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It’s not the PR, It’s the Practice, People

Posted by softestpawn on March 17, 2010

Every now and then, news reaches the mainstream media that scientists somewhere have got something wrong, or behaved in not quite the objective and open manner they pretend to. Sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not.

There follows a public huff about scientists not knowing everything, about how they can’t be trusted. Scientists then discuss how best to ‘fix’ the problems of communicating the uncertainties of science to the public against so-called hostile anti-sciencers while retaining objectivity and authority.

These starting assumptions result in discussions that are founded on very thin air. For a start:

There is no such thing as ‘scientists’

There is a tendency to label a wide variety of communities of researchers as ‘scientists’, and the body of knowledge that they produce (and only they produce) as ‘science’.

We all have some rough idea about what a scientist is, but when you look for real common factors we find the definition either gets so vague that it includes people we wouldn’t normally call scientists, or so specific that it excludes people we would.

To be pedantic, we could take the definition of science – either the thing (a systematic body of knowledge) or the practice (a way of reliably acquiring that knowledge) – and we can include huge swathes of human activity in that. Understanding what is happening in Eastenders counts, as does how to effectively light theatre shows, or what happens around black holes.

Even when we look at what is commonly held as the realm of scientists – academic research in the ‘hard’ sciences of physics and chemistry and biology and so on – we find huge varieties in how science is gathered. Compare the somewhat haphazard work of astronomers discovering the secrets of the universe with the strictly supervised and rigorous controls imposed on those discovering the effectiveness of medical treatments.  Compare the apparent working practices of climate scientists with those flight scientists who have to ensure that the new alloys and structures in that airframe will really hold together in all weathers.

The overlapping of expertise in any modern field is far too broad for there to be any single skillset for the experts involved: astronomy for example needs not just ‘ordinary’ astrophysics, but statistical skills to analyse the data, software skills to build the tools to do so, archiving skills to manage petabyte data sets, mechanical engineering skills to commission the instruments. Even within astronomy there is radio astronomy, X-ray, optical, etc, all with very different knowledge sets.  Then there are amateur astronomers who offer a very different set of skills outwith the usual academic environment.

It’s a group effort, and the skillsets sometimes fall into what might be seen as professional roles, rather than ‘scientific’.

When evaluating expert opinion we should be clear about quite where the expertise lies. ‘Scientist’ is a title, not a role.

So we have experts from various research fields trying to communicate their findings to the public. But who is this ‘public’ anyway?

There is no such thing as ‘the public’

The assumption that there is a great unwashed of mostly ignorant people who have to be convinced by experts doesn’t properly… …wash.

Amongst the people the researchers are trying to reach are other researchers, for example. Anyone trying to communicate the fascinations of neutron stars, or the structure of fungal spores, will be dealing with nuclear physicists, with biologists, with operations researchers, with historians, with theoretical statisticians, all of whom are also familiar with the academic work environment.

The audience includes people who have to be extremely rigorous about their work. Bridge designers, airframe engineers and supermarket supply chain organisers are all familiar with bringing new theories to the end users in a thoroughly tested and ‘proved’ environment.

It includes people who are quite capable of thinking critically. Commercial statisticians, professional software engineers, private practice psychologists and police detectives all have to apply such practices to their work, whether or not we do in general.

Even the semi-mythical unwashed ignorant masses have come across uncertainty and caveats. Anyone who has bet on football pools is familiar with them, whether or not they understand them properly.

The cynicism

Distrust in ‘scientists’ partly comes from the insistence by some researchers to talk about ‘science’ as a single large body of knowledge, discovered by and propogated through some large community of ‘scientists’. Thus any clear scientific failure by people who call themselves ‘scientists’ will taint all those others who similarly call themselves ‘scientists’.

But more significantly, the audience is quite aware of the way in which many fields do their research, and that way is simply not up to scratch.

The review process is explained earnestly or condescendingly as the shining light of scientific progress, when any reasonable cynic sees it as essentially a large rumour mill. ‘Expert committees’ made up of the very people that it is supposed to be reviewing is pointedly laughable. There are claims that ‘science’ is done openly and in an unbiased and criticism-welcoming scrum of argument, when it is plainly not. And there is some faulty reporting via the history of science that ‘science’ is somehow incremental, that we only improve on previous models and do not go down long, dark, blind alleys.

The Fix

A “Public Relations” exercise doesn’t fix the basic issues. It could possibly be used to try and cover them up, but few people are really interested in that – there is a genuine general intent to improve the dissemination of knowledge.

We have mechanisms for trust. We trust bridges, buildings, airplanes. We have even understood for a long, long time how to analyse evidence in sparse data sets, and with really quite morally fraught decisions to be made, in the legal courts.

