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Observations

Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Are Some Science Stories Inevitably Political?

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RALEIGH, N.C.—Does writing about climate change or childhood vaccinations necessarily mean you've got an agenda? That's one of the questions tackled at last week's ScienceOnline 2012 meeting, a gathering of some 450 scientists, bloggers, scientist-bloggers, journalists and other communicators on the campus of North Carolina State University.

In this particular session, "You Got Your Politics in My Science," attendees related their experiences and their approaches to dealing with perceived advocacy and reactive attacks. Everyone realizes that both scientists and journalists strive for impartiality. Yet certain hot-button topics invite scrutiny. Heather Goldstone, who reports for a public-radio affiliate and hosts Climatetide.org, mentioned that whenever she wrote about climate change or evolution, she was asked if she's advocating for something, even by her editors.

Science communicators often feel that the facts should speak for themselves. But public-relations firms practice "strategic communications" for a reason: framing and spin work. David Wescott, who writes the It's Not a Lecture blog, cited the name change of the private military contractor Blackwater to Academi and the reference to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as "Obamacare" by opponents. Indeed, business history is full of such moves—how many people recognize that the Altria Group was formerly known as Philip Morris?

But even a nicely framed story would do little to change minds if the message isn't properly targeted. People who have found their way to the fringe are unlikely to respond to persuasion going the other way. Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus (Simon & Shuster, 2011), which explored the autism fear of childhood vaccines, mentioned he wouldn't bother writing about celebrity anti-vaccinationist Jenny McCarthy as it wouldn't advance the story anymore. Of course, if McCarthy gets her own talk show, the vaccine-autism controversy could reenter the public discourse in a big way, demanding responses from more knowledgeable sources.

Instead, the attendees talked about reaching the unconvinced and finding the "bridge" audience. Mommy bloggers, for instance, are a good group to reach out to for dispelling myths about vaccines. One attendee mentioned trips to pharmaceutical labs as a means of demystifying the industry. The question then came up about who the "mommy bloggers" are for climate change, evolution and science literacy.

In terms of the climate change issue, the group discussed how contrarians have adopted some of the strategies of the tobacco industry. Big tobacco tried to cast doubt on the science showing the dangers of nicotine use as one way to preserve its hegemony.

Such attacks are not surprising. After all, science is all about change, but change inevitably threatens entrenched interests. (For counterpoints to climate change skeptics, see "Seven Answers to Climate Contrarian Nonsense.") In the end, divorcing science from politics may simply be an unrealistic goal. As moderator John Timmer neatly summed up, if you communicate science at all, you're an advocate.

See a video of the hour-long session here (very little action—think of it as a podcast):

See also the excerpt, "Good Science Always Has Political Ramifications."

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

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