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We Are All Politicians Now: Science Communication and the Romney 47 Percent Video

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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This week, presidential candidate Mitt Romney got into hot water after he made some remarks at a fundraiser attended by the wealthy that seemed to denigrate middle-class and poor Americans. Similarly, last week, Bill Nye released a frank video denouncing creationism that sent some religious viewers into a tizzy and prompted the Creation Museum to release their own video countering his message. Both of these public figures seemed to be addressing their base of supporters—not recognizing that everyone else could be watching.

I had a rousing discussion here in the blogosphere about these events, involving science bloggers Greg Laden and Justin Starr. Starr posed a question that got me thinking. In a world where nothing is off the record, and anything we do or say can suddenly appear on YouTube, what can we do to energize our base of supporters? How can we avoid making the same mistakes as Romney and Nye? It seems to me that we scientists have three winning options here, all borrowed from politics.

The first option for energizing science fans—and for crafting all our messages—is to stay positive. When politicians talk about “hope” and “change” and making a better life for the American people and so on, that’s what they are doing. It may sometimes feel generic, but it’s hard to criticize. Much of science communication works perfectly well in this mode—there’s typically nothing contentious about discovering a new kind of galaxy or learning how whale sharks migrate.

The second option is to craft a negative message doing your best to forecast the responses you’ll get from your opponents and tailoring your message to anticipate those responses. Taking this approach often means ratcheting up the emotional appeal. For example, in an effort to counter widespread childhood obesity and diabetes, the United States Department of Agriculture released new standards limiting the number of calories in a school lunch. Shortly thereafter, Representatives Steve King and Tim Huelskamp introduced a bill that would remove these limits, called the “no hungry kids” act. The name of this act, with its emotional appeal, illustrates this approach.

I argued that scientists could address rampant creationism with a video campaign modeled on the ad campaigns crafted by the anti-smoking lobby. I showed some example videos about the dangers of smoking that use music and child actors to speak to the heart of the viewer. This approach also exemplifies the second option; it is hard to combat such an emotional appeal with any sort of logical argument.

A third option is to try to speak to multiple groups at once. Pundits commented that when Mitt Romney spoke of “life” “marriage” and “religious liberty” in Tampa this month, he subtly referenced the slogan of a conservative political group called the family research council. Romney placed each of the above terms at the end of successive sentences to make the reference less overt, yet still allow those involved in this political group to hear them. In politics, this technique is called a “dog whistle,” referring to a high-pitched sound audible to dogs but not to humans.

Scientists giving a colloquium sometimes use a similar technique. When you give a scientific colloquium, you generally face a diverse audience: a mix of experts and non-experts. To keep the experts entertained while introducing your material in such a way that the non-experts can understand it, we sometimes use what are called “depth spikes”. A depth spike is a kind of a side comment made using the jargon of the field. E.g. “For those of you who work on photochemistry, this trend is equivalent to the Stark-Einstein law.”

It may seem restrictive to be forced into these three modes of communicating. Perhaps scientists should always be candid and unfettered by political concerns. Or perhaps the free flow of information that underlies this trend could ultimately serve science. Science is about uncovering the truth, and open communication helps the truth come out faster.

Either way there is no turning back; in the age of the Internet, what seems like it should be private often isn’t, and we must adapt. When scientists enter the public arena, we must remember the Romney gaffe, the Climategate scandal and the reaction to Bill Nye’s video. We are all politicians now.

Marc Kuchner About the Author: Marc Kuchner is the author of the book Marketing for Scientists published by Island Press. For more information, go to or follow him on Twitter @marckuchner. Follow on Twitter @marckuchner.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 13 Comments

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  1. 1. julianpenrod 12:24 pm 09/24/2012

    This may cause this to be removed but, Marc Kucher, lyingly pretending to support openness and straightforwardness is “science” reporting, instead engages in the same machinations he claims to condemn.
    Note, for example, how he starts off the article. He says Mitt Romney’s 47% comment “seemed to denigrate middle class and poor Americans”. While Bill’s Nye’s “frank” video sent some religious individuals into a mockingly termed “tizzy”. Calling the working half of the populace as acting like “victims” and demanding being taken care of does denigrate them! Meanwhile, Bill Nye’s video lied when it inidcated that creationists couldn’t be physicists, chemists, engineers, even biologists, since it’s possible to reel off huge lists of individuals who did well in thoese fields, even advanced “science”, even though they were creationists!
    Add the characteristically suggestive reference to creationism as “rampant”. It’s not running through the streets, burning down buildings! It’s gaining adherents because, among other things, “science” shills are lying that creationists can’t be physicists, engineer, chemists, even biologists, and they are gratuitously calling creationism “rampant”!
    Notice, also, the craven touch of referring to the Family Research Council without capital letters! The same is also often to be seen in “science” devotee atheists when they refer to God, they write His name with a lower case “g”. They know and admit they are speaking of the individual, not the general term for a deity, but they do it, anyway. They term themselves “scientists” but they engage in an action that does absolutely no good, whatsoever, and even undermine their claims. They insist there is no God, yet deliberately act out of spite to insult Him!
    But note the recommendations, what is considered faults of “spun” political speech, emphasizing only the positive aspects of your side, and don’t mention the faults of your side, even though they may harm the people you’re trying to con; mentioning only the negative facets of the other side, even if there are points that could help others; using tag phrases, and apparently deliberately imposing technical jargon, to appeal to the devotees and apparently con the unwarythat “science” can be trusted.
    Note Marc Kucher claims “there’s typically nothing contentious about discovering a new kind of galaxy or learning how whale sharks migrate”. Except that, among other things, the sky has been mapped already and a new kind of galaxy, which would have to be close by or else it would not constitute a stable system called a “galaxy”, would have to be somehing that was never seen before, even though pictures of it were taken decades ago! The same for how whale sharks behave. Face it, only in the last decade was it “revealed” that sharks leap out of the water. The gullible were impressed, those who understood things knew that man has been on the oceans for thousands of years and, if such activity was natural, it would have been seen long ago! The fact is, among othe things, “science” consists of a lot of frauds and scams posing as “discoveries”, acting as entertainment to con the gullible into supporting more government funneling of money into fake “research”.

