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Science Communicators Or Science Mediators?

By Dr. Andy Hoffman and COMPASS

Jul 27, 2016


Minute Read


We are excited to re-post this blog by Dr. Andy Hoffman. Andy raises questions about the role of scientists as mediators, not just communicators.  Andy’s post helped us dive deeper into the importance of listening, not just being right, and we hope it sparks new thinking and fresh perspectives for you.

Andy Hoffman is a professor at the University of Michigan, researching institutional theory, corporate environmental strategies, organizational theory, and cultural and institutional change. He is a 2011 Leopold Leadership Fellow, an alum of COMPASS trainings, and a leader in thinking about how scientists can fulfill their “social contract” (see the proceedings from his forum on academic engagement). This blog was originally published on the Leopold Leadership 3.0 blog on June 22, 2016.  It is reposted here with the permission of the author.

I have always thought about science communication in terms of bridging worlds that don’t know how to talk with or understand one another. For example, when I look at data, like those in the chart below by the Pew Research Center/AAAS, depicting the wide gaps between scientists and the general public on a variety of scientific issues, I have always seen a form of communication breakdown. In fulfilling our “social contract” with society, our task then becomes one of stepping outside the confines of the ivory tower and communicating with the public by listening, engaging, and relating.

Horizontal Bar Graph title: Opinion Differences Between Public and Scientists. % of U.S. adults and AAAS scientists saying each of the following. In Biomedical sciences: 37% of US adults think it is safe to eat genetically modified foods, compared to 88% of AAAS scientists. 47% of US adults favor the use of animals in research, compared to 89% of AAAS scientists. 28% of US adults believe it is safe to eat foods grown with pesticides, compared to 68% of AAAS scientists. 65% of US adults believe humans have evolved over time, compared to 98% of AAAS scientists. 68% of US adults believe that childhood vaccines such as MMR should be required, compared to 86% of AAAS scientists. In Climate, energy, and space sciences: 50% of US adults believe climate change is mostly due to human activity, compared to 87% of AAAS scientists. 59% of US adults believe the growing world population will be a major problem, compared to 82% of AAAS scientists. 45% of US adults favor building more nuclear power plants, compared to 65% of AAAS scientists. 32% of US adults favor more offshore drilling, compared to 52% of AAAS scientists. 47% of US adults believe astronauts are essential for the future of the U.S. space program, compared to 59% of AAAS scientists. 68% of U.S. adults favor increased use of bioengineered fuel, compared to 78% of AAAS scientists. 31% of U.S. adults favor increased use of fracking, compared to 39% of AAAS scientists. 64% of U.S. adults believe the space station has been a good investment for the U.S., compared to 68% of AAAS scientists. Survey of U.S. adults August 15-25, 2014. AAAS scientists survey Sept. 11 - Oct. 13, 2014. Other responses and those saying don't know or giving no answer are not shown. Pew Research Center.

Pew Research Center, Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society, Jan. 29 2015.

But in some cases, this framing may not be quite right. At times, the gap is created, not by a lack of understating, but by an open resentment; the public is deaf to the conclusions of the scientific community, not because they don’t understand science or the scientific community, but because they actively don’t like how they have been treated by scientists. It’s an issue of tone and respect.

There are some within the scientific community who hold view of the public in low regard (perhaps because they themselves have been treated with disrespect). There are others who subscribe to a view of scientism that elevates the natural sciences in relation to all other ways of knowing the natural world and holds “the view that the characteristic inductive methods of the natural sciences are the only source of genuine factual knowledge and, in particular, that they alone can yield true knowledge about man and society.” They are dismissive of the arts, the humanities, religion, and pragmatic experience as ways to know and understand the natural world, and they can be quite aggressive in expressing that dismissive attitude.

Many of us know what it feels like to be the recipient of such disdain and derision (for example, from climate skeptics) and have learned how to deal with it, generally by accepting it as part of the terrain and ignoring it. Trolls will always use the comments section, private emails and separate blog posts as a form of cyber-bullying. But how do we handle it when those same tactics are being used by other academics; either on members of the general public, or even on us?   How much harder does the job of science communication become when that activity precedes our efforts? What kind of a negative residue do they leave? We know more about the attacks on scientists because we read about and relate to them personally. But how much do the attacks by scientists enter our sense of the communication landscape?

We need to consider how the tone of some in the scientific community alters the landscape on which others in the scientific community seek to communicate. We need to learn to both communicate and mediate science, and the latter requires a different set of skills than the former; such as dispute resolution, negotiations, conflict de-escalation and an ability to be seen (even more) as an objective and trusted neutral party. Our efforts must not be targeted just with the public, but also with the community of scientists. This inward effort makes our challenge far harder than much of the science communication literature lets us believe. And, it may be worth considering whether the context and expectations of a scientist do not naturally align with that of a mediator – it is a significant shift, one that we may not be suited to fill. For example, can we really be seen as neutral to science when we are, in fact, scientists?

Leaving that question aside for now, we as aspiring science communicators need to recognize that there are both opportunities for engagement and obstacles of animosity and hostility on all sides of the scientific debates in our country. There are people – including some within the scientific community – who have no desire to bridge any scientific understanding gaps, and who hold the differing views of others in very low regard and with deep derision. And they may even hold our efforts at bridging in similar resentment as being appeasers or “accommodationists.” This makes our role more complicated. We are not just communicating science on a landscape of open engagement and understanding; we must also mediate science on a landscape of open hostility and warring factions.

My thanks to Tracey Holloway and Jessica Hellman for helpful feedback on this essay.


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