Thursday, 30 November 2017

Conversation > Communication

Science communication is an industry now. Universities offer degree-level qualifications in science communication, there's a conference circuit for people who self-identify as science communicators, not to mention the popular #scicomm tag on Twitter.

Pretty much all of this industry is devoted to explaining science to the rest of us, in the hope that we'll eventually understand: it is almost entirely one-way traffic. If you listen to #scicomm on Twitter you'll mainly hear preaching, discussion of preaching techniques or angst-ridden discussions about how to get people to agree. For they are preaching the truth and we are either converts or prospects.

Science is far more rigorous than religion: the agreed method of progress in science involves trying to falsify hypotheses. Done well, economics is no different: science and economics should be practiced without reference to ones own values or beliefs. That's why some of us argue that economics is a science: we subscribe to the method. Still, for what follows lets assume it's not.

Advanced study in any of these fields is difficult: the content differs but I'm not aware of any systematic differences in the cognitive abilities of people with comparable advanced degrees either within sciences or between them and economics. Also, both groups are like artists: we tend to fall in love with our models. So we have a lot in common.

I also acknowledge of course that economists can get religious. No-one my age who was resident in Aotearoa at the time could forget the sermons used as support for the late-1980s economic revolution. Yet there are no #buscomm or #econcomm groups on Twitter or degree courses in how to optimise your business/economics preaching.

My point will become clear shortly, but first we need to recognise that economics is not a laboratory science. When economists analyse potential policy/institutional/structural changes, we generally can't do (or consult earlier) experiments that directly answer our questions. Instead we're constantly trying to knit together fragments of information, using them to confront one of several potential theoretical models, and draw inference about likely effects.

This makes economics imprecise, with elements of art. It also means we care *a lot* about what other people think. The views and reactions of ordinary non-economist people will (in aggregate) determine the ultimate answers to our questions. When I'm investigating a public economics issue, I am deeply interested in how people (or firms, which are run by people) feel about stuff and how they'd react if things changed. Listening closely to non-specialists is incredibly important in my field.

By contrast, the #scicomm crew are entirely focused on persuading people who are yet to see the light. They assume that the knowledge flow will be one-way traffic because they know they're right, so it's all just a sell job. This is why they get so frustrated & angry when challenged. They're mainly stuck on transmit. They do have a receive function, but it's been hard-wired to focus on constructing 'gotcha' attempts: ways to assign pejorative labels to others who can then be ignored if not vilified.

This one-way traffic form of "science communication" creates a massive blind spot. It limits the scientist's understanding of other perspectives. It's better suited to gospel preachers than professionals trying to engage with their fellow citizens.

Some of you will be thinking: "this is all fine in theory but does it really matter"? One reason it matters is the same reason that #scicomm exists as an industry: scientists want public support. If you don't understand your audience, your communications strategy is very risky if not doomed.

Another reason is that values differ, as do expectations about the future. For example, a scientist working to develop a particular GMO is likely to be focusing on the positive potential of the work. How should they behave if deployment of "their" GMO would create risks? Strictly speaking, assuming the persona of the dispassionate scientist, they should recognise that the calculation as to whether the risks are worth accepting is beyond their expertise. The scientists' role in this situation is to accurately characterise the risks and then allow others to choose whether they are worth taking.

What about planetary engineering? Suppose a group of scientists developed and received financial backing for schemes to pump stuff into the atmosphere or send up mirrors or whatever. Should we, the non-scientists just automatically accept whatever risk calculus they presented? Or should we also consider the views of ordinary people, non-expert in planetary engineering technology but nevertheless affected by it?

My position is that these are social decisions, not the domain of vested interests. I think #scicomm needs to take a hard look at itself and be far more receptive to feedback from lesser mortals. Conversations are two-way. If you stopped preaching for a bit, you might hear what others are saying.

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