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Monday, February 18, 2019

Selling science: effective communication with decision makers

Finished this excellent, important book across the weekend, and spoke by phone with co-author Amy Aines today.

Highly recommended. Five stars. Not about communicating science to the public, but to decision makers, e.g., philanthropists, grant-making institutions, corporate entities, politicians and government agencies, venture capitalists, etc. #SciComm
"Selling" is the grubbier, lesser synonym of "championing," yeah, I know. The latter connotes educated, credible sincerity.
Let's cut right to the chase, shall we?


…Executed well, these eleven actions can help every scientist communicate ideas to change the world. Throughout the book, we develop these concepts in detail, but if you get no further than absorbing this list, you will be on your way to becoming a more effective communicator and science champion.

  1. Be passionate. Palpable enthusiasm is contagious. It will carry people along for the great ride of science. Sharing what inspires you about your work will help others see its potential.
  2. Build the big picture first. Resist the temptation to dive into the details. Frame what you say by succinctly explaining what exists today, the future possibilities, and how your work will fill the gap.
  3. Know who’s listening. Think carefully about what your audience knows and their prevailing sentiment. Determine what you want them to think, do, and feel after they hear from you. Find out how they like to receive information and adapt accordingly.
  4. Spend more time on why it matters and less time on how you do it. Never promote science for the mere sake of science. Always demonstrate the value to people and the planet we inhabit.
  5. Extract the essence. Formulate your overarching messages and support points. Tell that story. Never dumb it down.
  6. Be understandable. Use plain, common language. Avoid or translate acronyms. Start from where your audience is, not from where you are. Use iconic references to anchor scientific concepts to everyday, familiar experiences.
  7. Balance precision with impact. Choose language carefully to be clear and directionally accurate. Long phrases bog down the listener. Think and speak in short sentences. There is no need for hype. Learn to deliver a compelling narrative.
  8. Be human and credible. The integrity of your word must be unquestionable. Verify your facts. Evaluate your sources. Be yourself. Make an emotional connection by showing up as a person first and a scientist second.
  9. Influence patiently. Convincing decision makers is a process, not a single act of persuasion. Use information as a gift. Engage often to build understanding and show the value of supporting your science. Learn what matters to your audience.
  10. Collaborate thoughtfully. Advancing your ideas doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. Seek out advisors, influencers, and partners who can help carry your science further.
  11. Enable your listeners to act. Know the purpose of your communication. Make the ask every time. Leverage each conversation and presentation to build support for advancing your work. Remember that you are ultimately building relationships for the long run.
Aines, Amy L., Roger D., Championing Science, University of California Press. Kindle Edition locations 280- 295.
My advice? Commit these 11 tenets to memory. Repeat them to yourself aloud multiple times.

I read the book with intense interest and enjoyment, and can attest that they made the case thoroughly. I would make this required reading in scientific curricula.
Scientists are great communicators—with other scientists. We are schooled in the exacting art of talking to our professors and colleagues, people deeply steeped in both the importance and the nuance of our topic. We can talk about the incredible details of modern science in an efficient way, condensing complex arguments into short discourses. But once we go out beyond the academic world to make an impact, scientists from every discipline face a brand new challenge—communicating science to decision makers.

Decisions about which scientific endeavors are advanced and how they are pursued usually get made by people who are not experts in the field. Corporate chief technology officers, elected officials, government program managers, venture capitalists, heads of nongovernmental agencies, and, often, senior management have the power to award funding and support new discoveries. These decision makers are well educated, hardworking, sincere, and extremely busy. Over the course of a day, they may be expected to make important decisions on topics spanning a myriad of unrelated fields. It is incumbent on us as scientists to quickly and effectively make our case. We must learn to talk about our work in succinct and compelling ways that convince the people who are pivotal to our success to take action…
[ibid, Kindle location 106]
Indeed, indeed. I am pretty well up to speed on the persuasion psych and "critical thinking" literature (with a particular focus on clinical reasoning), but after reading Amy and Roger's book I feel significantly better informed.

Below, from Amy's website:


A lot to reflect on here. I jotted down an entire page of notes for my call with Amy. She had spot-on answers for all of my questions.


Of direct relevance to Championing Science, recent OpEd in Science Magazine:
Scientists work with a deep sense that their quest for reliable knowledge leads somewhere—that following the evidence and excluding bias help to make sense of the world. It may be a slow process, and interactions in the scientific community are not without friction and false steps, yet scientists are devoted to the quest because they observe that it works. One can make sense of the world. Einstein famously said, “the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility,” and scientists understand that evidence-based scientific thinking leads to this comprehension. Scientists could do a better job of sharing this powerful insight.

