Thursday, May 03, 2007

Talking about science to non-scientists

Yikes, there’s a great fog in the blogosphere as science advocates eat our own. All over how best to talk about science to non-scientists. Blogfish has an idea…let’s stop arguing and talk about what we can do to move forward together. Duh, let’s try some experiments. Here’s my first draft at designing a productive experiment. (note: long post, conclusion at the bottom).

1) Can we agree on why we’re talking about science to non-scientists? If not, then different goals are a key part of the argument.

My assumption: we want to talk about science to non-scientists. But what do we want the audience to do? Once we’ve answered that question, we can state the hypothesis. Here is a first draft of our options. We want the audience to…

A: Listen (hear & understand the material).
B: Learn (be able to repeat the essence).
C: Be persuaded, change their minds (agree).
D: Change their behavior (e.g. vote differently).

I think this is a bit of a sequence or hierarchy, and I put the highest value on the end--C and especially D. I assume we all agree on this, but it’s worth exploring. If some place the emphasis on A or B and not so much on getting to C or D, then at least we’ve identified that we’re really arguing about goals. (I think this is the key, if you want to skip from here to the conclusion go straight to the bottom)

2) Can we agree on who we’re trying to reach? If not, then audience selection is a key part of the argument.

My assumption: we want to talk to a wide audience of people with basically open minds. This excludes the unreachables (dogmatic, anti-science types), de-emphasizes the converted (scientists and others already pro-science), and emphasizes the reachables (basically open-minded, but not already pro-science).

3) Can we agree on what scientific subjects we want to talk about? If not, then we’re really arguing about what subjects we should emphasize.

My assumption: we want to talk about science basics like how science works, how science can inform our decision-making & public policy, and how to deal with imperfect knowledge.

4) Starting with my assumptions 1-3 above, here’s a draft hypothesis that we should set about testing. These options a-d are not exclusive, they represent different emphases. Apologies to those cited here for what will likely seem like caricatures of their views.

The best way to talk about science to non-scientists is:

a) “Explain the fruits” of science in non-scientific terms (PZ Myers' apple analogy).

b) Show “we’re in this together” by connecting with people’s values first (Nisbet & Mooney’s framing science).

c) "Stick to the facts" of science, and stay away from PR and spin (Greg Laden's framing of framing).

d) “Educate the masses” to build science literacy (Larry Moran’s no apologies approach).

5) Measure the effectiveness of hypotheses a, b, c, d. To do that we need some way to measure effectiveness. Somehow, I think this is the key. I think much of the debate revolves around different measures of effectiveness.

My personal experience as an advocate emphasizes getting people to change their behavior, as measured by involvement in public policy debates (citizens) or actual policy decisions (decision-makers). When I use this measure, it’s clear to me that hypothesis b) is the best way to go. Obviously, others disagree. I think I’m in the minority, in fact. Much has been said on this issue, and much is highly credible. For now, I’ll focus on one key example. PZ Myers emphasizes option a) and he says it works based on his experience in teaching. I think he’s right in getting people to learn, but not in getting people to change their behavior.

So here’s the Blogfish bottom line: Nisbet and Mooney (Framing Science) are right if we actually want to change people’s behavior. They’re wrong if we want to focus on learning and stop there. Some will argue that learning is the basis of changing behavior, but I disagree. I think connecting with people is the basis of changing behavior, and framing is basically about connecting with people first.
Ask an advocate if you want practical experience on this topic.

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