Monday, February 20, 2006

Science and Public Relations

I did say “a few interesting perspectives on science education,” they simply could not be encompassed in a post largely devoted to bemoaning the misleading character of Discovery Institute commentary. Along with the Time magazine article, we had a second story come up with an interview that has been kicking up blog commentary in the typical incestuous manner of the online scientific community. In a complementary vein to my Science and Cinema rant, Flock of Dodos documentarian Randy Olson sent in advice to Carl Zimmer’s blog The Loom entitled “Ten Things Evolutionists can do to Improve Communication.” His comments might be summed up as “be charismatic, speak to the level of the audience, expand your audience, and don’t disregard the importance of public relations.” I, and most everyone else, find a hard time disagreeing with that general message but personally I consider it, as stated, somewhat overwrought.

PZ Myers over at Pharyngula commented at The Loom and also posted the following on the subject:

Don't tell us to dumb it down and glitz it up—I think people should be smart enough to understand it, and there's grandeur enough in it that dressing it up in rhinestones is just silly. We need to know how to communicate real science, not Hollywood cartoon science, to people.

John Lynch at Stranger Fruit:

Look, I agree that scientists could do a better job communicating their ideas. I don't, however, agree that Olson is correct in his suggested method.

PvM at The Panda’s Thumb with a different take:

Randy Olson’s suggestions, which are excellent in many ways, should not be seen as an indictment of those who are teaching and presenting these materials but as tools to help reach one’s audience more effectively and efficiently. In the older days, the orator was highly skilled in using his knowledge of the facts as well as of his audience to effectively communicate his arguments. In present days, much of the skills of oration have been lost.

Now wait a minute, guys… you’re all correct at the same time. The implementation of Olson’s advice, in my humble opinion, should not involve a universal effort to change the behavior of the scientific community, but rather add to the existing structure of science education as it presently stands. I do not find Myers or Lynch teaching to a well-informed audience to be a failure on their part to any extent. Olson’s advice serves best not as a personal admonition but rather a criticism of the dearth of scientists in place to take on the role he suggests of serving to bring science to the layman and present it in appealing cultural context. The scientific community is not and should not be fundamentally devoted to public relations, but collaboration with mass media is a means of reaching the public that should hardly be rejected. However, while scientists may seek to increase accessibility to well-articulated research in evolution or any other subject directed to a lay audience, and work through existing channels in the popular print media (fiction and non-fiction alike), improving the portrayal of science in the visual media is a necessary adjustment from the entertainment industry, not from the scientific community. There must be people in place seeking to market science well to as substantial a lay audience as may be reached, and I would applaud Randy Olson for putting himself in that position.

In the meantime, we’re in the position of increasing the exposure of our best advocates, past and present. Some of the best lecturers I’ve heard (one, unfortunately, only through recording) are Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Alley. Attending a presentation from Lonnie Thompson is a fair treat. In the evolution-ID debate I have frequently appreciated hearing/reading what Kenneth Miller and H. Allen Orr have had to say. It falls upon the general scientific community, as it always has, to do good, illuminating research and to teach their students as best they can, and support those few who can speak to the public effectively. Certainly, part of the solution to our PR lament may be to point out the finer moments of PZ Myers, John Lynch, or even Randy Olson.


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