Between Scientists & Citizens

Three little words so hard to say

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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?

This problem is going to come up frequently in policy-relevant science.  The “grand challenges” citizens and policy-makers want scientists to talk about are Big:  Climate Change, Water, Renewable Fuels, Sustainability, Cybersecurity, Vaccination.  The sciences have grown Big in response:  inter/cross/transdisciplinary team/center/network endeavors.  But every individual scientist is still small.  In fact, the more successful the science is, the more focused her expertise is likely to be.

One way to bridge the gap between small and Big is to organize scientists into groups, like blue ribbon committees or the IPCC.  But individual scientists are still going to get calls from the press, give talks to local groups, and help out at their community’s high school.

When she addresses such a public audience, the scientist in some sense represents Science.  Her audience may not have other scientists on call, so if she fails to answer, they’re going to be left with whatever knowledge they had before.  There’s also a question of how admitting ignorance is going to affect the scientist’s own credibility.  What would it sound like to duck a question–especially if she has to duck virtually every question she’s asked?

On the other hand, it’s only candid for the scientist to admit the limits of her knowledge. Saying something that turns out to be wrong will do far more damage to her credibility than will admitting ignorance. And she’s not likely to be effective anyways, since one of the basic precepts of critical thinking is not to trust experts speaking outside the expertise.


The Red Green Show used to include a segment called “The Experts,” exploring the three little words men (and others) find it so hard to say:  “I don’t know.”

Of course it should be easy to deny knowledge when asked about the taste of dino meat, as in this clip.  It’s harder for a specialist in clouds giving a talk about climate change to say the three little words when asked about Hurricane Sandy or the midwest drought, but she probably should. So here’s the question:  what should she say next?

One idea:  Should scientists promote results over process?

Written by jeangoodwin

November 3, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Posted in cases

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  1. […] Goodwin is back blogging at Between Scientists & Citizens.  She has a related article entitled Three little words so hard to say (I don’t know). […]

  2. […] blog Scientists at Work is a good example of how scientists’ communication might focus on process, not results.  I’ve been enjoying the current sequence about glaciers in Bhutan;  each episode ends with […]

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