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  2. 2. huntershoptaw 12:25 pm 09/24/2012

    OOooor, we could all just say what we believe and rightfully be called down when our beliefs are composed of biased, wrong and harmful information. In a world of facts and easy access to those facts, there is no logical reason people to appeal to emotion and negate facts flat out. If your base cannot or will not validate a claim or position based on its fact then it’s because they choose to be willfully ignorant in order to support their own comfortable beliefs, whether this is in science, politics or religion.

    I am adamant about only posting opinions I fervently believe and will stand behind – or – and this is a big one – will openly apologize for should my beliefs be shown not to be based on facts. I think to often we as a people are shown we are wrong and instead of changing our course, feel that the correct option is to stubbornly acknowledge that it is wrong, but its okay cause its how we feel and that somehow makes it right.

    Emotion and opinion do not create fact from falsehood.

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  3. 3. julianpenrod 1:52 pm 09/24/2012

    With respect to huntershoptaw’s comment, amog other things, even “science” is biased. There is no “science” devotee who will not fight any presentation that undermines “evolution” of “relativity”, even if it completely disproves them. They simply will not doubt them. Even though not one of them will have seen actual “evidence” or “proof” that they are true.
    Which brings up another point. huntershoptaw talks brightly of “easy access to facts”, that could not be further from the truth. Among other things, jsut because something is mentioned on the internet does not necessarily mean it’s true. And, by “science” standards, if something has not been proved, it cannot be said to be true. Yet note how many “science” devotees take so many things wholly, utterly and completely on faith. There is not one “science” devotee that has seen actual proof that organisms evolve. They toss off claims of having seen fossils, but they have seen no proof those fossils are genuine and not resin casts passed off as real. And, for that matter, they have seen no proof that animals do not spontaneously generate, that is, suddenly come into being without precursor. The recent discovery of the Lesulas money, which should have been documented at least in native stories or descriptions sometime in the past few centuries at least! They have not seen “relativity” work. Atomic bombs go off not by relativity but by subatomic particles destabilizing stable nuclei and causing them to break apart due to electrostatic repulsion. Some claim GPS devices use relativistic Doppler shifts with satellites, but all they have seen is the GPS work, they did not look on the inside to see it use relativistic considerations!
    The truth of the matter is that “science” devotees take absolutely everything about “science” wholly on faith, they never once actually saw proof that claims were true. If all you depend on in what is “easily accessible”, then you are slave to those who put huge amounts of desired propaganda on the web and willingly and glad handingly provide claims of what they want to you to believe! Being able to think about the claims and actually prove for yourself if they’ve been proved or not can go a long way toward actually answering the question! But a plurality, if not a majority, of “science” devottes refuse to do that.

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  4. 4. RSchmidt 2:40 pm 09/24/2012

    “They insist there is no God, yet deliberately act out of spite to insult Him!” Actually they act to insult intellectual lemmings such as yourself. Your rant is another example of the pot calling the kettle. It is true, scientists are not perfect, that is why we have science. Science demands objective observation that can be replicated so that “personal truths” are not mistaken for fact. Science is self correcting. Religion is self perpetuating. When science makes as mistake, it is science that discovers it and fixes it. When religion makes a mistake, it denies it, persecutes those that mention it, bans the books that point it out, lies. It is science that ultimately brings to light the errors of religion.

    “The fact is, among othe things, “science” consists of a lot of frauds and scams posing as “discoveries”, acting as entertainment to con the gullible into supporting more government funneling of money into fake “research”.” conspiracy theories are the refuge for those without evidence. Your arguments are as week as your ideology. But you support Bill Nye’s arguments. You clearly show that religious fanatics are incapable of rational thought.

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  5. 5. Sisko 2:56 pm 09/24/2012

    It is interesting that R Schmidt is the one who points out that the scientific process is one involving being skeptical but he regularily calls people deniers who view the science differently than him on the topic of climate change.

    This publication is becoming so biased in it articles and publications as to be laughable.

