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Home > Publications > Research Papers > > Chapter 7: The Scientist as Citizen
Science and the Media

Chapter 7: The Scientist as Citizen

Cornelia Dean

I have been working as a science journalist for more than twenty years, and for almost all that time I have had on my mind the collective unwillingness and/ or inability of scientists to talk to the public.

Lately, I have been trying to do something about it, in seminars and short courses at Harvard University and other institutions. People elsewhere have embarked on similar efforts. I believe this work has had some good effects. I believe these or similar efforts should be part of every scientist’s graduate education.

This paper will discuss these efforts in the context of the public’s uncertain understanding of science, the problems of science journalism, characteristics of the culture of science that feed these problems, and efforts on the part of journalists and journalism teachers to mitigate the situation—and how some of these efforts have fared.

The need for such efforts was first brought home to me, vividly, more than a decade ago, when I attended a presentation for journalists at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The topic was Earth’s climate, in particular the possibility that human activity, chiefly the burning of fossil fuels, was vastly increasing the amount of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, with potentially disastrous consequences. The presentation had been organized by eminent experts on climate. They hoped that once the journalists knew the facts, they would realize climate change was an important story they would have to cover closely.

But when the scientists were making their concluding remarks, one of the journalists, Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post, interrupted with a question. Come on, he impatiently asked, are we really supposed to believe that this—he mimed spraying himself with an underarm deodorant—is going to change the weather?

The scientists were astonished. How could Bradlee be so dense? Did he not realize that chlorofluorocarbons, the propellants in sprays like deodorants, are factors in atmospheric ozone depletion, not climate change? Did he not realize that weather and climate were two different phenomena? Had he listened to anything they had said?

Some of the scientists later told me Bradlee’s performance convinced them their effort had been a waste of time, another pointless exchange with a dull-witted journalist.

But Bradlee was nothing like dull-witted. As the newspaper’s executive editor, he had presided as The Washington Post transformed itself from a more-or-less provincial daily into a newspaper of national importance. Reporters he led had uncovered the Watergate scandal and forced the resignation of a president. He was not stupid. But he was ignorant. He had obviously not been paying close attention either to efforts to preserve the ozone layer that insulates Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation or to the debate over what the burning of fossil fuels was doing to Earth’s climate. In this, he was far from alone (then and now).

In fact, it was the scientists who were making the fundamental and more important error. Rather than dismissing Bradlee as a dunce, they should have been wondering how someone in such an influential position in the nation’s news media could make such a mistake. Rather than complaining that he had failed to grasp their message, they should have been thinking about how they had failed to convey it.

Later, when I became science editor of The New York Times, I would often address scientific groups of one kind or another, and participants would often denounce the way the news media ignored, overhyped, misrepresented, or just plain screwed up their coverage of science, medicine, and health. Though their complaints were often directed at other news outlets, we at the Times came in for a share of this abuse.

When I heard those complaints, especially when I had to concede they had merit, I realized something important: if covering this material challenged us in the science department of the Times, probably the largest, best trained, and most lavishly supported science department of any lay language news outlet in the world, it could only be much harder for journalists elsewhere. If we were having trouble—and the scientists were telling me we were—it could only be worse for our colleagues with fewer resources.

I realized then that if we journalists were going to improve the coverage of science, scientists would have to help us. But two problems existed. First, many scientists are not good at talking about their work in ways ordinary people—and journalists—can understand. Second, many scientists do not believe they have any reason, still less obligation, to do so. This belief is by far the more serious problem.

At about the time I realized science coverage would improve only with the help of scientists, I started receiving speaking invitations from organizations, notably the Aldo Leopold Program and the Pew Foundation, that hold regular conferences for high-achieving scientists. At meeting after meeting, I found myself preaching the same sermon: scientists have an obligation as citizens to participate in the nation’s public discourse, particularly when the issue at hand relates to science.

There was a time, I would tell my audiences, when the disconnect between scientists and the public was not so important. But today the disconnect has big implications for the nation’s public life. More and more questions of public importance, questions people address in the voting booth, have major science components. Must we take aggressive action to avoid global warming? Your answer may depend on how much faith you put in computerized climate models. Should we press ahead with the missile defense shield? The answer hangs on the physics of ballistic missile detection. Should stem cell research be financed by federal taxpayers? Should it even be legal in the United States? Decision-makers—whether in government or in the voting booth—will want to know what price society will pay for shutting off this avenue of research. Is mammography worthwhile? If so, for whom? What about prostate cancer screening? For many scientists these are open questions; few members of the public realize this.

