Friday, April 06, 2007

Nisbet, Mooney cant possibly be this naive

Okay, great, once again us hoity-toity 'scientists' in our Ivory Towers are getting lectured about how we *should* communicate with the public. Fantastic.


This is like an article in Dungeons and Dragons Digest*: "GUYS: 10 Great First Date Ideas!"

See, its all fine and dandy to give advice to scientists for speaking to the public... but if theyre never/rarely invited to speak to the public, what does it matter? Whats your point?

Ive been working my ass off trying to arrange little Wednesday seminars at local churches on why evolution is important since Ive moved to an area where Creationism is a very real problem. Ive approached radical churches, liberal churches, UU churches... Guess how many times Ive gotten to speak. Guess. Guess. Uh huh. Oh Ive never been shot down immediately-- they pretend theyre interested while Im standing in their church-- "Oh yes! Teach both sides! Sounds neat!" Then they stop returning my calls. Then they stop returning my emails. Then it would be stalking, if I bothered them any more about it.

Id like to think that when I do have the opportunity to address the public on some form of science, I do a decent enough job, but how about some real advice, journalist friends? How about some advice as to how to get invited to speak about science? Hell, Im at a major research institution, and the only after work presentation weve had is some jerk-off talking about 'God and Science.' I mean Jesus, Im a young, relatively attractive, cutesy female, and I cant get a science speaking gig around here. You think burly old professors get invited inside church walls to speak about evolution?
How about getting your journalist friends to talk to scientists when speaking about science, and not getting a fully loaded panel of idiotic Creationists/Deniers/Skeptics/Anti-Vaxers/etc with one actual scientist (who gets talked over the entire 'conversation')? Scientists arent in Ivory Towers, the people who need to hear what we have to say are behind Iron Curtains. You two cant be naive enough not to know this.

Considering the number of times Mr. Mooney has spoken in Oklahoma, Im not sure he is in the position to be giving the above advice, though maybe he will understand my point of view and my frustration. I dont need lectures. I need help getting my voice heard. THEN you can bitch about my communication strategy.

*I apologize for making fun of D&D. I know a lot of people think its fun, and they date just fine. Just trying to make an analogy.


Anonymous said...

To tell you the truth, I would absolutely not make a good public speaker for science. To start with, I have very little patience for people who pretend to have expertise in a field I work my ass off to understand, so I don't really have to temperament to deal with quacks who want me to validate them with some pointless confrontation. I usually just tell people like quantum-quacks and information theory abusers to much on a bowl of my nuts.

But then my conscience gets to me and I realize that leaving such people to peddle such nonsense, ignorance and superstition is downright irresponsible. Which is weird, because I do all kinds of irresponsible things (e.g., eating excessive amounts of cheese [I'm Italian, shoot me], playing video games for hours on end, watching movies directed by Quentin Tarantino, etc.). But for some reason this sends a little guilt my way, don't know why...

ERV said...

Hey and thats okay! But I would say there is a time and place for public speaking, and there is a time and place for laughing at a quack, and sometimes they can both happen at the same time (eg Reggies debate). With Reggies audience, we could get away with a few things that shouldnt go in an Average Joe presentation.

Its the guilt of leaving people to fend for themselves that motivates me too, to an extent. Kids shouldnt have to defend themselves against Creationists. A woman with breast cancer shouldnt have to defend herself against a snake-oil salesman. Its completely selfish though, also. I learned so much about evolution dealing with Creationists in college-- challenging myself to learn a topic well enough to explain it to a layperson is extremely rewarding, for me :)

The Factician said...

Wow, you approach churches to give talks about evolution? That takes, erm... well, apparently not balls... Anyway, my hat is off to you.

Kristjan Wager said...

Actually, an elderly gentleman scientist would probably have a better chance at getting to speak at some churches. Traditional gender roles and all that (look up the instructions to women about speech in the Bible if you doubt me).

Foxy said...

Just spent a little time going through past posts of yours, and I think you are possibly my favorite science blogger ever.

Keep up the excellence.

ERV said...

factician-- hehehe Some people sky dive, some people go to fundy churches to talk about evolution :P No, Ive just approached churches that have hosted Creationism events (which Ive also attended) and offered to give a presentation on why scientists think evolution is so important, how we use it to help Average Joes, answer peoples questions about evolution, etc.

Kris-- Well, the worst church Ive been to, that was definitely part of it. That, and they were VERY concerned I didnt get my degree from a Christian university. So I assured them I was Jewish, but I wouldnt be talking about religion, just science and answering questions. 'Jewish' was not the right answer here. Noooooot the right answer in this church. Not big fans of the 'Jews'. Might as well have said atheist.

I love my city. LOL!

Hey Foxy! Tylers partner in crime! :P

Foxy said...

