needed: fewer communicators, more scientists

December 7, 2010

If you’re a scientist and you’re concerned about how your field is viewed by the public and by politicians whose favorite publicity stunts include stoking anti-scientific platitudes, start learning how to make your case to those around you or someone else is going to do it for you. And you might not like the results of what will happen. I’ll give you an example. A society of geoscientists and engineers is getting a new board member to help direct a number of communication efforts in Washington and the media. That board member? Why the Great Framer and self-appointed expert in science communication Chris Mooney. Whose calling card is to blame scientists for denialists, cranks, quacks, and bad science education while blithely ignoring any and all replies from the very people he attacks, and cozy up to the Discovery Institute’s former sugar daddy, Templeton for a decent chunk of change. I’d say this would go over like a lead balloon, but I’ve seen that Mythbuster’s episode, so I’m just going to say that this will not end well for the geoscientists he’s supposed to help represent. Not at all.

one way

And strangely, over at Bad Astronomy, Phil is busy congratulating Mooney and shrugging off any objections to his new post, something I really didn’t expect to see. Now, besides the problems with Chris I catalogued in a number of posts, from his cluelessness, to his thin skin and personal vendettas against atheists, and his now infamous promotion of a liar who told him what he wanted to hear, there’s another issue that deserves to be examined, an issue that really applies to the way communication has to be done today. One of Mooney’s greatest shortfalls is his insistence on talking at people from on high rather than talking to them. He’s good at writing a post or an article, then making a follow up referring to "disgruntled critics" in another entry, but he just can’t seem to deal with rolling up his sleeves, getting into a discussion thread, and fielding questions. That’s simply too much for our great communicator. And so is actually acknowledging criticism or addressing any of his critics as anything more than "angry culture warriors with an axe to grind," as if he’s so brilliant that only an unbalanced savage could possibly disagree with his sage pronouncements. And by sage pronouncements, I mean summary of scientific manufactroversies and pleas for everyone to get along without actually explaining how exactly we’re supposed to get along or elaborating any of his vague and half-formed ideas.

And yet, he’s racking up meaningless, fluffy titles, claims to be an expert in communicating science, and really wants to explain what you do in your lab to the world to get another paycheck. Would you want to give him the free reign to explain your research to the world, knowing full well that any misunderstanding or any hostility he notes coming from denialists and cranks will be blamed on you? The days when researchers could hide in a lab and let the PR people do the talking are gone. Since you’re the one doing your research, you can make the strongest case for why it should be funded, why it should continue, and why the cranks are wrong. As long as you know that the data only speaks for itself to experts and are willing to learn how to break it down to a public that doesn’t know much about what you do if anything at all, you will be the best advocate for your work. And in communicating your work to the public, you have to be willing to draw a line in the sand and call out distortion, spin, lies, and denialism in the name of politics or religious ideology instead of letting thin-skinned, mewing nervous ninnies and bullshit artists who cower at the thought of offending someone who believes that fossils are just Satan’s trick to deceive him into thinking the Earth is older than 6,000 years old, call the shots on how your work is to be presented to the outside world. Let’s not be so civil that we bow before inanity.

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  • I guess my question is, how is he getting these positions? I’m not arguing your post at all – I’m trying to figure out how so many people seem to be missing his ineffectuality (or is that ineffectualness)? Yes, he wrote a couple of books, one of which was practically panned. Yes, he’s done podcasts and blogs, but that applies to quite a few people who accomplish a hell of a lot more. And yes, Sock Puppet Theatre was a fiasco that is indelibly linked to his name now, as are the book reviews and the pointless duel with Jerry Coyne. Hell, I’ve been told most employers do Google searches now for your average job applicant – do they not do it for boardmembers?

    Ah, well – such is life. Competence is not a virtue, it seems.

  • It’s called access. It’s why diselected Senators can earn six figure incomes for hanging around the halls of Congress, sitting in posh resteurant bars, and smoozing with sitting politicians and officials they hardly know. Because their name will get them access. The director of the prestigious Institute of Everything could probably get to see said MC sometime next year, in his office, for maybe ten minutes.