Meryl Streep, Lindsay Lohan and the importance of staying above the fray in science communications

Carl Sagan: photo courtesy Brainpickings.org

Carl Sagan: photo courtesy Brainpickings.org

Carl Sagan, the astronomer and cosmologist (among many other things) once said: “We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology, and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That’s a clear prescription for disaster.”

The goal of two panel discussions at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in San Jose last week was to find ways to change that: to get the public to both understand and care more about science and technology; and to get scientists to do a better job of explaining both to them.

The first challenge of course is finding scientists who want to be part of this public conversation. Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, an ecologist who studies rain forests, said for young scientists in particular it’s not just a matter of having the right skills, it’s also a matter of finding the time:

“One of the challenges of scientific engagement is that just being a scientist is a full-time job, and it’s hard to think about doing public engagement when you are trying to build a career.”

Dr. Anthony Dudo, who studies the intersection of science, media and society, says one thing universities can do is encourage outreach and engagement, maybe even make it a factor in a teacher getting tenure. He says there are a lot of researchers who are happy to do this kind of outreach – either through public talks or media interviews – and they do it for all sorts of reasons.

“Many do it because it’s something they enjoy, they consider it a civic duty, something that sparks public interest in science and raises awareness about their field. In addition some say it can enhance their own scientific reputation and increase visibility for funding.”

But there is a risk. Some scientists reported facing a backlash from colleagues who felt they were trying to hog the limelight. They fell victim to what is called the “Carl Sagan” effect, which holds that if someone is spending that much time and effort communicating science to the public they must not be a very good scientist to start with.

No one could accuse Stanford’s Dr. Noah Diffenbaugh of not being a good scientist – he specializes in studying climate change and you can read his extensive resume here –  but he is also a gifted communicator, something he says he feels is his duty:

“I feel it is my responsibility to answer questions from the public when asked, because my research group is publicly funded by taxpayer dollars through agencies like the NSF. And as a public citizen I feel responsible that if we are having a public dialogue about climate change that I should be part of that dialogue.”

But he says he is very careful to avoid taking sides in the debate. He tells of an interview he once heard where Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep talked about the importance of keeping her personal life and beliefs private (as opposed to Lindsay Lohan’s very public private life). Streep says as an actress she wants people to be able to look at her on screen and focus on the character she is playing, and not be distracted by thinking about any very public shenanigans she may have been involved in. Diffenbaugh says a scientist’s credibility depends on them doing the same:

“I stick to the facts and don’t express personal opinions or offer advocacy positions. I feel strong that in public discussions about climate change that someone in the conversation needs to be focused on evidence. It’s a role that scientists are fundamentally equipped to play.”

But even the best communicators are finding it increasingly hard to get their message into the media these days. Fewer and fewer newspapers or TV stations have skilled, experienced health and science writers, which makes it difficult to reach the public.

Lisa Krieger is an award-winning science journalist at the San Jose Mercury News. She says she finds it challenging getting stories she wants to write into the paper because she is competing for shrinking space against stories that might seem more relevant to local readers:

“Basic science is hard to cover because readers want to know how it will benefit them directly and sometimes these things are years, or even decades, away from having any real impact on people. And that’s a hard sell to an editor to get those kinds of stories into the paper.”

Krieger says the key to getting the message out is making it personal, tell stories about real people, about the real impact something could have on someone.

While acknowledging the challenges, and risks, of being a public voice and face for science – particularly when there is so much political polarization around science these days – everyone agreed that we need more scientists who are willing and able to talk about their work in ways that will engage the public, help them understand what is being done and why they should care.

For Carl Sagan (yes, him again) the reason why scientists should engage with the public was simple; to share knowledge about the wonders of the world we live in.

“It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works—that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.”

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