Don’t be such a scientist

It’s unhappily easy for our earnest efforts to fall on deaf ears, especially if (like me) you’re a bit of an egg-head. It would be lovely if people listened attentively to our reasoned arguments, but any academic psychologist could tell you it ain’t so.

The Bad Science movement has roundly bashed the media for dangerously misrepresenting science. Ben Goldacre angrily lays blame at the feet of humanities graduates (like me?) who write and make editorial decisions about scientific subjects without any understanding of the subject or even getting the basics of the scientific method. Just recently we have seen climate scientists have their names dragged through the mud by, er, journalists and editors who obviously don’t realise how much of a non-scandal “Climate Gate” really was.

So do we fight back with Goldacre-style condescension, taking the arguments to pieces and shouting at humanities graduates like me? That probably won’t get us too far.

Randy Olson’s book – yes, what a good name for a scientist – takes you through five basic lessons that he picked up after jacking in his career as a marine biologist and tenured professor to do film school and acting classes. I’ve summarised them in my page about communications theories. I would, without hesitation, say that every Green should read his book if they want to counter climate change deniers, or in fact to communicate just about any political issue.

What does it boil down to? Basically, don’t reel off a factual argument in a condescending manner. Instead, think of your subject like a story; arouse their interest, connecting to their emotions and gut instincts, then build a strong narrative that delivers your message in a way that fulfills their expectations. If you’re trying to beat a blockbuster-style conspiracy theory like Climate Gate, do it with an even better movie plot. Sounds obvious, but goodness me we can be bad at it!


  1. Is it ok if we do a factual argument in a non-condescending manner? Here’s mine:
    1 CO2 is a greenhouse gas. Physical fact.
    2 CO2 has been increasing since the Industrial Revolution. Observation.
    2 Modern temperatures are at unprecedented levels. Observation and inference from past proxies.
    3 We can only account for present levels by factoring in GHGs. If we use only natural factors (solar variation, volcanoes, PDO &c) there is a gap between observed temperatures and the modelled natural factors. If we put the amn-made component back in, the lines tally.

    See with pictures:

    13th March 2010
    • Tom Chance said:

      It’s definitely OK! The questions is whether anyone will listen and be convinced.

      14th March 2010

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