Scientist's Efforts To "Persuade the Public" Have Professional Costs

April 15, 2010

 By WILLIAM R. FREUDENBURG 

Editor's note: The SEJournal likes to take note of outstanding posts to the SEJ-TALK listserve, where members share comments, concerns, frustration and successes in a members-only conversation. Sometimes, the posts are so noteworthy that they should be shared with a larger audience, like this one that follows from SEJ member William R. Freudenburg, Dehlsen Professor of Environment and Society at the University of California at Santa Barbara.*

I write as a card-carrying professor — and not a professor of journalism — and I write to say that I come far closer to agreeing with Gavin Schmidt today than I would have ten years ago.

I've always seen myself as one of the folks who really does try to communicate, not just with fellow specialists, but with members of the broader public that we seek to serve — or at least with journalists who really do know a hell of a lot more about communicating with the public than we do. My college roommate was a journalism major, and he really did a lot to educate me. I've hung around with journalists many times since then, and I've found myself impressed with skill sets that are almost unknown in the academy. I have gone to every "how to communicate with journalists" training session that's been offered at any of the universities where I've spent time over the years …

So I decided to try even harder. In the aftermath of Katrina, I even made a commitment to do literal "tithing," the rest of my career — trying to spend at least 10% of my time on publications that will get me absolutely no points with my fellow academics (and may even cost me a bit, because they're "too popular"). Since it takes more than eight hours a day just to do the unproductive stuff that most professors have to do, the time to work on any sorts of publications is incredibly precious, so that's actually an expensive commitment; some weeks, 10% of my time is 100% of the time I have to do anything that actually wins me academic points. And as a more tangible indicator, as a number of you know, I even crossed over to what many academics consider to be The Dark Side, joining the SEJ. I've even done so under my own name, and I keep trying to participate as often as I'm able in SEJ-TALK. (I don't tell most of my academic colleagues about it, since they might call the authorities if they knew, but I've never once denied it. I figure I can afford it, because I've had tenure since the late Pleistocene.)

What's more, knowing when to quit has never been one of my strengths, so I'm likely to stay a member of SEJ as long as I'm still around.

But anyone reading this far probably knows the next word will be "but."

But the facts are, it isn't easy, and frankly, it's not very rewarding. First, we're paid for "contributions to knowledge," which is a fancy way of saying, for publishing work that advances the best thinking in the specialized fields that we DO know well — not for pretending to be good at something that we obviously don't know how to do very well, namely persuading the broader public. Second, when we DO try to "persuade the public," it can be personally and professionally costly … and at the same time, it can bring spectacularly low rewards. Not only do our colleagues think we're nuts, but the journalists we think we're "helping" will start wondering about us, too.

Beyond all of that, it can be costly in personal ways, too. At the AAAS meetings a week or so ago, I was amazed at the number of my mildmannered scientific colleagues who were willing to report, at least in private/informal conversations, about the pressures and/or threats they've received. The lucky ones were like me — we've heard from a dean or two that, while those deans "appreciate" our efforts to reach out to a university's broader public, they've been hearing from people who "didn't fully understand" the value of academic freedom. Usually, those deans will thank us for our service but then "wonder" if we might want to spend a bit more time back at our computer screens and lab benches. We're the lucky ones, though, because those kinds of conversations don't have many real consequences for someone as old as me. But at one lunch, three of the five of us at the table had received literal death threats, and even though everyone said "I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing," you could hear the voices quavering a bit. One of the topics that didn't show up on the AAAS program, but was the subject of intense interest in informal conversations, was whether the time has come to set up some sort of anti-defamation "league," at least to challenge some of the ad hominem attacks against leading scientists, and if enough money could be found, to serve as a legal defense fund. The problem, of course, is that people who aren't that good at persuading the public also aren't that good at begging for the kind of money it would take to set up such a thing.

But wait, there's more.

I've spent over a third of a century studying various kinds of technological controversies. I've had a few threats, and I've had police escorts myself a few times. I've dealt with people who were trembling with rage and with others who took swings at me. But in all my years, I have NEVER seen the kinds of attacks that have been aimed at climate scientists in recent years. Yet that's not what bothers me the most.

What bothers me is that, while leading European newspapers will report what such scientists are saying, and will usually report it well, even well-respected U.S. journalists are more likely to ask, "why is that news?" That's clearly less true about SEJ members than about whatever generalassignment reporter just got told to do a story in the next three hours about this three-thousand page report. But even the reactions from SEJ members don't always inspire confidence among scientists who don't have the foggiest idea what makes something "news" or not, and who thought they were going beyond the call of duty — and were — just by taking the time and effort to translate their work into English.

It doesn't bother me that U.S. media devote so many gallons of ink to a handful of errors in a 3,000-page technical report. What bothers me to no end is something that seems to matter to journalists AND scientists, namely a stunning lack of balance. It bothers me, to be more specific, that when the AEI [American Enterprise Institute] publicly offers $10,000 to any "scientist" who's willing to write an essay on "why I decided not to worry about global warming during my summer vacation," there is barely a MENTION of it in the American press — only in Europe. And it also bothers me that, the next time any global warming story comes out, the same AEI is treated as a perfectly credible source for a juicy quote — without even a sentence or two to say, "The AEI, which was revealed last year to be offering pay for reports that repeated its party line, offered a comment, too."

Folks who work for AEI know how to provide juicy quotes. Scientists don't. I understand both of those facts. I also understand that VERY few folks who work for AEI, or the Heartland Institute, etc., would be able to get a job at a research university, or NSF, or NASA, or NOAA, at least not as a scientist. What I don't understand is why the difference in PR skills should outweigh so completely the difference in scientific credibility.

As I said before, this academic won't quit SEJ. I'm learning things about a culture that's as exotic to me as Trobriand Islanders were to early anthropologists. I've also found that quite a number of you, as individuals, are some of the best kinds of friends I could ever hope to make. And most of all, I've learned that SEJ members really DO tend to value scientific credibility. So you won't lose me. But I need your help: when I give advice to younger academics, what argument can I legitimately offer to them about why THEY ought to spend more of their time trying to reach out to journalists — even those of the SEJ — when the net effect will be to (give) precious hours away from their research, only to see their words "balanced" with a much more skillful turn of phrase from someone hired last year by the Heartland Institute?

I've seen many helpful comments in SEJ-TALK. I hope this heartfelt plea will lead to a few more.

Best to all-WRF

* Note: William Freudenburg passed away December 28, 2010. SEJ remembers Bill.

** From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2010 issue.