Scientists Can Be Dense

I love my scientist friends. They are endlessly generous with their time, patiently explaining to me the details of their work. But (can we talk frankly), they can be absolutely dense when it comes to understanding what happens at the interfaces between their words, my words, and the minds of readers.

I am going to print out hundreds of copies of the piece in tomorrow’s Science by Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney, to hand out to every scientist I meet:

[M]any scientists retain the well-intentioned belief that, if laypeople better understood technical complexities from news coverage, their viewpoints would be more like scientists’, and controversy would subside. In reality, citizens do not use the news media as scientists assume.


  1. I’ve commented to Chris many times about this very thing.

    We, simply, do not teach our scientists how to communicate their work to non-scientists. A segment of my work is translating sceintific information into actionable information for policymakers, because scientific information is just plopped down and it sits there. The IPCC scenario bit? Horrible. Most people asked WTF is a scenario?!? Did anyone explain? No. Us ecologically-trained folk use them all the time, as do many business and military folks, so we knew. But how many times did you see “scenario” in scare quotes? Ugh. Anyway,

    Whether we need to have an advocacy/translator/liason layer or spend an extra semester/quarter on teaching science students how to communicate, I don’t care. Something must change.




  2. I have to disagree with Dano. Scientists *are* trained on how to communicate work to non-scientists, by spending a large chunk of graduate school working as teaching assistants. That might be part of the problem — the whole point of a semester-long class over a five-minute intro is that one has time to delve into the technical details.

  3. Andre, they are teaching educated people complex subjects. They are not making understandable complex subjects to people uneducated in the discipline.



  4. I teach intro science classes in a large university. I spend a third of the total resources of a given class on undoing fundamental misunderstandings of science that emerge from the dumbing down of science in the media and public discourse. This has to be done in order to bring the discussion to a point of understanding the actual science.

    While I agree that scientists have to do a better job of interfacing with the public, I’m afraid I can’t support “spinning” and dumbing down the concepts to the point that they become incorrect. It is the reaction to that problem that you are seeing among scientists across the blogosphere!

    I’ve got a couple of posts on it, if you are interested. This one is the most recent:

  5. Greg –

    I’d love to hear more about the fundamental misunderstandings, and where they’re coming from.

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