I’m picking up a lot of good energy and ideas — and meeting multitudes of kindred spirits — at the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) meetings this weekend. I’ve been meaning to attend these meetings for years, so I jumped at the invitation to give a paper and let my (science) geek flag fly.
The most provocative session was a huge plenary on public engagement titled Science is Not Enough, moderated by former CNN correspondent and anchor Frank Cesno. The panelists were James Hansen (climate change scientist and author of Storms of my Grandchildren), Olivia Judson (evolutionary biologist and author of Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation), and the irrepressible Hans Rosling (international health innovator, known for his amazing TED talks and, of course, a TSP podcast).
Their themes will be familiar to TSP readers: (1) science is in a “street fight” with anti-science; (2) we could and should do a better job communicating scientific evidence to broader publics; (3) science reporting is often geared less toward accurately characterizing the state of knowledge in a field and more toward conveying two extreme positions; (4) the continuing struggle to simplify, clarify, and communicate our research without dumbing it down or burying important caveats; and, (5) the tensions between value-neutral objectivity and advocacy in public communication.
The panelists came from distinctly different places on these issues and their conversation seemed to echo conversations I’ve had with Doug Hartmann at our weekly editorial meetings. Dr. Judson saw her role as stoking scientific imaginations with the curiosity to know and the passion to care. Dr. Hansen more sharply emphasized how money and power could overwhelm scientific mesages (e.g., the petrochemical industry on climate change) and our responsibility as scientists to subsequent generations. Dr. Rosling viewed his role as seizing upon and illuminating intersections of public ignorance and indisputable scientific consensus.
There were lighter moments, of course, and a good bit more scatological humor than one might expect at the AAAS meetings. Hans Rosling was incredulous when other panelists claimed not to have time for facebook or twitter, for example, saying “that’s like not having time to use paper on the toilet.” He also got off a nice line about “peeing your trousers in winter” that I’ll just have to save for my next lecture.
My own talk was in an early morning session on mass incarceration, organized by Bill Pridemore and Bob Crutchfield on behalf of the American Society of Criminology. The papers were strong, the audience offered great insights and questions, and some supersharp journalists followed-up afterwards with the sort of penetrating questions that took me years to formulate.
And I guess that’s the challenge and the promise of good science communication. If a roomful of curious non-experts can somehow apprehend the crux of the biscuit at 8 am on a Saturday, there’s no reason that sites like TSP can’t do our bit to bring social scientific knowledge and information to broader public visibility and influence.