Third Iowa State University Summer Symposium on Science Communication
May 30 – June 1, 2013; Ames, IA
Submission deadline: January 31, 2013
As science continues to become implicated in personal and collective decision-making, the stakes for communicating science to non-expert audiences intensify. In such an environment, a clear articulation of ethical issues arising from science communication is essential. Unfortunately, such an articulation does not yet exist. The purpose of this symposium is to bring together scholars from across disciplines whose research can contribute toward a theoretical articulation of the ethical issues surrounding the communication of science to non-expert audiences.
Our science communication team here at Iowa State is having fun interviewing scientists about their communication challenges, as part of our NSF funded work to develop cases for teaching responsible communication of science.
Here’s one situation that’s come up a couple of times in our talks. A scientist is making a presentation to a public (non-specialist) audience. She’s asked a question relevant in a general way to her topic, but outside of her immediate research area. She remembers reading something about it, but isn’t quite sure of the answer. What should she say?
Judith Curry’s characterization of last week’s PBS report “Climate of Doubt” as “predictable” pretty much captures it. It takes a pretty short memory to think that in 2007 the forces of climate good were on the verge of political victory, snatched from them only by the might of the evil Koch brothers supplemented by the covert work of a host of political operatives (who, by the way, interviewed rather well). I was sorry that the counter-narrative Matt Nisbet’s group put forward in the Climate Shift report hasn’t gotten any traction.
There was one interesting moment, though: something that wasn’t said.
A year ago today Judith Curry wrote her first post Climate, Etc. We should all celebrate the fact that her blog is still more than flourishing. She has paid consistent attention to issues of communicating science–of course, that’s likely to warm a communication theorist’s heart. But more importantly she’s been practicing what she’s been preaching. Comment threads on her blog are among the only places where those with various views of climate science actually talk with each other.
Why not look back and consider how Climate, Etc. has managed to construct and maintain a fragile community? What kinds of communication practices are making the site work? At the beginning, Curry aimed for discussions in three different styles. Did that work out? There’s at least one rule that didn’t: limiting comments to 250 words!
In the discussion over at Climate Etc. a couple of weeks ago, there was a particularly clear instance of a move I see a lot–in the blogosphere, and in regular arguments:
I think most people who like science and are interested in climate science would welcome more “skeptic” arguments that meet the above criteria. It is a relief, even when disagreeing, to have some sort of a common language and set of expectations. Without that, argument is pointless, or to put it another way: The first thing you need to prove to me is that your ignorance is something that concerns me.
That’s exactly what I decline to do. The hockey stick needs no defense. Rather, you need to find some cogent explanation of why your ignorance of paleoclimate concerns me.
The writer here asserts that his position “needs no defense”; it’s up to his opponents to produce reasons–or in other words, they have the burden of proof.
Of course, both sides can make this move. Another writer comes back later in the discussion to assert that it’s the “hockey stick” [graph] that needs the defense:
There is no basis for discussion about AGW that starts with “the Hockey Stick is correct and unassailable”.
The true statment is “the Hockey Stick is part of a very large con game and until the AGW side acknowledges that and apologizes, nothing they say should be believed.” [Later:] AGW is discredited until it confesses its fraud.
And this argumentative move–“MY position stands until YOU meet your burden of proof”–isn’t just confined to the climate debate. Should genetically modified crops be presumed to be safe, until there is definitive evidence that they are harmful? Or by the precautionary principle should this kind of new technology be considered dangerous, until it is shown to be safe?
To straighten out what’s happening in these moves, I want to distinguish between (a) the way people are using “burden of proof” to manage their own, personal thinking, and (b) the way they are using it to manage the debate they are having with other people. For more on (a), proceed below; (b) will follow in the next post.