While I was on vacation, science journalist Chris Mooney and social scientist Matthew Nisbet came out with a short commentary in Science. Their thesis was that scientists should pay attention to how they frame their public communication, so as to most effectively reach their target audience.

To me this is obvious to the point of banality. Nonetheless, it sparked a enormous blog storm. Nisbet rounds most of the reactions up here. The paper got lots of support, but also lots of the predictable harumphing from scientists who insist that framing amounts to spin and theater — which is, of course, beneath them. Sigh.

On the basic issue, I don’t have much to add beyond what I wrote here. But in the spirit of offering something semi-original to the debate, let me toss out the following notion:

Everybody involved vastly overstates the importance of getting more scientific information into the heads of the public.

Consider climate change. What does a concerned citizen need to know about "the science of climate change"? I’d say:

  • The atmosphere is warming rapidly, which will produce overwhelmingly negative consequences within the century: drought, flood, disease, sea-level rise, etc.
  • Warming is driven by accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
  • We increase atmospheric GHG levels when we a) burn fossil fuels, and b) destroy carbon sinks.
  • A certain amount of warming over the next century is already locked in; we can prevent the worst of what’s beyond that.

That’s pretty rudimentary. You don’t need to be a scientist to explain it or to understand it. You don’t need to know anything about forcings, or aerosols, or Milankovitch cycles, or urban heat island effects, or any of the rest of it.

There’s nothing wrong with learning about that stuff, just as there’s nothing wrong with learning more about marine biology, or astrophysics, or any other area of science. Intellectual curiosity is an admirable thing. But no further scientific knowledge about the physics of climate change is necessary to act effectively as an engaged citizen. (If anything, knowledge about the range and efficacy of policy responses is much more important — and that’s an area where the public is, if anything, more ignorant.)

The entire debate over the Mooney/Nisbet article seems premised on figuring out the best way to cajole the public to learn more science. But the public doesn’t necessarily need more science, and the level of scientific information it does need can be explained by any educated layman. So whatever role scientists play in the public sphere, it is not as expert science educators.

I realize that’s somewhat counter-intuitive. If scientists don’t enter the public sphere to educate the public about science, what good are they? Why shouldn’t they just stay in the lab and write peer-reviewed papers?

The answer is simple, and sociological: our culture imbues scientists with an enormous amount of authority. They are our modern day priests and shamans. They are viewed (justifiably, I think) as emissaries of a discipline that has unique insight on Truth.

The question for scientists in the public sphere is: to what end do they want to use that authority? This is getting long, so I’ll end there. More in a later post.