In Age of New Media, Scientists Must Hone PR Skills to Save the World


Image via Climate Progress

Now that people receive their information from more sources than ever--what we consider 'the media' has coalesced into an amalgam of blogs, radio, cable TV, news articles, and magazines that incite, play off of, and inform one another--it's more difficult than ever for a single voice or report to shine through with clarity. Unless you happen to be a celebrity or a politician. Which is why, in the face of so much regurgitated dis- and misinformation on subjects like climate change or human health, scientists are being encouraged to take a more proactive stance in delivering their findings. Can Science Beat the Denial Machine?
It makes a lot of sense--just look at climate change, for instance. It doesn't matter much that 95% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming. Because between the results of a peer-reviewed, roundly accepted study and the public lurks a gauntlet of special interests intent on distorting the findings. And they have at their disposal a bevy of "news sources" (Fox News, Drudge Report, et al) with which to disseminate misinformation.

Each such outlet revels in the opportunity to defend the status quo to the millions of readers and viewers who seek such news sources out to have their fears of change pacified. So despite the fact that new studies are constantly released showing more evidence for continued climate change, it doesn't take much for a conservative think tank or organization that's funded by oil or coal companies (like Cato or the Competitive Enterprise Institute) to feed misinformation or a bunk study to the appropriate outlets to muddle the potential impact of truly important scientific findings.

Teaching Science PR
So what can be done? Well, many, including perhaps most vocally, Joe Romm of Climate Progress, argue that scientists should become better at shaping their message, in order to provide a clearer pipeline from which to present their results to the public. And though many scientists will shudder at the idea of having to adopt the skills of a PR agent, there's already ample proof that it works.

Most recently, a group of scientists released a study on the damages of mountaintop removal mining. They concluded the study not only with a statement saying that it was devastating to the ecosystem in almost every way--but that policymakers should move to ban the practice. The researchers provided specific evidence to support their case, which they made emphatically. As a result, the story was a hit with the media, and made a sizable impact--perhaps even directly influencing the EPA.

Climate Science Needs Better Messaging
A lesson can be learned from all this about climate science, where the battle is even fiercer from those wishing to protect coal, oil, and manufacturing interests. In coming days, don't be surprised if science takes on more of a public service aspect, and scientists themselves link their findings to policy recommendations. That may be what it takes to combat the legion of fossil fuel executives, lobbyists and politicians who represent and protect their interests, and misinformation fountains like Fox News intent on perpetrating the myth that we can continue to burn fossil fuels and blow off mountaintops unabated.

Science is the best ally we have in forging human progress--but now scientists' findings and advances are only half the battle. Successfully communicating them to the population is the other.

For more on this topic, check out the excellent piece When Scientists Speak Out: The Power of a Communications Plan by Chris Mooney, over at Science Progress. Joe Romm's Publicize or perish: The scientific community is failing miserably in communicating the potential catastrophe of climate change is a must read as well.

More on Scientists and Climate Change Denial
Catch Up With Scientists on Climate Change--the American Public is Way Behind
Climate Change Denial : Where It Counts, It's Not Going Up

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