There are a number of possible things to write about, but I thought I might have a brief rant about a topic I find of interest. A tweet by David Roberts (who I mostly like) caused a bit of a Twitter storm a couple of days ago.
1. Once again the climate science community beclowns itself by critiquing an article on non-scientific grounds. https://t.co/APs5aFKxLi
— David Roberts (@drvox) November 28, 2017
I actually disagree with him about this specific case; in my view, the Climate Feedback article was pretty good and Climate Feedback generally provides, from what I’ve seen, very good critiques of articles about climate science.
However, I do think that he does make an interesting point. The manner in which scientists critique articles about science should depend somewhat on the role they’re taking. If they’re doing so as domain experts, then they really should aim to critique the scientific validity of the article, not really the way in which it was framed. Given the same information, it may well be possible to present something in an optimistic way, or in a pessimistic way; scientists don’t have some special right to decide how it should be presented publicly. As individuals, however, they are perfectly entitled to express such a view, but they should aim to be clear about their role.
Now, this is where the slightly ranty bit starts (well, as ranty as I can get). This led to me having a discussion with someone who regards scientists (well, climate scientists, at least) as incapable of communicating with a public audience and regards them as being in denial when it comes to cognitive science and narrative theory. Essentially, there is extensive evidence about how to communicate effectively and many (maybe most) science communicators are simply dismissing this information.
I think this is wrong for a number of reasons. Firstly, there are clearly many scientists who are extremely effective communicators. Secondly, these critiques often seem to assume something about the goals of science communication that is almost certainly not the goals of those scientists who undertake such activities. In my experience, most scientists who choose to engage in science communication do so because they regard it as important to make the public aware of scientific information. They do not, typically, regard themselves as responsible for influencing public opinion. Most of the critiques, however, seem to revolve around their inability to influence public opinion. Well, criticising people for not achieving what they were not specifically intending to achieve, seems rather pointless.
Of course, I have no problem with scientists who openly choose to try and influence public opinion; I think they have as much right to do so as anyone else. I simply think that in many cases science communication is aimed more at providing information, than at influencing opinion. Critiquing the former, for not achieving the latter, just seems to indicate a lack of understanding of what motivates many who choose to engage in science communication.
However, the aspect of this that I find most irritating is that if there are a group of people who regard themselves as experts in cognitive science and narrative theory and, hence, how to communicate effectively, why don’t they go ahead and demonstrate this. Treat scientists as their audience and communicate to them so effectively that they not only understand how to communicate effectively, but are convinced that they should actually engage in this way. If this is an important topic that needs to be effectively communicate, and they have relevant expertise that will aid in such activities, then they have as much obligation to communicate this effectively, as scientists with relevant expertise have to communicate their information.
Okay, that’s my mini rant over. Of course, I’m generalising rather wildly. There are clearly a number of very effective science communicators and there are also those who have expertise in cognitive science and narrative theory who are helping to improve the effectiveness of science communication. I just find myself rather irritated by those who seem incapable of communicating effectively themselves, complaining about others they regard as ineffective communicators.