My title is a paraphrase of something Michael Tobis said during the marathon Twitter discussion about RCP8.5, which I thought I would use to discuss something about science communication that I’ve mentioned a number of times before. During the RCP8.5 discussion, someone highlighted an article they’d written about how to best communicate about climate change. Specifically, their argument was to tell a positive story. I largely agree.
However, their article also included the following:
The time is long overdue for scientists to learn to tell as compelling a story about energy, climate change and resource scarcity as do advertisers or lobbyists.
This is where I disagree. As the title of my post suggest, this is not science’s job. There’s nothing wrong with scientists thinking of ways to communicate about science effectively, but science communication is not really about persuasion. In a formal sense, science communicators should not be thinking like lobbyists or advertisers; they’re not trying to sell a particular idea, they’re simply trying to provide information.
This is not to say that others shouldn’t be thinking about how to craft a convincing message, or even that a scientist shouldn’t become an activist/lobbyist. However, expecting scientists to do this in general seems to completely miss what a scientist’s job is; it’s to do research so as to understand some system and – ideally – to then communicate that research, in the scientific literature, at conferences, and – if appropriate – to the public and to policy makers. Being able to do so effectively is indeed a benefit, but the focus should be on making the information accessible, not on how to make the presentation more persuasive.
However, there also seems to be an element of irony in these kind of suggestions. As I mentioned, this article was highlighted during the somewhat contentious discussion about RCP8.5, which included claims that it was mainly being used to generate headlines and to scare gullible people. This illustrates the other problem with scientists being encouraged to generate as compelling a story as advertisers or lobbyists do; they have to do so while also appearing to satisfy all the expected norms of science.
My impression is that when people suggest that the scientists develop compelling stories, they have a pretty good idea of what kind of compelling story they mean. They want compelling stories that suit their narrative, not any old compelling story. This is the other problem. Scientists aren’t necessarily experts at how to deal with something like climate change, nor are they ones who should be making these decisions. How can they know what they should be persuading people to do, or accept?
I’m completely in favour of scientists thinking about how to communicate effectively and there are a number who are excellent communicators. However, science communication should – in my opinion – be based on trying to make the information as accessible as possible, not on how to make the message most persuasive. There’s nothing wrong with activists, or anyone else with an explicit agenda, thinking about how to persuade people to accept their arguments, but that’s not the role for science communicators. If we fail to adequately address climate change, it’s not going to be because scientists were insufficiently persuasive, it’s going to be because people who should have been able to understand the information, failed to take it seriously enough.