As I fret over recent challenges to democracy, it seems that a cure for what ails democracy may lie, in part, in science. Citizens are increasingly asserting their values, hopes, and opinions without apparent interest in finding a shared understanding of the actual state of things. Without such a shared understanding, those values and hopes cannot rationally be expressed and realized. Observers speak of “truth decay,” dismissal of expertise, and neglect of evidence. Collectively, these are problems of enormous importance because they threaten democracy itself. Democracy is at risk when it becomes simply a contest of fervently held opinions or values not grounded in evidence…
Amy and I had a cool discussion concerning the word "evidence" (I asked what it meant to her). We use it all the time, but do we all mean the same thing? "Evidence," in my view, is simply that which makes a true conclusion more likely -- or, in rare cases proves it outright. Everything else is just noise -- language and data clutter. As such, evidence ranges from "nil" to "dispositive." Envision a bell curve distribution (or a skewed or flat distribution) of "evidence." In popular language we typically refer to evidence in qualitative terms, i.e., nil-to-weak-to-moderate-to-strong-to-incontrovertible. In science, they love their "p-values" (going to probability estimates). 
Another tangential point: evidence must not only have "truth value" but also "materiality," topical relevance. Ask any trial lawyer.
For now, speaking of "Science," recall my prior post "The Science of Success?"

I was dubious when I first saw that title, but, again, case made. Also highly recommended. As is this one below:

If you hope to initiate or change beliefs, it behooves you to understand the salient aspects of them.


Amy sent me this YouTube link:
An Evidence-Based Approach to Science Communication — Webinar

Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science

For all our careful work, scientists can still succumb to biases and assumptions that sabotage our efforts to engage with the public. Valuable new insights into public attitudes towards science are replacing conventional opinion with solid data. Learn how to avoid falling into the traps that still plague many in the scientific community...
BTW, You may have noticed that I'd accorded the Alan Alda Center a permanent right-hand column link on this blog.
Everything is "branding" these days.
Interesting, from the above webinar:
Christopher Volpe, PhD, @4:13 “...For the last 20 years, I’ve really been more of a professional marketer then I’ve been a scientist, and that makes some science folks cringe, but, believe it or not, the scientific method and the marketing method are remarkably similar, they just use different languages...”
Hmmm... how about "The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs?"

Recommend you visit also the "Science Counts" website:

"ScienceCounts is deciphering Americans’ complex views about science to develop more effective ways to foster grassroot support for scientific research and exploration."

Championing Science cites Robert Cialdini's "Six Principles of Influence": reciprocity, commitment/consistency, social proof, authority, liking and scarcity.
I am also reminded of Howard Gardner's book Changing Minds and his "7 Re's": seven levers for persuading others to embrace new ideas:
  1. Reason: You present all relevant considerations of an idea, including its pros and cons.
  2. Research: You provide numerical and other information about your idea’s ramifications, or data relevant to your idea.
  3. Resonance: You and your ideas are convincing to your listener because of your track record, effective presentation, and sense of your audience.
  4. Representational redescriptions: You deliver your message in a variety of formats, including stories, statistics, and graphics.
  5. Resources and rewards: You draw on resources to demonstrate the value of your idea and provide incentives to adopt your idea.
  6. Real-world events: You monitor events in the world on a daily basis and, whenever possible, draw on them to support your idea.
  7. Resistances: You devote considerable energy to identifying the principal resistances to your ideas (both conscious and unconscious resistances) and try to defuse them directly and implicitly.
As I reflect on all of the foregoing, I should again note that I am not a scientist. Just an aware, concerned citizen. We have serious pressing issues that will be in ongoing need of science and public support for it. I would put climate control science at the top of the list. Failure there will exacerbate of host of other serious global social, public health, political, and economic problems, perhaps irremediably so.

I have no illusions regarding the difficulties involved in "selling science" where it butts up against powerful economic interests with huge stakes in an unsustainable status quo. We gotta Bring Our A-Game.


I've been pondering science issues for a long time, particularly in the medical space. From my "One in Three" essay in the late 1980s concerning my late elder daughter's cancer illness:
Is science the enemy? To the extremist "alternative healing" advocate, the answer is a resounding 'yes'! A disturbing refrain common to much of the radical "alternative" camp is that medical science is "just another belief system," one beholden to the economic and political powers of establishment institutions that dole out the research grants and control careers, one that actively suppresses simpler healing truths in the pursuit of profit, one committed to the belittlement and ostracism of any discerning practitioner willing to venture "outside the box" of orthodox medical and scientific paradigms.

