The National Center for Science Education (NCSE), who have fought the long fight to keep creationism out of public school science classes, are expanding their focus to include climate change denialism. See this article in the LA Times: Climate change skepticism seeps into science classrooms, and this blog post from NCSE’s Josh Rosenau: NCSE takes on climate change.
Lately I’ve been reading Randy Olson’s Don’t Be Such a Scientist. Olson was a tenured science professor who left academia to attend USC Film School, and has since made a career of helping scientists do a better job of communicating. One of the things he talks about is the need to move beyond listeners’ heads, to try to engage their hearts, guts, and (if possible) sex organs. He mentions NCSE, and how the organization eventually just made a blanket recommendation that scientists not debate creationists publicly. They came to that position reluctantly, after realizing that in almost every case, the cerebral, fact-based presentations favored by scientists were losing to the emotional, intuitive, sexy presentations of their creationist opponents.
It’s very hard, Olson writes, for scientists to give up the idea that being right, having more and better facts on their side, should convince a lay audience. He talks about the years he spent attending science presentations, then coming back to them after film school and realizing how incredibly boring and ineffectual they were.
Most of the time. There are the occasional exceptions, though. Olson’s bloggish site recently had an item that I really loved, and meant to share, but then forgot about until Boing Boing reminded me. Anyway, here it is, as published in the British Journal of Urology: How (not) to communicate new scientific information: A memoir of the famous Brindley lecture.
This lecture was unique, dramatic, paradigm-shifting, and unexpected. It is difficult to imagine that a similar scenario could ever take place again. Professor Brindley belongs in the pantheon of famous British eccentrics who have made spectacular contributions to science. The story of his lecture deserves a place in the urological history books.
As someone who has sometimes struggled to communicate complex technical information in a way that is compelling and memorable, I’m in awe of Professor Brindley. I’ll never be in his league, but I’m inspired by his example.