Talking about science at Netroots Nation: Fact versus fear


There were two things I learned watching the Netroots Nation panel on Science Policy in Unexpected Places.

First, more science communication is happening, in more ways. Scientists are taking initiative to talk to the public and to journalists, helping to make sense of the flood of information so that people come away educated, instead of overwhelmed. And advocates are finding fun ways to bring basic science—the stuff that isn't fresh news, but sure does help when you need to actually understand the news—to people who have traditionally been overlooked by science education programs. Sports fans, for instance. That's the good stuff.

The bad stuff: Turns out, it's frustratingly easy for science to become as polarized as politics, with a mentality that divides the world into the Smart People (who already know everything) and the Idiots (who won't ever know anything).

I don't normally go for political conventions. But I did choose to attend this year's Netroots, a gathering of capital-P Progressive bloggers and activists that took place in downtown Minneapolis between June 16 and 19. Josh Rosenau, a science blogger and the programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education invited me to watch the panel he'd put together, all about how to engage the public on science—especially the sort of science that intertwines with politics. I came away from the experience both charmed and frustrated.

I'll start with the charm, because, frankly, that made up the bulk of the experience. You know that special sort of glee you feel when it turns out that the issues you're concerned about are at the top of somebody else's radar, too? There was a lot of that.

For example, one of the things I love about writing for BoingBoing is that I'm able to reach the portion of our audience that isn't necessarily prone to picking up science magazines or regularly reading science news websites—the only places my work would otherwise turn up. Sure, there's a lot of overlap between readers of BoingBoing and readers of, say, Discover. But it's not a 100% overlap. Come for the cute cat videos, stay for deconstructions of the concept of "peer review." That's what I always say.

But here in the warm embrace of the Internet it's easy to forget how little science news makes its way to the general public. Dedicated science journalists were among the first people laid off at newspapers and TV channels. That's why I like what Dr. Heidi Cullen and Climate Central are trying to do. Most Americans get their news from local television, Cullen said, and they consider local news to be more honest than cable. So Climate Central works with TV meteorologists (often the closest thing to a science reporter or a scientist in an average American's life) to help them find ways to insert quality climate science into nightly newscasts.

King Context

Another thing I've been thinking a lot about lately is the problem of context. These politically contentious issues—climate change, vaccinations, stem cell research—we tend to talk about them primarily in the context of political tension. They come across as contests to be won, rather than as actual issues of science and average people end up unsure of who to trust. That's probably why Americans understand controversial science less well than they understand the basic stuff. In 2008, 44% of Americans could correctly define DNA, but only 20% could do the same for stem cells.

I don't necessarily think the key to solving this problem is more (bigger! harder!) repetition about the facts behind controversial science issues. Instead, I think the solution starts with the basics. If you help people understand why peer review is valuable in a context that doesn't press their political buttons, they're probably more likely to respond well when you call them back to that information later, in a more controversial context.

I love what panelist John Abraham and the Climate Science Rapid Response Team are doing—matching scientists with journalists to make sure that science gets its say on controversial topics. But I think that the work of another panelist, Darlene Cavalier, is just as important … even though it might not seem so at first.

Cavalier is the brains behind the Science Cheerleaders, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. There are cheerleaders. They are talking about science. And you ought to resist the urge to brush this off as fluff. That's because Cavalier is using the concept as a way to get often-ignored populations excited about the basics of science. At Netroots, she told the audience about taking a team of Science Cheerleaders into a Philadelphia bar during a football game to talk about geometry. When you've got a drunk guy swiping your megaphone to yell about vectors, I actually think you're doing something right. (Plus, it was more than a little awesome to watch her video clip wherein several pro-sports cheerleaders discussed their other careers in medicine, biology, neuroscience, and math.)

If you assume cheerleaders are bimbos and bar patrons won't care about math, then you're never going to get those people thinking seriously about the science of climate.

A Bad Case of the Stupids

Which brings me to what I didn't like. Shawn Otto has done some good things, including promoting Science Debates for political candidates. But the perspective on science education that he presented at Netroots Nation was way off-base.

No discussion about how to reach the general public with science should start with a clip from Idiocracy.

Otto's message was basically this: Most of America is just stupid and they aren't capable of understanding science in any meaningful way. So we, the enlightened ones, are going to have to push them over to our side on science-based political issues by using fear and a good public shaming.

I might have agreed with that a year ago. But that's before I finished researching Before the Lights Go Out, my upcoming book about the future of energy in America. Along the way, I learned some pretty interesting things. First off, Americans have a lot of reasons to care about energy. One person's list of concerns might not match yours, but they might still be interested in the same solutions. The Climate and Energy Project, a Kansas-based non-profit, found this out when they did a series of focus groups. They expected to find a lot of people who thought climate change was a lie. What they didn't expect was that many of those people would be taking action on energy change, anyway. A guy can call environmentalists liars, and still choose to own a Prius and swap out his light bulbs for CFLs. So, maybe, instead of calling him stupid, we should ask him why he did that and try to find some common ground.

Politicians may have manipulated climate change into becoming a straw man for partisan slap fights, but that doesn't mean Americans are stupid. You can see this reflected in the polls. Between 2006 and 2010, American concern about climate change fell. But during the same years, American interest in alternative energy and sustainable lifestyle choices remained strong.

Today, somewhere on the order of 60% of us believe that climate change is a serious threat supported by evidence. But, depending on the poll and the specific questions being asked, between 70% and 90% of us support things like increasing funding for alternative energy and mass transit, raising fuel efficiency standards for cars, instituting tougher energy efficiency standards on other areas of our lives, and requiring utility companies to get more of their energy from renewable sources. Even a majority of self-described Republicans support alternative energy and energy-change policies that you might suspect they'd be against.

My point here is that writing the majority of Americas off as idiots isn't going to solve your political problems, and it doesn't even reflect the political reality that those Americans profess to believe in. The lack of political action on climate change is a big a problem, but we're more likely to get that solved using the ideas of Heidi Cullen, Darlene Cavalier, and John Abraham, than those of Shawn Otto.

Image: Earth Egg, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from azrainman's photostream