One e-mail correspondent, a participant in the internet newsgroup, vented splenetic at length recently regarding U.S. authorities' alleged hounding, arrest, and imprisonment of alternative healers. He railed that law enforcement, at the behest of the AMA/FDA Conspiracy (a.k.a. the "corrupt AMA/FDA/NCI/ACS cartel"), had made the practice of alternative medicine illegal in the U.S. Moreover, he considered the fact that medical science can only claim "cures" for approximately 10% of the roughly 10,000 classified human diseases an a priori indictment of the mainstream profession.

I know: this is akin to the U.N. Black Helicopters/One-World-Government Conspiracy stuff of the not-too-tightly-wrapped…
Those anti-science attitudes have hardly gone away.


Just came across this book via a MSNBC interview segment. Downloaded it and started my study.

…Perversely, decades of climate denial and disinformation have made global warming not merely an ecological crisis but an incredibly high-stakes wager on the legitimacy and validity of science and the scientific method itself. It is a bet that science can win only by losing. And in this test of the climate we have a sample size of just one.

No one wants to see disaster coming, but those who look, do… all told, the question of how bad things will get is not actually a test of the science; it is a bet on human activity. How much will we do to stall disaster, and how quickly?

Those are the only questions that matter…

Wallace-Wells, David. The Uninhabitable Earth (p. 219). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.
Again, I refer you to my "Anthropocene Denial" series of posts.

From the foregoing page 219 near the conclusion of David's book, let us return to his onset, page 3.
It is worse, much worse, than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions: that global warming is an Arctic saga, unfolding remotely; that it is strictly a matter of sea level and coastlines, not an enveloping crisis sparing no place and leaving no life undeformed; that it is a crisis of the “natural” world, not the human one; that those two are distinct, and that we live today somehow outside or beyond or at the very least defended against nature, not inescapably within and literally overwhelmed by it; that wealth can be a shield against the ravages of warming; that the burning of fossil fuels is the price of continued economic growth; that growth, and the technology it produces, will allow us to engineer our way out of environmental disaster; that there is any analogue to the scale or scope of this threat, in the long span of human history, that might give us confidence in staring it down.

None of this is true...
[ibid, pg 3]
David expresses a bit of qualified caution at the beginning of his end notes section (which comprises roughly 30% of the book's volume).

All science is speculative to some degree, subject to some future reconsideration or revision. But just how speculative varies from science to science, from specialty to specialty, indeed from study to s

Within climate change research, both the fact of global warming (about 1.1 degrees Celsius since humans first began burning fossil fuels) and its mechanism (the greenhouse gases produced by that burning trap heat radiating upward into the planet’s atmosphere) are, at this point, established beyond any shadow of a doubt. Exactly how that warming will play out, over the next decades and then the next centuries, is less certain, both because we don’t know how quickly humans will drop their addiction to fossil fuels, and because we don’t know precisely how the climate system will recalibrate in response to human perturbation. But the notes that follow are, I hope, a road map to the state of that science, in addition to being a bibliography for this book.
  [ibid, pg 233]
Since I posted the foregoing, I've run into some pushback from noted climate scientist Michael E. Mann (whom I've cited before).
"The evidence that climate change is a serious problem that we must contend with now, is overwhelming on its own. There is no need to overstate the evidence, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness."
More on all that in a bit. Are we to be continually stymied by "analysis paralysis" / credibility contention going to complex issues of science having significant economic and ethical policy implications?

UPDATE: I finished The Uninhabitable Earth. Riveting. Sobering. It will have to have its own review post. Highly recommended. 


Trump’s pick to lead climate security panel calls climate science ‘a cult’
Rear admiral slams "extreme, fringe" pick to head White House climate and security panel.

In his ongoing war with U.S. intelligence agencies, President Donald Trump is now challenging the military’s longstanding conclusion that climate change poses a serious national security threat to America, appointing a fringe climate science denier to lead the effort…

apropos of the climate issue, ran into what looks to be another interesting book (available on Feb 26th).

The Amazon preview looks very intriguing.
For the entire globe, the era of plentiful water appears to be over.
Forget energy price shocks, mass unemployment, fiscal crises and financial failures. Even biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, human-made environmental catastrophes or the spread of infectious diseases pale in comparison…

Water problems are also strongly linked to two other prominent global risks—climate change and food insecurity. By 2050 more than 40 percent of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed regions, which is around 1 billion more people than live in such areas today. Around 2.7 billion people are also affected by water shortages each year. Meanwhile, 663 million people—one in ten of the world’s population—lack access to safe water and 2.4 billion—one in three—do not have use of a toilet. These water stresses and shortages will only worsen with the rising temperatures, more frequent droughts and variable rainfall that will accompany global warming. Growing water scarcity will, in turn, magnify the economic and environmental impacts of climate change.

Barbier, Ed (2019-02-25T22:58:59). The Water Paradox. Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
You might like my 2015 rumination on "The Western US Drought."

More to come...

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