Science Communication

Many of us who work with biosolids have counted on Science (notice the capital ‘S’ here) to be the key to public acceptance of biosolids. We always turn to scientific studies to assure people that biosolids are safe. This makes it exceedingly frustrating when opponents to land application also turn to science to support their claims of the hazards of land application. Science itself often does not help us. Look, for example, at the language used by the authors of the paper featured in last month’s library where they used the potential hazards of biosolids to justify their study that did not even include any biosolids. Clearly, there is more at work here. And Science Communication, or divining what else is involved in this process, is the subject of this month’s library. Note also that it will be a central theme of the upcoming Biofest, September 7 to 9, 2014, at Skamania outside of Portland. Our theme this year is ‘Lost in Translation’.

The library starts with an article by Abby Rockefeller where she lays out her claim on the hazards of biosolids. Ms. Rockefeller is one of the deepest pockets opposing land application, and I thought it would be fitting to start this with the story straight from the horses’ mouth. Ms. Rockefeller uses what I am sure she firmly believes is science to justify her position on the hazards of land application.

From there we go to the meat of the library and attempts to explain what is really going on. These articles are both written by Chris Mooney and are very digestible. Mr. Mooney writes a lot about science communication in the popular press and was featured at the Soils Society annual meeting a few years back to help all of us scientists learn how to speak in a way that was comprehensible. The first focuses on science reporting and how reporters have been ordered to present ‘balanced’ stories even when the data says that balance is not appropriate. Mr. Mooney goes into detail about the problems associated with this approach including the falsehoods that are often resorted to in the attempt to find ‘balance’ and how this approach empowers the scientific fringe groups. That is the beginning part of our challenge.

From “balance” we go to a more fundamental piece. That is, ‘the science of why we don’t believe in science’. Here Mr. Mooney reports on work that others have done, largely work out of Yale University by Dr. Kahan, to figure out why people come to such differing conclusions about critical issues such as climate change. Research has shown that education level is not positively associated with scientific credibility, and that it is wrong to believe that persons with high education accord credibility to scientists. Research suggests that we form our opinions on scientific issues to conform to our personal associations with social groups. So, pro-business, politically conservative persons will discount science associated with climate change, as this science is perceived to contradict conservative social values. The information in these two articles can be taken with the biosolids lens in focus.

The last two articles are by Dr. Kahan himself, and thanks to Roberta King from King County for sending these along. The first is the Kahan study to which Mooney refers. Though the language is tough to read, the article includes the data supporting the conclusions reported by Mooney. The final, shorter article, much easier to read, gives us some tools for working with this understanding of scientific prejudice. Dr. Kahan argues that it is critical to couch one’s message in a manner that will be acceptable to the social values of the audience that we are speaking to. He also encourages the use of many types of spokespeople to communicate that message.

I found all of this enlightening, even the article by Abby. Hope you do, too.

Sally Brown