A day after the Mooney/Nisbet article on "Framing Science" appeared in the journal Science, yours truly stood on a stage beside some truly distinguished company and tried to explain to a room full of graduate biology students, researchers and professors how -- from a journalist's perspective -- they could become more effective at communicating what they know.
Where do you begin? Well, I figured the best advice was to determine what you're trying to accomplish first and then work backward from that. Because there's no single goal of communication, and you can't judge effectiveness if there's nothing to which you can compare your results. After delivering that little piece of vague wisdom I counseled the students on the value of repeating key points and suggested that blogs were a really interesting medium with implications for scientists that we really don't understand yet.
I was, of course, upstaged by the great Bud Ward, whose talk included a New Yorker cartoon of two aging scientists in a quiet, darkened lab office. One says to the other, "Well, at least we never stooped to popularizing science." There's a lot of dark humor implied in that subject, and it's not related solely to scientists.
If there's one thing that scientists and journalists have in common, it's the naive sense that there's a morally pure, ideal form that exists outside of the human realm and serves as the basis for all the practical work that ever gets done. There's an element of truth to this belief, of course, but that doesn't make it any less dangerous or any less bullshit. Most journalists and scientist who've been doing the job for more than 15 minutes can cite chapter and verse on the ways that these claims to moral purity tend to paper-over all manner of petty bad behavior in their respective professions.
It reminded me of a colleague who last week, during a discussion of the traumas inflicted on newspapers by the current media revolution, said: "Well, if we're going to go down anyway, we might as well go down with some class."
I pick up echoes of this in the "framing science" debate, which is so far taking place mainly among scientists and wannabe science groupies such as myself. As Bora puts it, there's something the word "framing" that just rubs scientists the wrong way. Beyond that, there's the Mooney/Nisbet contention that scientists have what amounts to a political responsibility to society to get better at communication that sets the public agenda.
So anyway, I've been think about this stuff off and on for about a week now, and it occurs to me that the only really meaningful question to start one of these discussion winds up being the first question I asked those graduate students. In essence: What do you want?
Because if you want to conduct your science in a self-disciplined vacuum, you can do that. Are there limitations and drawbacks to this approach? Absolutely. But a brilliant young scientist could choose that approach, live by its rules, and perhaps serve as an example to others. How would I rate such a scientist's chances of success? Poor.
Can my newspaper friends refuse to adapt to their new environment? Absolutely. I rate their chances of success even less optimistically.
Because from a veteran's point of view, the moment when the hunky-dory bullshit gets stripped away is actually the moment when the conversation gets interesting. OK, so the stuff they taught you in J-school was bullshit. Do you still want to have ethics? Do you still want to serve some human value? Cool. So how are you going to do journalism and achieve those goals, knowing what you know now?
Same question to scientists. For all its philosophy and tradition, the practice of science remains a very human endeavor. Knowing that, how do you get the things you need to conduct the research you care about? Accepting that science is a human practice, not a Platonic shadow on a cave wall, what is your responsibility to the larger culture?
In no way do I suggest that I've got the answers to these questions. I recognize the value of fundamental principles and the dangers of compromise. And yet I also know that fanatical adherence to principles becomes fundamentalism over time, just as a willingness to compromise values in favor of expediency ultimately leads to disaster.
My advice to both journalists and scientists? Respect your craft, understand your limitations, figure out what you need to do better, try to help other people every now and again and, for crying out loud, get over yourselves.
If that means some chemist somewhere someday has to use an analogy to get his point across, that's not the end of the world. If that means a journalist has to reach out to a reader in a way that actually helps the reader learn something, so be it. If that means all of us have to muddle through in these exciting and potentially dangerous times, taking risks and making mistakes and starting over... what's wrong with that? Isn't that the way science is supposed to progress? Isn't that the way people tend to learn things?
I think the world is full of contradictions. I think we all do better work once we start accepting this and stop demanding that everything around us -- ourselves included -- conform to an ideal standard.