Many scientists embraced my message. All too often, though, it was greeted with lack of interest, antagonism, even contempt. Unfortunately, there are good reasons for this response.

First, science as an institution rewards research findings and publication in scholarly literature—and that is it. As a scientist once put it to me, “Every minute away from the bench is time wasted.” Scientists do not earn tenure or grants or promotion or anything else they value by spending time explaining things to reporters or seeing their names in newspapers or their images on a television screen or website.

Second, to spend time talking to a reporter only to find one’s work misrepresented in print or electronically is excruciating. Regrettably, this is not a rare occurrence—not, as many scientists profess to believe, because journalists are unconcerned about accuracy but in large part because of the inability of scientists to describe their work in clear and simple terms.

Then there is “the problem of objectivity”—the reflexive desire of journalists (in the mainstream, at least) to give all sides of a story. The problem is, without the help of scientists, journalists may be unable to discern when a legitimate scientific debate exists about one subject or another and when the collective weight of science falls on one side, with only a few arm-waving fanatics on the other. The result, as science writer Eugene Linden puts it, is “the systematic overweighting of dissent.” Or, as the pollster Daniel Yankelovich has written, many scientists find themselves seeming to argue in print with a crank or a shill, seemingly on hand only to provide the requisite journalistic objectivity or “balance.”

Imagining how frustrating and horrifying this must be is hard for a journalist like me, but the problem will be difficult to fix without the cooperation of scientists, especially as cutbacks in the news business leave journalists with less time to educate themselves on the scientific background of the subjects they cover. But if more scientists were willing to speak candidly, and clearly, about their work and its context in the larger world of science, it would help a lot.

Even if everything goes brilliantly, the result for scientists who talk to reporters is often denigration by their research peers. Scientists call this “the Carl Sagan effect,” after the Cornell University astronomer who was blackballed at the National Academy of Sciences because his television series Cosmos was too big a hit with the lay public.

Scientists also worry that if they speak too much about a public issue, they will seem to be taking sides. This is their problem of objectivity. In part, I think, worries about this problem arise from the view, widely held among scientists I have met, that “if everyone knew what I knew, everyone would think as I think—and act as I would act, if I were making policy.”

In fact, as Sherwood Boehlert, the former chairman of the House Science Committee, said in a speech to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in April 2007, scientific evidence is often only one factor policy-makers consider when making decisions. If scientists tell policy-makers the facts, they will not necessarily be determining a policy outcome. But they will be helping to ensure that policy decisions are made in the best way possible, given the realities of politics.

In 2003, I stepped down as science editor of the Times and accepted a fellowship at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard to start work on a book about the misuse of science in American public life. I had the idea that scientists needed to hear someone tell them about their obligations to the public and to help them communicate better. So I got in touch with people I knew at three nearby research institutions—Brown University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island—and asked if I could offer short courses to graduate students and postdocs. The response to these short courses was gratifying.

A year later, Daniel Schrag, director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, invited me to offer a seminar on the subject for graduate students, which I have taught once a year ever since, now also under the auspices of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

The content of the course evolves, but among the topics covered are:

