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Friday, April 13, 2007


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This is certainly very important topic matter, one that has been gaining more and more traction in Communication Studies departments, especially those making links with the sciences (not the easiest of interdisciplinary moves). Here at Vanderbilt, we have a major and minor degree program entitled the Communication of Science and Technology which serves the sole purpose of developing individuals who help communicate "science" to the general public. It may be worth taking a gander.


This has always been an interesting question for me, as I've walked in both worlds.

I've worked with doctors, nurses, public health professionals, and chemists while they shared stories about their encounters with journalists (it helps if you hiss the word, to get the full effect) and I have also been the journalist interviewing the doc.

You hit on one of the key "realpolitik" points when you mentioned that neither scientists nor journalists can do their work in a vacuum.

Unless you have unlimited private funds, you had best be able to communicate and communicate very effectively about what you are doing, pretty much at all times.


Huh? what...I mean...I don't know what I'm trying to say here...*

*Okay, that was a PATHETIC attempt at humor! I know, pathetic. It's been interesting reading the ScienceBloggers responses to the 'framing' article - it ruffled alot of feathers indeed! I must be honest - my initial response was 'oh great, something else to put on my to-do list' - and it just made me feel really, really tired. But the reality is that I think my lab tries to communicate, however feebly, and we try to reach out when we can. Bora's post was great, as was Pharygula - but here's a paragraph snagged from the Island of Doubt (I really like this guy, have for awhile) at: http://scienceblogs.com/islandofdoubt/2007/04/framing_science_dumbing_it_dow.php#more

"Essentially, my response is that it is neither realistic nor fair to ask scientists to ditch their penchant for the facts and wander into territory more familiar to the propagandist and the journalist. To be a great scientist requires enormous sacrifice and years of focusing on those very details that our framing enthusiasts would so readily discard. To tell them "Oh, and by the way, in addition to knowing your own field backwards and forwards, and being a good people manager, and writing killer grant applications, you also have to be a master of rhetoric, well-skilled in crafting public PowerPoint/Keynote presentations, and be completely up-to-speed on the latest political hot-button issues," is just plain cruel. Yes, it's wonderful when you stumble across an accomplished Renaissance scientist with the ability to make clear what was until then obscure and arcane. But these people would be on the endangered species list if they're weren't human."

Just to add another perspective.


"...ditch their penchant for the facts and wander into territory more familiar to the propagandist and the journalist."

Wow. It doesn't get any more loud and clear than that.

I guess once the bite marks heal, the hand that defends you to the public might continue to write about the importance of science funding and education.

Science is still funded largely through government grants, right? The government still obtains their money from taxpayers? Taxpayers still have the right to petition their elected representatives in support of or against what they want their tax dollars to be used for?

Were it not for my limited intellect - wandering around in the territory familiar to my type, as it were - I would probably be able to see why it is important for the general public to understand what scientists are doing if scientists want to continue to receive those tax dollars.


Framing "The Knack"



Don't be too sensitive. The person that wrote that is himself a science journalist. You should read the whole post before ranting.

Anna Haynes

not "propagandist and journalist", teacher.

> "If that means some chemist somewhere someday has to use an analogy to get his point across,..."

In my intro chem class the prof was always prefacing an explanation with "ok, I'm going to lie to you now"... And we understood what he meant by it and didn't feel, oh, betrayed or anything.

What's needed is a way to make clear to the listeners who is "lying" in good faith, and who is lying in bad faith.

And every controversial field needs to have a "debunkery" addressing the most common PR-or-religious objections to the science, no matter how silly they may appear to the expert.
(a possible occupation - online Mechanical Turk debunkers - feed them your neighbor's latest outlandish statement and $5, get the appropriate rejoinder delivered promptly, with links to supporting data; maybe all answers also go into a Wiki, for future reference?)

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