[Coral-List] getting science to the public clearly and unambiguously is difficult

Steve Mussman sealab at earthlink.net
Mon Aug 22 14:22:28 EDT 2016

Hi Peter,

Interesting thoughts on what is characterized as a significant level of ineffectual communication on the part of the scientific community in their attempts to explain science (including coral science) to the broader public at large. I seem to have come full circle on this one. After years of focusing on what coral scientists (and the diving industry) could do to convey science to the public more persuasively, I am now convinced that we are focusing on the wrong point of contention. The science by now is clear, well supported and to anyone with an open mind, quite convincingly articulated. I no longer believe that it would change anything even if every coral scientist suddenly became an activist dedicating their lives to more effectively communicating "the message".   

An upcoming editorial in Scientific American perhaps points to the real problem at hand.         


We have to recognize that a significant percentage of the population (American and elsewhere) is behaving as if The Enlightenment never happened. For many, tribal influences are supplanting science as the most reliable sources of knowledge and wisdom. This is not just a phenomenon typified by the relatively uneducated. As the above mentioned editorial emphasizes, we now have a major party candidate for president who has to some degree successfully used anti-science rhetoric to gain popular support. On a personal level, I know of too many thoughtful, well-educated individuals who simply reject scientific opinion because they are influenced more by other forms of cultural pedagogy. To me if this analysis holds true, we are really confronting a different problem requiring a focus not so much on getting the message out, but on re-establishing the authoritative nature of the source itself (science). As writer Shawn Otto has warned, " . . . the new science denialism is creating an existential crisis like few the country has faced before". 

In that light, in order for coral reefs to survive, we may be in need of more than an effective scientific message. We may in fact be in need of a full-blown campaign to restore the symbolic legitimacy of science.  


-----Original Message-----
>From: Peter Sale <sale at uwindsor.ca>
>Sent: Aug 19, 2016 3:13 PM
>To: "coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov" <coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov>
>Subject: [Coral-List] getting science to the public clearly and	unambiguously is difficult
>Hi all,
>A lot of comments on coral-list lately, spurred initially by the recent papers by Josh Cinner et al in Nature and by John Bruno and Abel Valdivia in Scientific Reports that seemingly contradicted each other, and the attempt to explain them by journalist Johnny Langenheim in The Guardian.  (Langenheim's conclusion - that they are both correct - did not really help clarify!)  Cinner et al, evaluated global patterns in reef fish biomass and concluded there were some 'bright spots' around the world where reefs were doing much better than expected, and therefore that local management was important for reef sustainability.  Bruno and Valdivia, using a global analysis of coral cover and algal cover concluded that density of local human population (used as a proxy for local impacts) had essentially zero effect on reef quality, which was overwhelmingly being determined by global impacts such as climate change.
>I have just put up the first of two posts looking at the wider issue of why it seems so difficult to convey science to the public and have it understood.  I do not claim to be an expert, but perhaps I am identifying some of the issues (beyond deliberate distortion or obfuscation) that play a role.  In Part 1, I talk about the nature of science, and the nature of the way humans think.  Part 2, which will be up in about 10 days looks at the changing nature of the scientific endeavor, and the role of the media.  Both of these contribute to the distortions, the exaggerations, and the general air of confusion that surrounds stories about science as received by the public (including other scientists).  I've illustrated with examples of confusion around ecology of coral reefs, including the Cinner/Bruno/Langenheim example, and make some tentative suggestions for what scientists might do to improve the situation.  Mostly it comes down to being better scientists by taking special care
>  to communicate accurately and precisely, while still communicating in ways that are effective and interesting.  This means less arm-waving and exaggeration, less effort to create effective sound-bites, and less use of catchy jargon, coupled with a far greater effort to communicate in an engaging and interesting way.  I admit that it may now be too late to make these corrections - we all seem increasingly locked into a communication style that compresses every thought to 140 characters or a cute photo.  Time will tell..  Part 1 is at http://wp.me/p5UInC-B4
>Peter Sale
>Distinguished University Professor (Emeritus)
>University of Windsor
>e-mail:                  sale at uwindsor.ca<mailto:sale at uwindsor.ca>
>web:                      www.petersalebooks.com<http://www.petersalebooks..com/>
>Twitter:                @PeterSale3
>Coral-List mailing list
>Coral-List at coral.aoml.noaa.gov

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