  • The public’s knowledge of and attitudes toward science—in particular, the public’s collective (and well-documented) inability to reason statistically and assess risk rationally.
  • The landscape of journalism and the problems journalists encounter covering science, particularly given the changes under way now in the news business. Ordinarily, scientists do not need any instruction in the widespread inability of journalists to cover science well. But scientists are often surprised to discover the high odds journalists face getting science news into the paper or on the air. And they are chagrined to discover how many journalists take their own time and spend their own money to improve their ability to tell the stories of science, especially when they compare these efforts with the minuscule efforts science, as a whole, makes to improve their side of this equation.
  • How to be a good source. When I tell scientists they can do a few simple things to greatly improve their chances of telling their stories effectively, I often receive an “oh yeah—show me!” response. Luckily this challenge is easy to meet. To give just one example, scientists can greatly improve their odds of getting their points across if they ask an inquiring journalist for time—even a few minutes—to collect their thoughts before they sit for an interview and then take that time to figure out what their most important points are and how to express them clearly. This suggestion, one of scores, may seem blindingly self-evident, but it comes as a surprise to many scientists who hear it.
  • How to be on television or radio. Again, I offer a host of practical suggestions—everything from standing up when you do a telephone interview for radio (it improves vocal quality), to not wearing stripes on television, to tactics for challenging erroneous statements on the air.
  • How to present scientific information for lay readers on the Web—and how online formats favor different styles.
  • How to request corrections when a news outlet publishes or airs content that is inaccurate. (The unwillingness of scientists to bring errors to our attention, on the grounds that the effort would be “pointless,” is a matter of long-standing frustration to me.)
  • How to write letters to the editor and op-ed essays. (When I became science editor of the Times, one of the first things I did was make it known that I welcomed submissions by scientists of possible essays for the paper’s Science Times section. I braced myself for a deluge that never arrived—again, much to my frustration.)

The seminar also talks about scientists’ participation in the wider public world. For example:

  • How (and whether) to be an expert witness. This is an important topic given the degree to which junk science and accusations of junk science flood the nation’s courtrooms. Many powerful factors discourage scientists from taking part in court proceedings. They need to know as much as possible about how to avoid bad outcomes in court, and they need to realize how court victories can do more to change the face of the world than any number of scholarly publications.
  • How to offer policy advice—effectively. As with everything else, there are more- and less-effective ways for scientists to have their voices heard in Washington and other places where policy is made.

Throughout the seminar, the scientist participants write stories of their own, long and short, and practice making oral presentations—talking—about their work. I am far from alone in bringing this information to scientists. The Union of Concerned Scientists recently published a guide for talking to reporters. The American Society of Civil Engineers has produced a book on working with Congress. I am turning my suggestions into a book I hope will be published soon.

Meanwhile, the American Association for the Advancement of Science offers mass media fellowships to a small number of scientists who work as interns with newspapers, National Public Radio, newsweeklies, and elsewhere. A similar AAAS program places scientists in congressional offices and elsewhere in Washington. Seminars similar to the one I offer at Harvard are under way at the University of Wisconsin and elsewhere.

I cannot speak in detail about the results other efforts have produced. But my small programs have been greeted with enthusiasm. Participants have had many suggestions for improvements, but they have spoken, sometimes in surprise, about the usefulness of this kind of training. And I have seen its effects.

For example, soon after my first short seminar, at MIT, one of the participants sent me an op-ed he wanted to submit to his hometown paper, The Seattle Times. I made a couple of small suggestions, he sent it in, and it appeared in print. Since then several former students have told me of their op-ed efforts—I am always gratified to hear about them. Another former seminar student now contributes to a website of short takes on science. When he told me about it I was thrilled to be able to tell him that one of my neighbors was a regular visitor to the site, and a big fan.

Still another student realized in my seminar that his research could produce not just a number of research papers but also a useful and engaging article for lay readers on the difficulty of conserving endangered ecosystems in impoverished regions. This idea was not greeted with universal enthusiasm among the faculty with whom he works (to say the least), but he persevered and is at work on this project now.

A number of students have told me that the issues we discussed and the hints I offered helped them when their publications in scientific journals brought them to the attention of the lay press. One of them recently sent me an email message describing his first encounter with a journalist. “It was just awful,” he wrote. “I fumbled, said the wrong things, contradicted myself a dozen times, you name it.” He contrasted this experience with one he had later, after sitting in on one of my short seminars: “I asked [the journalist] to give me a few minutes to get ready. I went to my office to have a good quiet spot to talk, stood up while talking, and tried to follow your guidelines. It went a lot better this time!” Needless to say, he made my day.

I believe all scientists should encounter this kind of training—a short course, a semester-long program if they want it, or even an internship in a news outlet or policy-making venue. I would not give students advanced degrees in science until they had heard the message this kind of training offers.

Is this enough to solve the problem? No. But it is a start. Seeding the nation’s scientific establishment with researchers who understand the importance of communicating with the lay public, and who are willing to take the time to communicate, can only be good. More important, the establishment of university programs to advance this goal tells scientists-in-training that their institutions value the effort and regard it as a worthwhile use of their time. That is perhaps their most important lesson.