I prefer 'Superheroes for Science' ^.^

Anonymous said...

Tough one, ERV. I wonder why the liberal churches and the UU (ultra-liberal) churches have been refusing you. I have been to a handful of those services in which they had guests presenting the weekly sermon---discussing atheism and/or government/religion separation.

My hope is that you keep trying. The liberal churches are more likely to welcome you than are the conservative ones.

Mooney himself is somehow able to get speaking engagements---not at churches, it seems, but just public lectures to a general audience. Maybe you have to write and be selling a book to do it.


ERV said...

Brian-- From my perspective, liberal/UU turn downs seem to be the result of complete and utter disinterest. 'Evolution doesnt effect me'... which is exactly what Im wanting to speak against.
The problem, then, is that when Creationist bills are brought up for the state, liberal/UU churches have a 'meh' attitude. 'Evolution doesnt effect me. Go ahead and teach both sides. etc etc.'

My point with Mooney, is that unless my Google powers have failed me (this is possible, as 'Mooney Oklahoma' searches bring up hits with Inhofe), he has not spoken in Oklahoma. Why? Probably because he hasnt been invited. Why dont I speak about evolution more? Because Im in my Ivory Tower? No, because I havent been invited. Worse than that, Ive been turned down.

Anonymous said...

My guess is that Chris Mooney gets speaking engagements because so many people at Universities have suspected for some time (over 6 years) now that George Bush is up to no good when it comes to science and Chris Mooney has just confirmed their suspicions. So, in that regard, Mooney is telling them what the want to hear.

You, on the other hand, are not telling people church folk what they want to hear.

See the difference?

I understand your frustration with having a journalist and a communications prof telling you (a scientist) that you are not communicating in the right way.

It's more than a little presumptuous of them, if you ask me.

But then again, what do I know? I was educated as a scientist too.

Unknown said...

Erv- It seems like it might be time to try a new approach to sharing science with the locals in your area. If you aren't only interested in Evolution, why not start a Science Cafe? These cafes are a very non-confrontational approach to engaging the public on scientific topics. It's very important to open a true dialog about the science. If the public doesn't want to participate in a dialog than it doesn't matter what you say or where you say it.

Check out these links if you aren't familiar with science cafes.
Ask a scientist SF
Cafe Scientifique

ERV said...

anon-- Its not even that theyre journalists, its that their advice is no help at all. Its *solving* Step 2 before Step 1... And its Step 1 that I need help with!
And Chris is like "Oh just train more scientists that can communicate with the public."


Great! More people to be stuck at Step 1! I wanted some company *rolleyes*

Curtis-- See, THAT is helpful advice, thank you :)
I moved here from Nebraska, and though my sample size is low, theyve got the best Citizens for Science/Scientific Cafe in the whole damn country. LOVED it, and I miss it terribly.
My local CFS group is not active. They put on conferences for teachers, which is wonderful, but there is a lot of room for improvement in the 'public outreach' department. This fall Im going to start an OU Students for Science, or something along those lines, to work with OESE. Starting an 'Ask a scientist'/'Science Cafe' is going to be number one on the groups 'to-do' list.

tristero said...

My wife's from OKC and we go out once or twice a year. I'm permitted five minutes, tops, to rant about the Daily Oklahoman because otherwise I get too angry. So I have a pretty good sense of what you're up against.

And I've been saying for years that you have to get back into the churches. That's right, back. Maybe not in Oklahoma, but at least back here in the East, churches did have science speakers all the time.

BTW, I remember there's a science museum in OKC, with earthquake simulations and all sorts of other exhibits. I realize it's for kids, but wouldn't they let you talk about evolution there?

Anonymous said...

I think that this is actually related to something I discussed in a comment to one of Foxy's posts on our blog.

I think that tristero is entirely correct that we need to go back to a previous state of affairs. I think that the problem of communicating science to the public exists in the context of a larger challenge. Namely, I think our public discourse in general is in dire need of amelioration.

I think that it's all part of the deterioration of our discourse in general. Even mainstream news outlets focus on the fluffiest and most titillating stories they can snatch up to pull ratings and bump up ad revenue. IMO, this has generally encouraged a "race to the bottom" in terms of attention span, and science is the last thing that will appeal to an audience craving Anna Nicole coverage.

So in the end I the trend we have to reverse is much, much larger. It may even be much like shoveling the tide. That is to say, futile.

By the way, I love the new pic of you in the side bar. It's hot.

Anonymous said...

Hey, you know what's great? I just opened up PZ's latest post in a tab, figuring I would read it after I posted that comment above. I then discover, after posting it, that PZ devoted an entire post to making the point I had just made, except in a far more thorough and eloquent manner.

Oh well.

In other news, I hope everyone has a happy time celebrating our culture's received celebration of the Equinox.

