Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Holy Grail for Science?

I've mentioned the issue of my frustration with public media several times over the years.  I wrote a whole essay about my experiences with TV science "documentary" producers, for instance.  The short version of all that is I've learned that it's just not possible to convey any meaningful message about my science in a 5-second soundbite.  In some scientific organizations, their PR folks actually try to 'coach' their scientists how to interact with reporters and show producers to try to get their science message across.  But this 'holy grail', like its namesake, is a myth!  There's no way to communicate meaningful scientific content in a soundbite!!

Why am I dredging up this topic once again?  Isn't that horse already dead?  Recently, a paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies director, Dr. James Hansen and his collaborators (abbreviated Hansen et al.).  You can download a copy of the paper free from this site.  In their paper, the authors make a case that the impact of global warming is clearly being reflected by an increased frequency of record heat in both space and time.  There was a press conference called to announce the contents of this new publication, which has triggered a firestorm of articles on the subject - here is one example.

Within the atmospheric science community, some dismay over this media brouhaha has been expressed in the circles I inhabit as a professional.  One particularly strident dispute of Hansen et al. was written by University of Washington Atmospheric Science Prof. Cliff Mass and posted on his blog, here.  In his blog, Prof. Mass disputes the validity of the science in the paper by Hansen et al., and is critical of the way in which the press conference turned the paper's results into a media 'event'.

Traditionally, criticism in science is presented to the "target" in advance of publication of the critical remarks, allowing the author(s) an opportunity to respond.  Unlike critical comments in a journal, Hansen et al. were not given such an opportunity before Prof. Mass's blog was posted.

It's my contention that science of any sort should not be carried out in the public media, including Internet blogs and forums, as well as TV and the print media.  Obviously, opinions about this stance vary, so let me try to explain in some detail why I feel this way about things.

All one needs to do is to pay attention to the present and past arguments about global warming in the public media to see for yourself that the discourse has been heated (pun intended) and typically nasty.  The science has been politicized (mostly by the climate change deniers but unfortunately, not completely) for reasons of their own.  Public news reporting always seeks the sensational, trying to goad the participants in a controversy into saying intemperate things, including ad hominem attacks on their opponents.  The attack grenades are lobbed back and forth in separate interviews or on opposing blog pages - the opponents generally engage in talking past one another.  How is the viewer of all this carnage supposed to learn about science from this invective-laden point-counterpoint (rather reminiscent of the old Saturday Nite Live skit)?  Most public media viewers are not scientists, but some are hoping to get some useful information by which they might draw personal conclusions.  In my opinion, not only is scientific discourse carried out in the public media unproductive in the sense of resolving issues within the science, but it does the public a huge disservice by misrepresenting how science really works and by failing to clarify the substantive issues for the layperson.

Not only is it impossible to convey scientific substance in a soundbite, but it's also unlikely that real clarification will be achieved even in an unreviewed blog of several pages.  Many blogs are simply polemics for the simple reason that without review, what we get are the biases of the blog writer.  Anyone who claims to be unbiased is, of course, either self-deceived or deceitful.  I certainly make no such claim!!  If you like, you can consider this blog a polemic ...

The appropriate place for scientific disputes to be carried out is within the pages of refereed journals and at scientific conferences.  One need not 'dumb down' the technical content of a scientific dispute in these traditional science venues - it's presumed that the disputants are capable of understanding the technical material and can focus on presenting their evidence and justifying their interpretations thereof.  In the ideal world, everyone has a chance to present their content and the validity of any published content has been vetted by this peer review process.  Of course, the reality of science can fall rather short of this ideal.  People who feel they have been muzzled by peer review may choose to present their material via the public media rather than refereed journals (where they can't pass peer review), claiming they've been victimized by the "brahmins" who support the consensus.  Such an accusation may not be entirely without basis, unfortunately.  But good science generally wins out in the end, even if individual scientists may not live to see it.

I doubt that dumping controversial ideas into the media, such as what we've seen with the whole issue of global warming, has done atmospheric science much good.  In fact, I believe it's done much more harm that good for the science.  And it's not serving the public well, either.  Scientific ignorance is expanding in this nation, it seems, and having an explosion of vitriolic rants in the public media isn't doing anything to help the nation resolve the important issues we all confront, such as how to deal with global warming. 

A scientific argument is often rooted in technical issues far beyond the layperson's ability to absorb in a public media presentation.  Moreover, scientific arguments are complicated by all sorts of nonlinear connections among a myriad of processes interacting to produce the observed results.  It can be very challenging to sort all that out even if one has been educated to the doctoral level and had many years of experience working on some topic.  With education and experience, scientists develop a sense of how much confidence they can have in their findings, and it typically is not absolute, 100% confidence.  Hence, scientists always want to convey qualifications - caveats about how to intepret their results - but to lay viewers, this sounds a lot like hedging or is incomprehensible and, therefore, boring.  What hope is there to convey the sort of nuanced scientific understanding so common among scientists and so rare in the public?

Assuming the science is done in an appropriate venue, the next challenge of presenting the results to the public stares us all in the face.  I wish I had a holy grail - a solution to that problem.  Unfortunately, I'm not that smart.  It's a separate issue, and one I prefer to defer for now, simply because I can't offer any credible solution.


Matt Bunkers said...

I hope Prof. Mass puts his money where his mouth is and follows up with a formal comment. I urged the same thing about a prior blog of his regarding a BAMS article on "extreme" climate events of 2011. Time will tell.

James Correia, Jr said...

The points you make are great. The larger point though hinges on the ability of scientists to communicate to the people for which they serve. This is where the majority of the money comes from and this is where the benefits of any science should end up. Whether we choose to embark on scientific communication to a more general audience by ourselves or through an intermediary (PR people, the more social of the scientific persuasion) is very important. In a vacuum there are those who will fill it with mis-information.

So on one hand, why not have blogs to foster informed discussion? Of course how this more social of discussions takes place should be treated with the same care as technical scientific communication (seeking to be clear and concise with a well crafted message). It should not be full of name calling, attacks on character, conspiracy theories, or other agendas. The messaging should be well crafted to address what is known or not known (spelling out theory or hypothesis) and the means by which we may continually update or create new theories and hypotheses.

Much in the way I appreciate your honesty in blogging whatever the topic happens to be, so too would the public be more interested in the process of science and discovery if exposed. Sure the results would be of interest if they were relevant to their interests or questions.

I think part of what we are witnessing here is the filling of a void in a public that is ravenous about information seeking, sometimes impatiently so. Such is the lesson of social media.

Chuck Doswell said...

James ... I deferred the question of how to communicate science effectively to the public, so this is drifting away from my point, actually. What concerns me is attempting to do real science via blogs - as exemplified by the Cliff Mass-Hansen et al. "discussion". If scientists want to have a discussion of some scientific issue, I don't think doing so by point-counterpoint in blogs is the way to go.

My own blogs implicitly include some attempt at explaining science to a wide audience, so clearly I don't see that as a problem. I'm not trying to carry on actual science via my blogs.

Matt ... I hope so, too.