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Paradigm Sheep

Lessons From a Fledging—And Funny—Media Boot Camp for Scientists

Cloned sheep SOURCE: AP/Claire Arron Young scientists today have a hunger for outreach training. Here are some concepts, conceits, and lessons learned from an attempt to help them deal with the media. Above: cloned sheep.

When I originally agreed, along with my colleague Matthew Nisbet, to conduct a day long media training “boot camp” at the California Institute of Technology, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Granted, I knew of longstanding problems between scientists and the media—the disconnect has even been dubbed a “two cultures” problem, one in which all too many journalists find scientists dry and inaccessible even as all too many scientists find journalists sensationalist and inaccurate. But I had no idea how an audience of students at Caltech, that bastion of superstar scientific research and home to a pantheon of Nobel Laureates, would respond to this attempt to help them bridge the divide.

In the aftermath, however, I’m highly enthusiastic. I sense a strong hunger among young scientists (and especially graduate students and postdocs, who stare down a highly uncertain job market) for better training in dealing with the media—not to mention in learning how to explain and share their research with friends, family, and other people very close to them.

Plus, it turns out that creating productive collisions between scientific content and media formats can be a heck of a lot of fun–particularly when we got to talking about sheep (but more on that later).

Scientists have long held to a kind of classroom-oriented, one-way model for the dissemination of their knowledge—e.g., they know the science, they tell it, the public understands it and accepts it.

Working with Nisbet, we started off the boot camp on a fairly scholarly footing—assigning the students a list of readings about science, media, and the public from top journals like Public Understanding of Science and Science Communication. Interestingly, these were not the sort of readings that the students (ranging from undergraduates to postdocs; we also had several participants who worked at Caltech) seemed to have encountered before.

This set the stage for a morning session in which Nisbet outlined the progress made in the fields of communication and science studies over several decades as scholars have parsed how scientists interact with different segments of the public and seek to communicate. A core issue: Scientists have long held to a kind of classroom-oriented, one-way model for the dissemination of their knowledge—e.g., they know the science, they tell it, the public understands it and accepts it. And everybody’s happy. Except, that’s not what really happens out in the world.

In contrast, evidence from the latest installment of the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators report—whose seventh chapter traditionally focuses on public attitudes and understanding of science—suggests that while Americans share a broad respect for science, they don’t unquestioningly accept what it tells them, especially if they perceive a conflict between that information and personal values or experiences. This Nisbet illustrated, in part, with some revealing polling data culled from the NSF report: Only 42 percent of Americans agreed with the statement “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals”; but 74 percent agreed after the following wording change: “according to the theory of evolution, human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” In short, people know very well what the science says—but they also reserve the right to reject it.

A similar point came across when we surveyed one of the classic studies concerning how different publics interact with and apprehend scientific information. British science studies scholar Brian Wynne has written extensively on the experience of Cumbrian sheep farmers who, in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, found government scientists suddenly ordering them to stop moving and selling their sheep due to radioactive fallout risk. The sheep farmers rely, for their livelihood, upon raising lambs high in the British Lake District’s famous uplands—think landscapes out of a William Wordsworth poem—and here came the experts telling them they had to put their business on hold to wait for sheep and soil radiation levels to go down.

At first, the farmers took the scientists’ advice and waited. But the government experts’ confident predictions that contamination levels would quickly clear up proved incorrect, and the ban on the sheep trade was extended indefinitely—threatening farmers with ruin. Meanwhile, the scientists began to set up experiments on the sheep, but ignored the farmers’ specialized knowledge of how they behave; consequently, the experiments failed. (Here, feel free to imagine startled and upset sheep jumping all over nerdy researchers.) It didn’t help matters that a nearby nuclear reactor was known to have undergone a previous accident and caused radiation contamination in the area—and there were longstanding suspicions in the community that this had been covered up.

We need a “paradigm sheep” in how scientists think about interacting with the public.

In short, the sheep farmers became increasingly distrustful of the arrogant assertions of government scientists who didn’t seem to credit their own sophisticated understanding of all things sheep-related. And they had every right to be. The scientists weren’t communicating or even taking their audience seriously, and so kept making fairly bone-headed mistakes. Hence the joke that came up later with the Caltech students, over beer and dinner: We need a “paradigm sheep” in how scientists think about interacting with the public.

The afternoon at Caltech was my turn: I had to lead a more hands-on media training for scientists who might someday find themselves being interviewed for print or radio or even sitting in front of the camera. So I started out by showing students examples of scientists involved in mass communication that I’d referenced in previous Science Progress columns—Brian Greene on The Colbert Report, several scientists appearing on ABC’s Good Morning America. I then moved on to lists of do’s and don’t for dealing with the media—do challenge journalists’ angles and incorrect reports; don’t tell them things you wouldn’t want to see appear on the front page of The New York Times.

The final segment then focused on teaching the scientists how to draw up and deliver a “message.” One commonly suggested approach is to outline a triangle-shaped diagram with your simple message written in the middle, three supporting points at each point of the triangle, and along each side, three talking points (expressed in “sound bites”) that support those points. I made the scientists break into teams, come up with messages, and appoint one of their number to appear on “The Mooney Report”—a mock interview program for a general audience—in which I sought to knock them off message.

The scientists did a great job, in general, but there were certainly moments when it wasn’t hard to drag them away from talking about what they wanted to talk about. At one point a scientist seeking to explain advances in cell reprogramming referred to research using “mouse models.” I asked her if they were attractive. When another scientist tried to explain how ice discovered on Mars can tell us about past climates on the planet, I asked about Martian canals and then we spent much of the time discussing extraterrestrial life (off message!). And then came the scientist designated to explain nanotechnology—I asked him “How small is small?”, and pretended to be obsessed with nanotech’s fashion implications. Not at all what he was expecting.

From all of this, I learned that I’m a bit of a smart aleck. But I’m confident the students learned something much more important: The language and approach they use to talk with their peers just can’t dominate their approach to communicating with everyone else, least of all the media. That’s a message that seems to strike home these days among many, many young scientists—but the question remains, will broader scientific institutions embrace it as well?

Chris Mooney is a contributing editor to Science Progress and the author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs on The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum.

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