Selling science; policy founded on evidence-based research

There’s more from the 2009 Canadian Science Policy conference in Toronto last week. Preston Manning (part 1 and part 2 of his interview for this blog) was Day 2’s keynote speaker and Rob Annan covers Manning’s suggestions for Canadian science policy here. In reading over Rob’s comments for all three days, the speakers’ focus seemed to be on encouraging scientists to learn how to better communicate to politicians, to organize themselves with the purpose of communicating more effectively, and to engage directly in politics, policymaking, and society.

I have commented previously here on how much more effective scientists in the US (and elsewhere) have been with their communication efforts. There is much room for improvement in Canada although I have to admit to choking on this suggestion of Manning’s,

c) create a working group who can work on the application of the science of communication to the communication of science (he liked that phrase – it’s pretty good). Basically, figure out new and innovative ways to get the message out.

The ‘science of communication’ … hmmm … is this like the science of marketing? or the science of advertising? …  It sounds as if Manning believes that there’s a formula. Well, advertisers have an old formula/saying, “50% of your advertising works but nobody knows which 50%. ”

Take the ‘frankenfoods’ or GM (genetically modified) foods debacle for an example of a wildly successful communications campaign. That was a lightning strike. As I noted here in my posting, ‘The unpredictability of ‘frankenfoods’, the activist groups got lucky. There was also another element, most successful campaigns, activist or otherwise, are based on persistence and hard work. In other words, you keep pitching. Add to or change your techniques and  your tools, tweak your messages, etc. but above all, keep pitching.

Selling science is a complicated affair (what follows is a simplified list) because those messages are competing with many others; reciprocity and respect  (i.e. listening to what your recipient has to say) is not always included in the equation especially when it seems uninformed or downright foolish by your standards; and/or your recipients may never be able to accept your message regardless of the evidence supporting your position.

Andrew Maynard has posted about a situation in the UK where the recipients (government officials) are unable or unwilling to consider a new position despite extensive evidence.  Professor David Nutt was until recently the senior scientific advisor to the UK government on the misuse of drugs. He was sacked after a paper he authored was released this last month (October 2009). I found a newspaper (The Guardian) account by Mark Tran of the situation here.

Andrew’s analysis points to something that we’ve all observed, people will choose to disbelieve something against all reason. In fact, we’ve all done it. You just don’t want to change your mind about something that’s usually a deeply held belief linking to your basic worldview. I call it the triumph of orthodoxy over fact.

Bravo to Professor Nutt for his thoughtful paper and his courage (I suspect he was well aware that there might be a reprisal.)

I hope Canadian scientists do become more involved and communicate more effectively while realizing that there are no guarantees that they will achieve their dearly hoped-for outcomes. In the shorter term.

Over the longer term, things change. The concept of universal literacy, democracy; women having the right to vote; ubiquitous electricity; etc. All of these things were bitterly fought against over decades or more.

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