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

Michael Newkirk michaeljnewkirk at gmail.com
Tue Aug 23 21:58:39 EDT 2016

Hi All,

I have read many good points. What sticks out to me is Doug's last email,
which highlighted discourse.

I am not a coral scientist. My academic training is in kinesiology and
applied linguistics and will hopefully soon be moving into biomechanics in
a research capacity. During my master's training, I became quite fond of
discourse analysis and sociolinguistics. Overall, I do believe that much of
the problem is a discourse problem, and unfortunately, the media (and other
factors and bodies) don't give sound science a fighting chance in the minds
of "everyday evening news watchers."

Doug hit the nail on the head with "Scientists believe...," which injects
the idea that scientists could choose not to believe something. I am from
the Southern U.S., so I've heard people say a world of things about
scientists. Likewise, because scientists are thought to *believe* in
science, it is also thought that they must believe in their results.
Separating the interpretation of data from belief is essentially the key
battleground for scientists today, particularly those trying to address
issues that impact our lives---like coral scientists.

The mistake that the scientific community makes, in my opinion, is that it
appears that some feel that fine-tuning methods and creating more robust
data and modeling will finally win the public over. My experience teaching
research methods, research communication, and other subjects elucidated for
me the simple fact that not everyone can grasp the methods employed to
arrive at the data on which scientific conclusions are based.

Whenever there is an evening news segment that has a scientific debate, I
often can't decide whether or not I'll watch it. I almost always end up
watching it just to analyze the discourse. Invariably, the segment starts
with "Scientists believe," but then state that "But other scientists
believe that..." Of course there is no context. So, many people are led to
think that the world of science is at a halt on a particular issue when in
fact, most scientists on the topic might be in agreement, and very few may
have contradictory evidence. I know that I'm not telling any of you
anything new when I say that how the "naysayer studies" (as the media
portray them) are designed and the data collected is rarely discussed, if
at all.

What doesn't get debated as much---it seems---are findings with physical
evidence that everyday folks find "tangible." This type of evidence is
often encased in other discoursal structures like "Scientists have found,"
"Scientists have discovered," etc. The tone of delivery can sometimes be
different, and there is usually little commentary from newscasters, which
tells viewers that it is not "debatable." The sequence of reports in a
newscast can also influence viewers, which perhaps should also be taken up
in research.

Another area that seems to trip people up is the field of medicine, as
health and healthcare are some of the primary avenues in which we engage
science, and passionately so. The concept of a diagnosis is a touchy
subject. Although diagnostic equipment is amazing these days, we can
imagine how hurt some people feel when they have the scare of their lives
only to find out that the diagnosis was incorrect (no disease, different
disease than previously thought, etc.). They spread their story and their
distrust of the medical profession to others and to other areas of science,
which I have seen and heard myself. Coral science is likely one of the
branches of study caught in the middle, painted unfairly with the same
brush of some other type of experience with science/scientists.

I think that a good strategy for the scientific community is conducting
multi-disciplinary studies with linguistics and education to change the
present narrative. If any of you find this research direction interesting,
please feel free to contact me.

Kind regards,

Chief Editor, WordsRU
Academic Research Editor
Dept. of Mech. Eng., NCKU Taiwan
Dept. of Greenery, Natn'l Univ. of Taiwan

On Mon, Aug 22, 2016 at 5:51 PM, Douglas Fenner <
douglasfennertassi at gmail.com> wrote:

> Steve,
>     One small thing that might be part of the problem is that way too often
> the media and many of us, refer to "scientific opinion" or "scientists
> believe that."  Both of those statements are compatible with a world view
> that scientists are just like everyone else, they have their own opinions
> or beliefs, and theirs are no better than anyone else's.  That manifests
> itself in the frequent statements of climate deniers that scientists just
> have a different religion than other people, and that they stick to their
> beliefs no matter what (just like deniers, though they don't point that out
> about themselves).  All this omits a critical difference between science
> and other ways of knowing.  And that is the role of evidence, and the
> quality and quantity of evidence.  Science isn't just based on blind faith,
> it is based on hard empirical evidence, and the testing and rejecting of
> alternative hypotheses.  It has a long history of the refinement of the
> logic of understanding the strength of different kinds of evidence,
> including hypothesis-testing and the use of statistics.  This is not to say
> that there are no other ways of knowing that have value, far from it.
> There are lots of things that science can't test, or for which evidence
> available is limited in various ways.  There are other ways of knowing that
> use different rules of evidence, such as the legal profession.  BUT,
> science is not just about opinion and belief, without a basis in evidence,
> fact and logic.  Testing ideas against the real world, instead of clinging
> to beliefs in spite of all the evidence.  Steve was just using the term
> "scientific opinion" and there certainly is a role of "expert opinion",
> that's one that is informed by the evidence and logic.
>        The important difference is that science is based on the strongest
> evidence available, and many beliefs out there are not.  Many are called
> "pseudoscience", and there are many others as well, politics is often full
> of them.  I advocate referring to "scientific evidence" as much as possible
> instead of "scientists believe" because otherwise the public easily
> discounts the quality and quantity of evidence that statements are based
> on, and that is a critical difference between science and many other
> thought systems.  I think we shoot ourselves in the foot when we say
> "scientific opinion" or "scientists believe", we have a much stronger base
> than that.
>       Cheers,  Doug
> On Mon, Aug 22, 2016 at 7:22 AM, Steve Mussman <sealab at earthlink.net>
> wrote:
> > 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.
> >
> > http://www.rawstory.com/2016/08/scientific-american-sounds-
> > alarm-on-trump-he-takes-antiscience-to-previously-unexplored-terrain/
> >
> > 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.
> >
> > Regards,
> > Steve
> >
> > -----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 car
> >  e
> > >  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
> > >http://coral.aoml.noaa.gov/mailman/listinfo/coral-list
> >
> > _______________________________________________
> > Coral-List mailing list
> > Coral-List at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
> > http://coral.aoml.noaa.gov/mailman/listinfo/coral-list
> >
> --
> Douglas Fenner
> Contractor for NOAA NMFS, and consultant
> "have regulator, will travel"
> PO Box 7390
> Pago Pago, American Samoa 96799  USA
> phone 1 684 622-7084
> Join the International Society for Reef Studies.  Membership includes a
> subscription to the journal Coral Reefs, and there are discounts for pdf
> subscriptions and developing countries.  Coral Reefs is the only journal
> that is ALL coral reef articles, and it has amazingly LOW prices compared
> to other journals.  Check it out!  www.fit.edu/isrs/
> "Belief in climate change is optional, participation is not."- Jim Beever.
>   "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts."-
> Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
> NASA: sea ice settling into 'new normal'
> https://www.yahoo.com/news/m/a465bdcb-fd72-30c8-86e1-
> e6993d007ff0/nasa%3A-sea-ice-settling-into.html
> Arctic sea ice has stabilized over the last 10 years or so.  But then, the
> average world surface temperature hit a high in 1998 (El Nino year) and did
> not break that for over 10 years.  But now surface temperatures are
> breaking all time records every year and in most months.  So unless the
> laws of physics and the melting temperature of water change, soon Arctic
> sea ice will begin setting new lows.
> Earth's hot streak continues with warmest May since at least 1880.
> https://www.yahoo.com/news/climate-just-phoning-now-may-193634823.html
> website:  http://independent.academia.edu/DouglasFenner
> blog: http://ocean.si.edu/blog/reefs-american-samoa-story-hope
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