(This article was first published in Scientific American.)

This week, presidential candidate Mitt Romney got into hot water after made some remarks at a fundraiser attended by the wealthy that seemed to denigrate middle-class and poor Americans. Similarly, last week, Bill Nye released a frank video denouncing creationism that sent some religious viewers into a tizzy and prompted the Creation Museum to release their own video countering his message. Both of these public figures seemed to be addressing their base of supporters—not recognizing that everyone else could be watching.


I had a rousing discussion here in the blogosphere about these events, involving science bloggers Greg Laden and Justin Starr. Starr posed a question that got me thinking. In a world where nothing is off the record, and anything we do or say can suddenly appear on YouTube, what can we do to energize our base of supporters? How can we avoid making the same mistakes as Romney and Nye? It seems to me that we scientists have three winning options here, all borrowed from politics.

The first option for energizing science fans—and for crafting all our messages—is to stay positive. When politicians talk about “hope” and “change” and making a better life for the American people and so on, that’s what they are doing. It may sometimes feel generic, but it’s hard to criticize. Much of science communication works perfectly well in this mode—there’s typically nothing contentious about discovering a new kind of galaxy or learning how whale sharks migrate.

The second option is to craft a negative message doing your best to forecast the responses you’ll get from your opponents and tailoring your message to anticipate those responses. Taking this approach often means ratcheting up the emotional appeal. For example, in an effort to counter widespread childhood obesity and diabetes, the United States Department of Agriculture released new standards limiting the number of calories in a school lunch. Shortly thereafter, Representatives Steve King and Tim Huelskamp introduced a bill that would remove these limits, called the “no hungry kids” act. The name of this act, with its emotional appeal, illustrates this approach.

I argued that scientists could address rampant creationism with a video campaign modeled on the ad campaigns crafted by the anti-smoking lobby. I showed some example videos about the dangers of smoking that use music and child actors to speak to the heart of the viewer. This approach also exemplifies the second option; is hard to combat such an emotional appeal with any sort of logical argument.

A third option is to try to speak to multiple groups at once. Pundits commented that when Mitt Romney spoke of “life” “marriage” and “religious liberty” in Tampa this month, he subtly referenced the slogan of a conservative political group called the family research council. Romney placed each of the above terms at the end of successive sentences to make the reference less overt, yet still allow those involved in this political group to hear them. In politics, this technique is called a “dog whistle,” referring to a high-pitched sound audible to dogs but not to humans.

Scientists giving a colloquium sometimes use a similar technique. When you give a scientific colloquium, you general face a diverse audience: a mix of experts and non-experts.  To keep the experts entertained while introducing your material in such a way that the non-experts can understand it, we sometimes use what are called “depth spikes”. A depth spike is a kind of side comment made using the jargon of the field.  E.g. “For those of you who work on photochemistry, this trend is equivalent to the Stark-Einstein law.”

It may seem restrictive to be forced into these three modes of communicating. Perhaps scientists should always be candid and unfettered by political concerns. Or perhaps the free flow of information that underlies this trend could ultimately serve science. Science is about uncovering the truth, and open communication helps the truth come out faster.

Either way, I’m pretty sure there is no turning back; in the age of the Internet, what seems like it should be private often isn’t, and we must adapt. When scientists enter the public arena, we must remember the Romney gaff, the Climategate scandal and the reaction to Bill Nye’s video. We are all politicians now.

 

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