ERV said...

tristero-- Ugh, thanks for the commiseration. I dont think some people understand how bad it is...

You just gave me a GREAT idea, though! So when I get this club going at school, we could go to the museum/omnidome and do a presentation once a month on viruses, bacteria, fungi, etc! Give the kids an intro to a topic and get their parents learning too! Advertise for an 'adult' version of the presentations at a Science Cafe!

Tyler-- HE ALWAYS DOES THAT! LOL! Him and Dawkins. They say exactly what Im thinking, except better. Gha!

hehehe Glad you like the new pic-- Its more Spring-ish :P

tristero said...

Great idea. I think that would work out extremely well.

I love the idea of the science cafes. Here in NY, I just found out that professors at Columbia have a regular series of talks/confabs at a cafe near my apt. Friends of mine said the place is packed to overflowing whenever the science cafes are on.

Y'know, this idea has a long history, going back to the 18th century coffeehouses. Coffeehouses played a huge role in the dissemination of Enlightenment ideas, reason, science, etc.

Makes sense, when you think about it for a few minutes. All that caffeine...

Qualario said...

Not sure if this has been brought up, but why not offer your speaking services to places other than churches? High schools, for instance, are always looking for people to come speak. Libraries as well.

Chris Mooney said...

No, I haven't been invited to speak in Oklahoma.

I would come if called ;>

I posted a longer response to PZ (and you) here.


chris mooney

Chris Mooney said...

well that link didn't work--here it is...

Foxy said...

*blogcrushes on that new pic*

What scientists need are commercials, like that one on chemistry, where everything based on chemistry just slowly evaporates. Just imagine one based on math, where the internet vanishes, computers crumble and disappear, anything optical falls apart, everything degrades and becomes handmade. Hell, without math, we're in the crapper. And then point the viewer towards some applicable information.

I suppose it's all PR really. But we can get someone who isn't busy actually doing research to manage it. It could be neat.

Of course, die-hards would probably scoff and say 'Oh, those silly evolutionists', right as the commerical switches to an image of someone saying 'Oh, those silly evolutionists', right as they're dying of the black plauge, since we never developed antibiotics, let alone resistance. We'll see who's laughing then.

ERV said...

Thanks for the suggestions John, and again tristero. John, that would be a great plan for my (hopeful) student organization-- So many kids think of crazy old men when they think of 'scientists'. Having a younger group come to speak with them about careers in science is a wonderful idea!

Chris-- And thats my whole point. There is no where I wouldnt go to speak about science if I were invited. But I dont get invited, not for lack of effort on my part. Solve Step 1, THEN we can worry about Step 2.

Foxy-- Id love to be a science PR rep on top of my research. Give me script, a time, and a place-- Im there. The lack of interest isnt on my side of the fence.

Anonymous said...

Great post, by the way. We'll keep reading out here in Vancouver. This is basically the sort of thing we scheme over constantly (except, I suppose, with badges).

Anonymous said...

OK - I should probably post this at Pharyngula as well, but you and PZ are both missing the point of the Science article. It is decidedly not about simply becoming better communicators, it is about understanding the public's frames and using those frames to communicate more effectively.

If you haven't read it, you should take a look at How People Learn, a book about science education by the National Research Council. One of the points the book makes is that everyone has pre-existing concepts - "frames" if you will, although they don't use the term - that shape how they hear and understand information that is given to them. People's common sense notions can be quite wrong, but as a communicator you have to start with those notions if you're going to be effective at getting your ideas across.

This is too long an argument for a blog comment, but suffice it to say that the article is not about dumbing down science or coming up with sound bites. It is entirely about understanding your audience and using that understanding to shape your communicative approach. The "right" already does this quite effectively. Can we?

Kristjan Wager said...

RBB, you seem to not realize that Abbie is telling us that it's not much use talking about how to frame the information for the audience if we can't reach the audience in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kristjan Wager,
Yes, I _do_ get that he is telling us that reaching the audience is a pre-requisite. Nisbet & Mooney are talking about communication in all fora, everything from mass media to the small church group.

My point was that everyone on the "science" side of this debate seems to be acting as if they are being told to do something unetheical or unscientific. That is not the point of learning about framing. To put my point into a context that directly addresses what Abbie is saying, even an effort to get invited to speak to an audience has to take account of the fact that you are trying to bridge a conceptual divide when you bring a scientific "frame" to a conversation with a religious "frame." It is not easy, but it is a necessary first step.

If anyone here has ever taught a general education science class at the college level, you will understand the challenge. You have a lot of people who are in your class only because it is a requirement, not because they care to learn anything about science. Your challenge in that context is to teach through the preconceptions and non-science framing that are common among a general audience.

