable of being twisted by Ridley?

    Probably not, so I’m really just suggesting being careful, rather than trying to actually make it Ridley-proof.

  10. russellseitz says:

    What’s all this about Cassandra, David?

    Iphegenia’s dad has just been stopped from sacrificing her to the god of the winds on the altar of the Precautionary Principle

  11. Pingback: Climate communication | …and Then There's Physics

  12. Brian Dodge says:

    David, you’re not a Cassandra, but a PollyAnna.

  13. Mal Adapted says:

    David B. Benson:

    Beginning to feel like Cassandra; right but ignored.

    That feeling began for me when I noticed AGW-deniers ignoring things that climate scientists told them had already happened. Nor is paranormal precognition required to project the climate of the next several decades, determined as it is by what humanity has already done.

    Cassandra had little satisfaction for being right, before perishing with Agamemnon in the disaster she foresaw. I, for one, am looking forward to saying “I told you so”.

    IMHO a more appropriate model for climate realists might be the Dutch boy with his fist in the dike. Even though a child, he knew what would happen unless he did something right now, and also that he couldn’t save the town all by himself. He had a justified hope of rescue by responsible adults, however 8^(.

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