Tragedy of the science-communication commons
By Andrew Gelman
There’s a prevailing notion that communicating science is difficult, and it is therefore difficult to engage the general public. People can be fazed by statistics in particular, so how can we convey the importance of this science effectively?
I’ve earlier written that science is science communication — that is, the act of communicating scientific ideas and findings to ourselves and others is itself a central part of science. My point was to push against a conventional separation between the act of science and the act of communication, the idea that science is done by scientists and communication is done by communicators. It’s a rare bit of science that does not include communication as part of it. As a scientist and science communicator myself, I’m particularly sensitive to devaluing of communication. (For example, Bayesian Data Analysis is full of original research that was done in order to communicate; or, to put it another way, we often think we understand a scientific idea, but once we try to communicate it, we recognize gaps in our understanding that motivate further research.)
I once saw the following on one of those inspirational-sayings-for-every-day desk calendars: “To have ideas is to gather flowers. To think is to weave them into garlands.” Similarly, writing — more generally, communication to oneself or others — forces logic and structure, which are central to science.
Dan Kahan saw what I wrote and responded by flipping it around: He pointed out that there is a science of science communication. As scientists, we should move beyond the naive view of communication as the direct imparting of facts and ideas. We should think more systematically about how communications are produced and how they are understood by their immediate and secondary recipients.
The science of science communication is still in its early stages, and I’m glad that people such as Kahan are working on it. Here’s something he wrote recently explicating his theory of cultural cognition:
The motivation behind this research has been to understand the science communication problem. The “science communication problem” (as I use this phrase) refers to the failure of valid, compelling, widely available science to quiet public controversy over risk and other policy relevant facts to which it directly speaks. The climate change debate is a conspicuous example, but there are many others, including (historically) the conflict over nuclear power safety, the continuing debate over the risks of HPV vaccine, and the never-ending dispute over the efficacy of gun control…. The research I will describe reflects the premise that making sense of these peculiar packages of types of people and sets of factual beliefs is the key to understanding—and solving—the science communication problem. The cultural cognition thesis posits that people’s group commitments are integral to the mental processes through which they apprehend risk…
I think of Kahan as part of a loose network of constructive skeptics, along with various people including Thomas Basbøll, John Ioannidis, the guys at Retraction Watch, bloggers such as Felix Salmon, and a whole bunch of psychology researchers such as Wicherts, Wagenmakers, Simonsohn, Nosek, etc. This doesn’t represent a complete list but rather is intended to give a sense of the different aspect of this movement-without-a-name. Ten or twenty or thirty years ago, I don’t think such a movement existed. There were concerns about individual studies or research programs, but not such a sense of a statistics-centered crisis in science as a whole.
Andrew Gelman is a Professor in the Department of Statistics at Columbia University. He is the co-author of Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks with Deborah Nolan. Read his blog Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science.