I would recast Abbie's point to a question - how can we use effective framing of the discussion to get in the door of churches, etc.? Maybe we need to start the conversation by framing science as an endeavor that is grounded in one of the 10 commandments - Thou Shalt Not Lie

Anonymous said...

I am not sure we should be taking biological sciences to church groups. And if we should be, perhaps we should not be presenting it as some sort of proof that religion is "wrong" or "the enemy of biology". If a climatologist went to discuss the science of weather predictions to a church group, she would most likely not even mention that people once believed that God controlled all aspects of weather.

It is probably only because I am a biologist that I have this opinion or experience, but in my opinion or experience, it seems to me that the biological sciences are the most open to this issue. The issue of having organized groups (mostly religious) claim that we are idiots and our science is all wrong.

In recent months there has been increasing "scientific debate" about global warming. But in that case I don't see either side claiming that the climate is Intelligently Controlled by the Great Thermostat.

Currently, most people believe that cell phones, computers and most of the other complex science/technology in their daily lives was created by men and women using science, and that at least some engineers still understand how these things work. They don't try to believe that supernatural powers are involved in, for example, transporting the cell phone signal from the cell phone up to a receiving tower half a mile away.

Although I sometimes get the impression that Steve Wolfram takes more credit that is due, or over-inflates the importance of his work by calling it "A New Kind of Science", I do think there are uses of cellular automata that can be an impressive method of demonstrating to laymen how very simple rules can add up to very complex behaviors. It applies to development of an organism from a single cell, to evolution of single-celled organizsm to complex organisms over time, and to the development of a hurricane from a bit of moisture and sunlight.

The interaction that most people have had with computers and computer programs so far, has not been with software designed with such very simple rules. I think this is at the heart of why people look at the complex "machines" of living things, and find it so difficult to believe that there is not a very human-like intelligence involved in the design.

The technologies we use today, including cell phones and computers, could not have evolved via Darwinian forces in the past 2,000 years. Human social and technological evolution is super-Lamarkian. We learn not only from our own experiences and the experiences of our parents and grandparents; we also learn from the experiences of thousands of other people. When Johannes Gutenberg helped make printing more affordable, an exponential leap in our power to share ideas ocurred. The Internet is now creating another similar leap.

Until people begin to experience software that has been created by simple Lamarkian and/or Darwinian sources of "intelligence" they will remain skeptical that very simple rules can create complex behaviors.

The work of climatologists and other scientists is beginning to convince people that an intelligent agent is not required to control each puff of wind and the building of each snowflake. It may be several more generations before most people can grasp some of the same ideas about biological phenomena.

ERV said...

RBB--To put my point into a context that directly addresses what Abbie is saying, even an effort to get invited to speak to an audience has to take account of the fact that you are trying to bridge a conceptual divide when you bring a scientific "frame" to a conversation with a religious "frame." It is not easy, but it is a necessary first step.
I simply dont believe that. The barrier to reaching certain congregations to speak about evolution is solely in the hands of the priests and ministers and elders and whatever names they give themselves.
I have made it perfectly clear to them that I only wish to make myself available to answer the congregations questions about evolution. I have no training in any form of theology or religion, thus it would be more fitting if the priests, ministers, et al answered science/religion questions. That makes sense.

But this deal wasnt good enough. *shrug* What would you suggest?

Oh, 'thou shalt not lie' doesnt work either. With The Harrub Incident, after emails were going no where, I visited the church again and presented them with evidence that Harrub told their congregation something he had previously admitted was a lie. He conned their church out of money.

That still got me no where.

Brian-- Thank you for the ideas! The only reason why I specifically wanted to go to these churches is that its an easy way of reaching a large group of Average Joe USA people. Children to the elderly. Every economic status and education level. Questions they have about science and evolution are questions a lot of people have. So if they learn something about evolution at church, get a misconception cleared up-- they tell their friends, and they tell their friends...
*sigh* It would be my audience of choice.

Anonymous said...

Hi again,

A lot of churches really stress the "miracle of God's creation of man in his image" as one of the foundations of their faith. And they don't really want to mess with that.

Once you mess with that, what next? Are you going to claim that all the animals 2 by 2 did not fit on Noah's ark?

I think it might be more reasonable, if you are wanting to talk to a church group, to not go in that particular direction. There are many other issues, such as the bio-ethics of stem cell research, cloning, and genetic engineering, that should be discussed. People who attend church tend to have different views on these things than many of the "anti-science" groups. The science and ethics of vaccines would be another topic. What about the current "controversies" over the Human Papilloma Virus vaccine?

Anonymous said...

One more thing.

Your readers might really enjoy this lecture:

The Sense About Science Lecture 2007
Longer, Healthier, Happier?

Human Needs, Human Values and Science

Professor Raymond Tallis

It's all on-line, a sound file and a powerpoint file of the slides he used.