Book of the week: Am I Making Myself Clear?

Kathy Sykes finds much good advice, despite a disdain of the public

October 22, 2009

I strongly recommend this book; but please, first, rip out the first two chapters.

Nevertheless, any researcher looking to communicate better will find Cornelia Dean's book invaluable. The range of ways to communicate that she covers is enlightening, challenging researchers to consider new outlets. Speaking with journalists, broadcasters and policymakers is an obvious route. But here, too, is advice about giving evidence in court, blogging effectively, writing a popular science book and dealing with agents and publishers. Dean warns about the effects on the writer's family life and the demands of publicity. She tackles letters to editors, correction letters, press releases, opinion pieces and guest editorials as well as how and why you might want to do these things, who they influence and where they might get you.

The author is not only a fellow at the Shorenstein Centre on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University but is also a science writer and former science editor at The New York Times, and she generously shares her breadth of experience with great clarity, using many stories, examples and useful checklists.

She has excellent advice about preparing for communicating, including ways to learn about audiences beforehand. She also recommends continuing contact once you have met a policymaker or journalist. Reporters invited to visit a laboratory may come away spellbound. Local government bodies or newspaper boards may value a workshop on the latest research on a topical issue.

Although the examples are predominantly American, and the advice targeted at US scientists, it is still invaluable for researchers elsewhere. Even the chapter on talking with policymakers is useful in the UK. Dean asks scientists to consider whether they are trying to give facts, make recommendations or act as advocates. Noting that researchers often think that scientific "facts" should speak for themselves and lead politicians' decision-making, she points out that "pretending that science is going to settle a dispute that's really about values or money or anything else just leads to muddled thinking and distorted debates that are damaging to both science and policy in the long run" (here quoting Sherwood Boehlert, who served as chairman of the US House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology from 2001 to 2007).

The chapters on writing are more thorough than those on broadcast media, and the section on talking with the public face to face is a bit thin, lacking a full exploration of possible venues and deeper thinking about preparation. But all chapters in this book, starting from the third, offer valuable advice.

So what of those first two chapters? The key problem is they reiterate the paternalistic view that the average person is devoid of scientific thinking and must be filled with scientific knowledge. I would love Dean to approach the general public with the same thoughtfulness that she does her other audiences. Appreciating that the public have valuable insights is crucial for proper conversations and can mean that both parties learn something from a dialogue.

Dean delivers a familiar rant about how ignorant people are, and how scientists and journalists need to enlighten them. She cites surveys showing how dumb people can be when asked to name scientists or recite facts. Unfortunately, she ignores research showing that ordinary people with access to information are surprisingly sophisticated in their thinking about scientific issues.

There is a need for a more mature approach to understanding and listening to the public, not just to intermediaries such as journalists. In the UK and across Europe, the "public understanding of science" movement has turned. Realising that people are more savvy about science than scientists commonly think, the movement has become "science engagement", suggesting more of a two-way conversation. Funders such as research councils are striving to change their culture by listening more attentively to the public, believing that this will improve decision-making. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council recently ran public dialogues on nanotechnologies that, along with input from scientists, helped determine which "grand challenge" would be funded. Observers of this process, including scientists, commented that the public's input had been more thoughtful, more focused on long-term impacts and less biased than the scientists' input. The EPSRC plans to use the approach to inform future decision-making.

To be fair to the author, this way of thinking is not yet widespread in the US, and the problem is seen in those first two chapters where Dean sets out her argument. The public are largely ignorant of science and the way it works. They need to be informed because, to have intelligent opinions, they must comprehend the underlying technologies. But popular misrepresentations of science put people off. For things to improve, we need better journalism. But as new media compete with traditional media, science correspondents are being shed and resources starved. So, Dean trumpets, research scientists need to come to their aid. Now that's a clarion call.

But national surveys here suggest that scientific literacy may actually be improving. New media are pushing up against traditional journalism, but they may be giving people more access to scientific ideas when they want them and in a manner they can understand.

There are also richer reasons for scientists to communicate. Some scientists who talk with the public, and listen well, find that they are asked questions that open new lines of research, challenge their assumptions and broaden their perspectives. Dame Nancy Rothwell, a neuroscientist, says she has been given useful ideas for specific experiments. Dialogue can help researchers to think through the ethics around their subject, which can prepare them for discussions with journalists when their research does hit the headlines. Many find that it helps them to teach better, too. For others, it leads to more profound change: Richard Jones, a physicist at the University of Sheffield, says that discussing the ethics around nanotechnologies has persuaded him to shift his research into areas that might have greater benefit for society.

Of course, some scientists have difficult encounters, especially with the media. But I meet many more who are surprised at how enjoyable communicating can be, saying it reminds them why they chose their subject and helps them to see it in broader ways. They are delighted at how interested people are in their work. Some find that engaging with the public and the media furthers their careers in ways they had never imagined. It has taken some to other countries, which has helped their research, or brought publicity that attracted job offers from other universities or funding from local companies.

In her concluding chapter, Dean gives another reason for scientists to communicate: their work can be a "beacon of hope" to us all. She quotes theoretical physicist Brian Greene, who says: "the research enterprise offers us optimism in a confusing world full of disappointments and bad actions".

Here lies a key point. Science offers us crucial tools to tackle many global problems. But depending on how it is used, science can exacerbate social inequality and environmental degradation or, just as easily, benefit people and the planet. It is not enough to "believe in" science and educate people about it. We all need to learn to use it better. Ordinary people - given a chance to discuss, become better informed and reflect on issues around science - can help us to make decisions to use science more wisely: decisions that right now, on this planet, are too important to be left to politicians and scientists. What's missing in this book is a recognition of the need to help scientists and policymakers understand the public better.

THE AUTHOR

Journalist Cornelia Dean, also a lecturer in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University, began her career at Rhode Island's Providence Journal. It was her investigative reporting for the title that led to the passing of the state's first conflict-of-interest law. She has since moved to The New York Times, where she works as a senior writer specialising in science.

Having previously lectured at Columbia University, Vassar College and the University of Rhode Island, Dean currently teaches the art of communicating science at Harvard.

In 2008, she was presented with the institution's Bok Award for Distinction in Teaching.

She is also a founding member of the advisory board of the Metcalf Institute, which promotes accurate reporting within marine and environmental science.

Am I Making Myself Clear? A Scientist's Guide to Talking to the Public

By Cornelia Dean

Harvard University Press

288pp, £14.95

ISBN 9780674036352

Published 29 October 2009

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