Book review: Am I Making Myself Clear? A scientist’s guide to talking to the public, by Cornelia Dean
Those of you who know me independent of teh internets might also know that I am developing a class on science communication at the University of South Florida. Let the first bit of judgement cast on this book be this: it inspired me to develop the class.
Perhaps the biggest issue facing science today is the widening gap between scientific advances and the public’s understanding of them. The author, Cornelia Dean, aptly points out a third point in this dilemma, observing that scientific knowledge increasingly conflicts with values (for example, the conflict between the “right” to consume conspicuously despite global climate change). It is a human tendency to accept only a few facts when composing an idea, and, when these conflict with values, to descend into ignorance. As Dean puts it, “there are plenty of people prepared to profit from these weaknesses,” so scientists need to get involved NOW.
Dean, a journalist, outlines how scientists can become involved in the public understanding of science. First, it is not necessary that academic scientists abandon their careers. Communication with journalists, writing op-ed’s and letters to the editor, and prudent use of your institution’s public relations office figure prominently among modes of communication. However, I venture to say that she writes most passionately about scientific engagement in policy-making. This kind of activity can range from the more passive, such as exhorting your professional organizations to write position statements, to the very active, including running for public office and volunteering to assemble a science advisory panel for an elected officials who lacks one. I must admit that she has given me (a soon-to-be PhD with low interest in remaining in academia) a lot to think about in terms of future careers.
In short, I found this book enormously useful. It descended into journalism jargon only a few times and was otherwise eminently readable and informative. If you are a scientist, make yourself a communicator of science by picking up this book. You’ll be glad that you did.