These mechanisms are lacking in some fields for very good reasons: they take up effort, and sometimes we don’t need that kind of reliability. In astrophysics for example, as it doesn’t really affect us directly.

Communication is not about ‘scientists’ talking to ‘the public’, but rather experts talking to an audience that includes other experts. Some of those may in fact be more expert in some subfield than the expert holding forth. If the conclusions are based on shoddy software for example, then an ordinary lowly commercial software engineer is well placed to criticise those conclusions.

More importantly, we need to realise that it’s not just about the presentation, it’s about how the science is done.  Trust is earned. The way the work has been done must be right, but also must be shown to be right, and for that researchers who feel that trust is important could do worse than look at human activities where trust is vital, and where PR spin is almost non-existant.  Scientific expertise is already brought to a public in ways that it trusts, quietly and without fuss.

In contrast, circling the wagons and ‘protecting’ the work from public scrutiny, in order to defend it against hostile inexpert criticism, has widespread effects when it is occasionally exposed as dodgy. No matter whether the conclusions remain valid.

To reiterate, experts who want to be trusted must not just do the work that brings them expertise, but do extra work to show that they are objective in their assessments, and this includes showing how they do the work, in detail. This exposes that work to all sorts of criticism, much of it ignorant and much of it unwarranted. That means the work needs to be even more thorough and complete. And this too is a Good Thing for that work.

This is increasingly recognised amongst those who call themselves scientists, and implemeting this demonstrated thoroughness will earn trust that few PR campaigns or ‘communication engagements’ can equal.

Because it will be trust in the work under discussion, not transient manufactured trust in the semi-mythical field of ‘science’.


8 Responses to “It’s not the PR, It’s the Practice, People”

  1. jdc325 said

    “To reiterate, experts who want to be trusted must not just do the work that brings them expertise, but do extra work to show that they are objective in their assessments, and this includes showing how they do the work, in detail.”
    If you’re talking about a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty, then I think I know someone who might have agreed.

    “In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to
    help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the
    information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or

  2. Rita said

    Hey Martin, you moved!

    (anyway this got long, sorry)

    ‘To be pedantic, we could take the definition of science – either the thing (a systematic body of knowledge) or the practice (a way of reliably acquiring that knowledge) […]’

    Pedantic or not, we couldn’t. Science is the latter. The ‘thing’ keeps changing, the ‘practice’ is fundamentally kept constant. To put it in another way, if civilisation was about to be reset and you knew about it but were allowed to pass on one piece of information through the reset, what would you pass on? Rather than any ‘thing’ specific, most of us would probably pass on something about the ‘practice’ – try to keep the Dark Ages at bay, that sort of thing.

    I know you’re highly critical of the way Astronomers go about their science, and I’m not going to defend us beyond what’s defensible. I fundamentally agree with you that there are ways in which we can be more open and thorough (at the expense of extra work – although I’m not sure that such a strict business such as in the medical sciences would be most optimal! they have more to loose if they get it wrong as you say, but it’s not obvious they get to the ‘right’ answer any faster. that’s another post altogether, though), but I’m not convinced that’s where the problem really lies.

    I agree that science is perceived as the ‘thing’ and that many scientists speak of science as the ‘thing’ but you write as if it’s obvious that the latter is the cause is the former the consequence – I’m not convinced it is. Certainly today many scientists I know, when talking to the public (the real public, the non-scientist), feel compelled to talk authoritatively about the ‘thing’ as the ‘truth’ because the public _expects_ them to and will not feel satisfied if they do not learn about the ‘truth’. To a certain extent it’s irrelevant how we got ourselves in this situation, what’s important is that it needs to be changed. I think we agree there. But at the same time, _of course_ we should be telling the public about the ‘thing’! That’s why we’re here! It may not be the definite answer, but it’s the best answer we have so far and it’s not ours to own. So we tell them about the ‘thing’, but do not necessarily sell it as the ‘truth’.

    ‘Communication is not about ’scientists’ talking to ‘the public’, but rather experts talking to an audience that includes other experts.’

    I fundamentally disagree with this. It’s not either-or, why should it be? Both are essential, and they are very different from each other! Perhaps what you mean is that the ‘real-public’ would regain trust if communication with the ‘peer-scientist-public’ was improved – is that your point? That the ‘real-public’ distrusts the ‘practice’ first, and therefore the ‘thing’? You’d probably be right.

    But why do you assume that scientists condescendingly take the public as a bunch of ignorants who need to be convinced? A very few scientists do, but the vast majority doesn’t. And thankfully those who do often don’t see any point in talking to the public so there’s a self-regularisation mechanism right there. Of course that the public (all public now) is perfectly able to think rationally and critically – the whole exercise of science communication would be pointless if not, we’d be doing science education instead.

