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Are Scientists Bad at PR?

June 7, 2010
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From global warming to evolution to vaccine safety, the public consistently (and sometimes increasingly) doesn’t know or doesn’t believe the scientific consensus. A new piece in Wired magazine claims this is because scientists are bad at PR:

On the final day of last winter’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a panel convened to discuss the growing problem of climate change denial. It went poorly[…] What the scientists should have been asking was how they could reverse the problem. And the answer isn’t more science; it’s better PR[…]

“They need to make people answer the questions, What’s in it for me? How does it affect my daily life? What can I do that will make a difference? Answering these questions is what’s going to start a conversation,” Bush [CEO of a PR firm] says. “The messaging up to this point has been ‘Here are our findings. Read it and believe.’ The deniers are convincing people that the science is propaganda.”

It’s hard to argue that good PR might improve science outreach, but there are several problems with this approach. One, as the author notes, is that scientists hate the idea of “spin.” You shouldn’t have to spin good science, the evidence should speak for itself. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans don’t have the ability to interface directly with the evidence; most scientific journals are locked behind pay-walls, and even with access, the general public would be hard pressed to penetrate the dense, jargon-filled articles. After four years of college and several years working in biology labs, I finally started getting proficient at reading primary biology papers a year into graduate school.

Another problem: who pays for the PR? It’s all well and good for Tiger Woods to pay a professional PR firm, but scientists spend enough time writing grants for money to do experiments. And scientists are mostly decentralized, there’s no organized structure for coordinating this sort of effort even if it was desired. Maybe the government could step in, but politicians are generally scientifically illiterate, and some are in the anti-science camp themselves.

I have mixed feelings, but I think the best place to start is with education in schools. That’s more of a long term strategy though. In the short term, I’m not sure what to do, but professional PR people are probably not the answer.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. klem permalink
    June 7, 2010 4:23 pm

    Science has had great PR help already, in the name of A Gore and his ilk. Back in 2007-2009 they promoted AGW all over the world, the media picked it up and sold us stories about it almost every night on TV. During those years, you could not say anything against AGW to anyone without being ridiculed, you could not post anything on blogs without your comments being deleted, children saw the ‘Inconvenient’ movie in every school with no accompanying movie to offset it’s propaganda, the list went on and on. Climatologists were the superstars of the science community until about a year ago. But the science was so feable that it was easy to critisize and the whole house of cards came crashing down last fall with Climategate and the Copenhagen negotiations. Now no one trusts scientists anymore, especially when they make clims of future disaster, the public is now saturated. Science does not need PR; When they make rediculous claims they need unasailable science to go with them.

    • kevbonham permalink*
      June 8, 2010 2:46 pm

      “An Inconvenient Truth” was great PR for AGW, and it’s also an example of the problems when trying to apply it to science. The trend of the scientific data for AGW is incontrovertible – it’s happening, and at an accelerating rate. Science is a slow process, and things that we thought were true 5 years ago are not necessarily thought to be true today. Scientists expect this, but the public doesn’t. You’re a perfect example of this – if a claim made in that film was found (probably by the climate scientists themselves) to be false, you assume the whole theory is bunk, when in reality, most people studying climate change will say the new data is even more damning than the old data.

      I know I won’t convince you, and I’m not really in a position to since I’m not a climate scientist. Let me put it to you this way though: is there some bit of data, that if produced, would convince you that AGW is happening?

  2. June 7, 2010 4:44 pm

    From a marketer’s (one who cares about scientific progress) point of view, I agree with the author. Spin might be bad in the eyes of scientists. But that is exactly the reason WHY scientists don’t make good marketers. Leave it to the professionals. Social media, niche advertising, web 2.0 efforts, etc. make up modern advertising. It is no longer a one way communication form of marketing which was the case 10 years ago. Coke makes a commerical, its funny, and you buy it. Now marketing is a 2 way street, thanks to the web. And it is cheaper than ever to pull it off. But still there are costs involved.

    A few ways around it. One is simple, hire someone. There are TONS of PR firms out there ranging from the Toyota priced to the Bentley priced. Pick a cheap one, include in the budget and move on.

    If that is too hard, use the fact that social media marketing is CHEAP. Why not have a twitter with updates, a facebook page, MULTIPLE BLOGs which link to one central blog (ie, spread the word through wordpress, blogger, article submission, free pr websites, etc. etc.) make viral youtube videos etc. etc.

    Another suggestion would be the creation of a non profit aimed at helping science PR and marketing efforts. This would take the pressure off scientists budgeting for pr/marketing. All we need now are marketers who care of such a cause. you’ve got one.

    -@PrinceG

    • kevbonham permalink*
      June 8, 2010 2:38 pm

      Non-profits are a great solution, and there are already organizations like the NCSE that lobby for evolution to great effect (The court case in Dover was won largely due to their efforts), but they are basically only able to play defense.

      The problem with the marketing mentality for someone like me is that it draws a false equivalence. Coke may be better than Pepsi, or Pepsi may be better than Coke, it all comes down to personal preference. But whether or global warming is affected by people is not a debate, and whether evolution occurred is not based on opinion. It scares me to think that who wins the argument will be based on who makes the funniest commercial, rather than who has the best data.

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  1. Global Warming Denialism and Science Communication « We Beasties

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