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Selling science to the masses

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Selling science to the masses

What comes to mind when you hear the word "science"? Nerds in lab coats? Chalkboards crowded with indecipherable equations? How about multi-billion dollar particle accelerators that you can't quite remember the name of?

It's fun to play around with stereotypes, but bloggers Chris Mooney, a freelance writer, and Matthew Nisbet, a professor at the American University, think such ill-conceived views of science are a big problem. The best way to remedy the situation, they say, is nothing short of an overhaul in how scientists and science writers talk to the public.

That was the gist of their talk, "Speaking Science 2.0: A New Paradigm in Public Engagement", which they gave earlier this week at the University of California, Berkeley.

Why is this important? Politics. Author of the best-selling book The Republican War on Science, Mooney stressed that scientific issues are increasingly intertwined with everyday life. Whether embryonic stem cells or climate change, science that has the potential to save - or harm - millions of lives depends heavily on lawmakers and other members of the lay public, who often aren't familiar with the underlying science.

The natural response is, of course, to shout "more science publications, more educational programming for the masses!" If we inundate people with information, people will educate themselves, and make better decisions about important scientific issues.

Not so, says Nisbet. People make decisions based on what they can relate to, and when they can't relate to stem cells or greenhouse gases, they simply don't care.

The way to solve the problem is by framing the issue. Here's a quick multiple choice question:

Which of the following scenarios best convinces you that climate change is a problem caused by people that leads to catastrophe?

A) The movie poster of An Inconvenient Truth (pictured above). It's a smokestack spewing out a hurricane.

B) Members of atmospheric science community who until recently said things like: "Well, um, we think it's somewhat likely to be probable that certain anthropogenic emissions are causing increased solar energy to become trapped within the atmosphere???"

If you picked B, you probably have a PhD. And that's fine - we need you all to keep doing your incredibly important work! We'd be lost without you.

But get real: Choice A is a show stopper. Choice B, a conversation stopper in all but the most erudite circles.

Framing is where it's at. You want to convince people to vote to fund stem-cell research? You need Michael J Fox on camera, shaking with Parkinson's and saying "this research could save my life, and thousands of people like me."

Nisbet and Mooney's point was broad, spanning not just journalists, but academics, too. They encouraged the scientists in the room to think about how to tell their stories of discovery, and to emphasise that scientists are people too, not some hyper-intelligent beings locked away in their labs all day and night.

So yes, I???ve ranted, let me leave you with a line from Nisbet that stuck in my head:

"Sometimes the best way to talk to the public about science is not to talk about science at all."

Michael Reilly, New Scientist consultant



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