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  6. 6. julianpenrod 4:36 pm 09/24/2012

    A typical “science” devotee reaction from RSchmidt, among other things, violating everything they claim to stand for.
    Writing the name of God with a lowercase “g” is “to insult intellectual lemmings”. First, if “science” has so much on the ball, as RSchmidt wants to suggest, why resort to insult? If you’re so much in the right and can prove it, then do so. Insult in the place of proof is immature, is infantile and does not prove you right or the other wrong! Yet RSchmidt doesn’t even disavow the practice, they praise it and endorse it!
    Of course, RSchmidt doesn’t address “science” devotees engaging in writing the name of God incorrectly if it does no good in any way. In so many ways, “science” devotees have followed Marc Kucher’s advice for a long time, among othe things “addressing” the faults which “science” possesses in spades not by justifying or explaining them but pointing out others’ faults. In fact, “science” has many flaws and cannot justify any and never even tries.
    And, of course, the craven tactic of referring to my comment as a “rant” is just another example of “science” lying, and depending on just appealing to devotees who, if they accept that deceitful characterization, only brand themselves as illegitimate.
    As for religion “correcting itself”, God loves mankind and He has no intention of changing; God respects high principle and has no intention of changing that, either. And, as I pointed out, “science” devotees have absolutely nothing they can place in your hand to prove “evolution”, the “Big Bang”, “relativity”, any of that. They have only “scientists” ordering people what to believe from behind “laboratory” doors and their own slavish determination to promote that. There is no “science” devotee who can provably provide evidence of anything absolutely validated that convinced them to believe “science”.
    And as for flaws, “science” never contradicted the “official story” of September 11, even though it is full of holes; “scientists” never fought the insistence that Iraq had banned weapons systems; “scientists” never countered the lie that “Iraqi soldiers took Kuwaiti infants from incubators and dropped them on the floor to die” even though that was patently non credible; “science” never condemned fen-phen’ “science” did not try to stop thalidomide being dispensed. Even now, they don’t talk about it and other failures. Note, however, RSchmidt approving of Bill Nye’s lies, even though Nye claimed that creationists could not be physicists, chemists, biologists, despite the fact that creation accepters included Newton, Galileo and Mendel.
    “Science” cannot be trusted.

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  7. 7. bccnp1 4:43 pm 09/24/2012

    They deny science and feel nature is their to be raped by those who can.
    Nature rocks and we should listen to nature not the voices of greed.

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  8. 8. SteveO 6:33 pm 09/24/2012

    I believe julianpenrod has used up his monthly allotment of scare quotes in his walls of text above. Please stop sending “electricity” (a.k.a. God’s Displeasure from Above) to his “house” so that he will stop posting his “ignorance.”

    Thank you for your time.

    (I had to snark – sorry sorry…)

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  9. 9. Ken MacMillan 7:40 pm 09/24/2012

    What does this have to do with science?

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  10. 10. Monica Metzler 8:15 pm 09/24/2012

    Interesting post about science communication, Marc, and worthy of exploration and discussion. Alas, the comments section got taken over by screamers so I’ll limit my remarks to one observation.

    It’s critical that both scientists speaking/writing and the consumers of that information (readers/listeners) recognize the difference between communication regarding scientific facts and the scientific process, and communication regarding policy implications and decisions. When addressing the latter, scientists are acting as politicians, or rather policy advocates. (Personally, I think scientists should do a lot more of that, albeit carefully.) And as such, they must clarify what is their opinion and what they base it on vs. what they consider fact with evidence to back it up. Just as those who assert what they claim as “fact” with no real evidence to back it up come off as fools, scientists will trip themselves up (and undermine their scientific credibility) if they opine on policy questions which is not their forte.
    As Richard Feynman said, “I believe a scientists looking at a non-scientific problem is just as dumb as the next guy.”

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  11. 11. mkuchner 12:39 pm 09/25/2012

    Well said, Monica. Sometimes we need to speak with two voices: as a scientist/as a citizen. As a scientist, (I have to report on what the data and models say), but as a citizen (I feel like this is horrendous and it must be stopped!)

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  12. 12. SteveO 2:02 pm 09/25/2012

    Monica, as long as you define your terms, I am with you. In the modern world, scientist (and the scientific method) are crucial for making good policy decisions.

    “Scientist” is a very large clade. There are scientists who investigate and predict policy effects, and therefore policy is within their purview. For example, it is scientific to investigate or model societal effects of different policy decisions intended to mitigate global climate change. This would be critical information for policy-makers who themselves have no experience in that area. In that example, it would be the policy-makers who would be the most dangerous in making policy, since they don’t have a grasp of the real issues.

    I would advocate for a more scientific approach to policy-making. As it is, with most modern problems the policy-makers themselves are “just as dumb as the next guy” about policy-making in those areas.

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  13. 13. zhimbo 10:30 am 09/30/2012

    I’m a little baffled as to what “mistake” the Mr. Nye made. It was not a private moment filmed without consent. It was a carefully planned, professionally shot video. That creationists were offended and made noise about it is not a surprise to anyone, least of all to Mr. Nye.

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