I have a confession: I have no idea what I’m doing. I believe that publicly funded scientists owe the public an explanation of their research and why it matters. I also have a belief, informed by years of research, that climate change is frightening and requires immediate action. Science communication is more important now than ever. I’m afraid I don’t know how to do it.
This weekend, the NY Times published an op-ed about vaccine science. It’s a wonderfully written and persuasive piece, and it’s well worth your time. It describes how vaccine researchers following the normal scientific method agonize over publishing and publicizing their results. Science thrives on the oxygen of transparency, and even studies that turn out to be wrong can advance our knowledge and point to interesting new questions.
But outside the confines of the lab, scientists have to operate in an environment polluted with lies and bad faith. Vaccines do not cause autism, but many people believe they do. And because this belief is not based on evidence, it cannot be refuted by science. But charlatans can still use what appears to be the language of science, weaving inconclusive studies and minor effects into a persuasive web of lies and fear.
Ultimately, I agree with the article’s conclusions. Of course scientists should be honest about their work. Who, after all, would advocate censorship over transparency? But it’s the 2010s, and every successful thing is inevitably followed by a sequel. As a scientist, I’m eagerly awaiting the follow-up. I hope it’s called, “We’re Here to Help”.
Because: we need so much help. Honesty seems like a necessary but not sufficient condition to obtain long-term public trust. Very few scientists have ever received training in how to navigate today’s media landscape. We learn differential equations and coding and fluid dynamics and statistics. If we’re very lucky, we take courses in the humanities that teach us how to write and think. (We should, I think, take many more of these courses, but that’s a topic for another day.) But at no point do we learn how to anticipate our words being taken out of context and used to justify things that are wrong or harmful.
This has happened to me on a number of occasions. I once wrote a paper that tangentially discussed the well-understood concept that particulate matter emitted from burning fossil fuels can block sunlight and cool the planet. The point was that such “aerosol” pollution has partially counteracted the much greater warming caused by greenhouse gases. I was therefore surprised to see the Daily Express cover our study with the headline
“Climate change shock: Burning fossil fuels 'COOLS planet', says NASA”
While being misrepresented by a British tabloid remains the closest I’ll ever come to feeling like a princess, it wasn’t a pleasant experience. More seriously, every time I talk about the uncertainties inherent in climate projections, I feel attacked from all sides of the climate mitigation debate. I admit that in the current landscape, any expression of uncertainty is immediately weaponized by those who want to delay climate action.
Still, I’m a scientist, and I love to think about things I don’t understand. Being honest means acknowledging we don’t know everything. It also means being open about the problems of science itself, from a broken incentive system to the pervasive racial and sexual harassment that drives out brilliant minds. I struggle with how to talk about these things in a world where merchants of doubt will find a way to convert my science into their product.
I suspect this piece will be shared by some of those bad-faith actors. Unfortunately, there seems to be no way to construct an un-twistable argument. SCIENTIST SUPPRESSES INCONVENIENT RESULTS, they’ll say. CENSORSHIP! GROUPTHINK! This is, of course, the opposite of what I want to do. All I can ask is that if people insist on spreading false rumors about me, they also note that I have an evil twin, used to be an astronaut, and once killed a man in a bar fight.
All I know is this: science communication is hard. There are no institutional rewards for doing it. Almost no one gets promoted for talking to the public. But we rely on scientists to choose to talk about their work, and to deal with the sometimes-overwhelming consequences of speaking in public. No other industry does this. McDonalds does not force their cooks to engage in Hamburger Communication; they hire highly paid PR professionals instead.
So I want to approach this with something the stereotypical scientist is not known for: humility. Please don’t just tell us to be honest, help us to understand how to be transparent in an opaque world. Truth is messy, and lies can be simple and appealing. I may not know what I’m doing, but I’m willing to listen and learn.