    But going back one paragraph, one of the reasons why the communication between the scientist and the two different sorts of public is so painfully different is that in the case of the ‘real-public’ this is NOT normally done directly. There’s the middle-man, in this case the media. It’s all too easy to blame it all on the media, but they do have an important role here which would be daft to ignore. This is changing now, with t’internet and blogs and all that, but I bet that more people watched Horizon’s episode on Cosmology that read Cosmic Variance. Mass media still largely shapes how the ‘real-public’ perceives the scientist, the ‘thing’ and the ‘practice’ and often this is _not_ how the scientist would have chosen to do it. And they have a different agenda, but again that’s another new post altogether.

    ‘This is increasingly recognised amongst those who call themselves scientists, and implemeting this demonstrated thoroughness will earn trust that few PR campaigns or ‘communication engagements’ can equal.’

    Would a more open ‘practice’ help? Yes. Would it magically restore trust between the non-scientist and the scientist? Not on itself. You’d still be left with the responsibility of communicating the ‘thing’ _and_ the emphasis on the practice, how it works, and why you should trust it even when often the ‘things’ are later proven to be wrong. That’s the ‘communication engagements’. You’d have a stronger foothold, in that your ‘practice’ would be inherently more trustworthy, but for as long as the media/scientists/whatever keep on focusing on the ‘thing’ (and other irrelevant aspects) you’re probably stuck fighting a loosing battle.

    • Thanks Rita, I think there’s a lot of interesting things there, especially around communicating the ‘thing’ (the conclusions, which is what everyone is interested in) compared to the difficulties of communicating the ‘practice’ which normally happens along different channels anyway.

      I do still believe however that removing the labels ‘public’ (heh, real or otherwise), ‘scientists’ and ‘non-scientists’ from the discussions about communication would help reveal what the problems are.

      And a small but important thing: I’m sorry if I come across as critical about the way astronomy is done, it’s not intended. As you say the rigour that medicine applies is probably not ‘optimal’ for astronomy, and I’d go so far as to say the current haphazard approaches are entirely suitable. The issue is that by lumping up all ‘science’ we don’t differentiate between the trustworthy fields and the less reliable ones.

  3. Stewart said

    Whilst ‘the public’ (the educated audience and the proles) are not irrelevant here, you appear to have (deliberately ?) missed out the mass media. As Rita points out the perception of the public is largely led the media. As the media has sped up over the last thirty years so the perceptions of the public (on all subjects, not just “science”) have swung ever more violently from one extreme to another.

    I’ll stick my neck out here and say that by and large the media doesn’t give a flying turd for the validity of anything (personal privacy, acurate “science” etc) as long as it makes a good headline. As such, unless the scientific community learns to feed the media monster as other canny operators (Simon Cowell ?) do, the public will get what journalists and editors think will sell, rather than what the ‘scientists’ have discovered/make/broken.

  4. (ported from the facebook comments to this blog entry, posted 13:00 on Mar 18)

    Another critically flawed assumption is that scientists communicate to the public.

    The media communicates to the “public” what the “scientists” and critics of science communicate to the media. It is the media who define to the public what scientists are. Regardless of your more considered opinion. And, indeed, the readers/viewers get their definition of the public from the media as well.

    You could most certainly sub-categorize “media”l: scientific journals, journalistic newspapers and other broadcasts, tabloid and sensationalist newspapers and TV, and even blogs such as your own…. See more

    Each category, will, in turn, define to their audience what Science is, who Scientists are, and even who the Public is.

    To supplant these definitions of “Scientists” and “Public” with your own won’t improve any communication between the two groups unless your definitions matches the definitions provided by the media source most frequented by your target audience.

    And, to demonstrate the ugly part of my point, the top three Newspapers in the UK are, in order:
    1) The Sun (tabloid)
    2) Daily Mirror (tabloid)
    3) Daily Mail (non-journalistic middle-market)

    Go ahead and try convincing the editors of either three that they should not talk of Scientists as a group. Go ahead. This will be fun.

    You can claim that your Leghorns shouldn’t be lumped in with the Dorkins from the neighbour’s farm, but when you get them to market, they’ll stilled be sold as chickens.

  5. It’s true that I’ve ignored the meeja middlement there; my feeling that the terms ‘scientists’ and ‘the public’ are misleading and should not be used applies as much to them. Even if they’ll probably ignore me 😛

    There is also direct access to researchers and experts through personal and institutional blogs, and communities such as those at scienceblogs, layscience and We are all in the gutter. And
    studies like this one
    on using them as a form of communication also tend to automatically make that artificial division of people.

  6. […] non-scientists then my job is much harder. This is one of the reasons I fundamentally disagree with Martin (although there are more!), in that there is such things as a scientist and there is such a thing […]

  7. […] is obviously a problem when trying to convey expert opinion to non experts, particularly decision makers. Decision makers have to weigh expert opinion from many different […]

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