Thursday, May 31, 2012

Science needs Communication, not more Science

Again in an ongoing series of Stump the Technical Writer, I offer the following from Science News: Climate Skepticism not Rooted in Science Illiteracy.

Janet Raloff writes:
People who strongly resist data indicating that human-induced climate change could spell catastrophe aren’t ignorant about science or numerical reasoning. Quite the opposite, a new study finds: High science literacy actually boosts the likelihood that certain people will challenge what constitutes credible climate science.
I can hear a lot of hard-wired technical writing minds out there exploding. “What, what, what? You mean all that time I spent explaining the science behind climate change (or nuclear power, or whatever sciencey aspect you’re trying to explain) is for naught? Not really. The ability to explain science in a clear way is still a valuable part of the technical writer’s art.

But it’s not enough. Per the study conducted by researchers at Yale, The Ohio State University, George Washington University, and Temple University concludes that receptivity to climate science “depends more on cultural factors such as attitudes towards commerce, government regulation, and individualism than on scientific literacy.”

“Simply improving the clarity of scientific information will not dispel public conflict,” Raloff quotes the study as saying.

So what is a technical writer to do?

Stick with the science, obviously – there’s no sense in slacking in clear explanations of scientific concepts just because their weight isn’t as heavy in some minds as in others.

Stop condescending, obviously. I know technical writers are supposed to be neutral, but I’ve read plenty of scientific writing that pretty much takes the reader by the hand, pats it a few times and then shuffles the average reader out of the room when the hard science comes flying.

Here’s something to consider: Take a debate class or two. Study persuasive writing techniques and critical thinking techniques. Come into the argument armed with reasonable discussion, refutation, exploration, etc., of the cultural factors which some readers lend more credence to.

Here’s what the study’s authors suggest:
One aim of science communication, we submit, should be to dispel this tragedy of the risk-perception commons. A communication strategy that focuses only on transmission of sound scientific information, our results suggest, is unlikely to do that. As worthwhile as it would be, simply improving the clarity of scientific information will not dispel public conflict so long as the climate-change debate continues to feature cultural meanings that divide citizens of opposing world-views.

As citizens understandably tend to conform their beliefs about societal risk to beliefs that predominate among their peers, communicators should endeavor to create a deliberative climate in which accepting the best available science does not threaten any group’s values. Effective strategies include use of culturally diverse communicators, whose affinity with different communities enhances their credibility, and information-framing techniques that invest policy solutions with resonances congenial to diverse groups. Perfecting such techniques through a new science of science communication is a public good of singular importance.
The difficulty lies not in explaining the science, the study concludes, but in demonstrating how the science should influence individuals whose perceptions of the individual impact of climate change lead them to believe nothing can be done on an individual basis to effect change or that nothing should be done because the proposed solutions impact too much on individual freedom, commerce, and other cultural factors. This is where many scientists get into trouble because it means “meddling” in other sciences (the soft kind) basically sociology and psychology. And this is where most science journalism gets into trouble because most science journalists put too much emphasis on explaining the science and too little on the sociological reasoning that is also evidently required – rather, they go to experts who repeat the false claim that it’s the science that’s not being understood (implying the average person is too stupid to understand it) and who frame the sociological aspects via derision and condescension, rather than from the perspective of understanding and attempting to shift the frame of reference.

A hard task, this.

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