A non-partisan, neutral perspective supporting diversity in the color of water

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Speaking Up About Water Trendspotting

A recent article in the Washington Post regarding the poor communication skills that scientists exhibit when it comes to communicating about science caught my eye since I will be traveling to Macao later this month to speak on this very subject to an international audience of hydrologists.  The emphasis of the article is on the "Climategate" scandal where the MIT science journalism Knight Fellow Chris Mooney states "Instead, the controversy highlights that in a world of blogs, cable news and talk radio, scientists are poorly equipped to communicate their knowledge and, especially, to respond when science comes under attack."  and that "This isn't a new problem. As far back as the late 1990s, before the news cycle hit such a frenetic pace, some science officials were lamenting that scientists had never been trained in how to talk to the public and were therefore hesitant to face the media."  It goes on to state that "Scientific training continues to turn out researchers who speak in careful nuances and with many caveats, in a language aimed at their peers, not at the media or the public. Many scientists can scarcely contemplate framing a simple media message for maximum impact; the very idea sounds unbecoming." .... "And many of them don't trust the public or the press...They no longer have that luxury. After all, global-warming skeptics suffer no such compunctions. What's more, amid the current upheaval in the media industry, the traditional science journalists who have long sought to bridge the gap between scientists and the public are losing their jobs en masse."

What is science and scientists to do?  According to Chris Mooney "All this will require universities to do a better job of training young scientists in media and communication. The good news is that this is beginning to happen: At the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego, for instance, marine biologist Jeremy Jackson's "Marine Biodiversity and Conservation" summer course introduces young scientists to the media, blogging and even filmmaking."

Tier One institutions like Scripps and MIT promoting blogging as a new "trend" in academic training? Music to my ears since I just started this blog less than two weeks ago.  And speaking of just getting started, it looks like I earned my chops because I am now featured in the Alltop water magazine.  Watch out Aguanomics, I have my eyes on your "spot" on the page.

Speaking of trends, JWT just released their "Trends for 2010" which they think will "have significant weight and momentum, [and] are likely to be with us for a while."  What water-related trends do they identify? Coming in at no. 14 is coconut water - the next best thing to bottled spring water; no. 74 is recycling greywater; no. 76 is the return of the drinking water fountain; and no. 96 is water footprint tracking.

A blog mostly about greywater? What is the academic world coming to?


  1. Perhaps it is not the Scientists that need to communicate better but the journalists. Journalists by their very nature are to be word smiths which is a lost art in the news industry. While public education promises to dumb every student to the lowest common dominator, its little wonder the US continues to lag behind the rest of the world

  2. Excellent comment, and thanks for reading! I use the following to introduce my paper referenced in my posting:

    Irish dramatist & poet William Butler Yeats once said “Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.” And George Bernard Shaw, playwright and 1925 Nobel Laureate in Literature, once said “The problem with communication ... is the illusion that it has been accomplished.”

    The founder of Engineers without Borders – International, and the 2009 recipient of the Engineering News Record Award of Excellence Bernard Amadei, a civil engineering professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder speaking at the 2008 meeting proclaimed that “Engineering solutions are needed to serve the billions of people around the world who lack sufficient food, clean water, sanitation and electricity”. He called on his colleagues to “spend less time on the golf course" and “stop writing the stupid technical papers that people don't read.” Instead, more people should "work on transformation of the world from the bottom up." Amadei called on engineers to be “social entrepreneurs, community builders and peacemakers.”

    To accomplish this in the water business, teaching philosophies must now fit the new paradigm of the “compassionate” water resources professional proffered by Berndtsson and others (2005) who conclude that university curricula for water experts must establish strong links with the socio-economic and human sciences. These include how to approach interest groups and decision makers, meeting opposition and negotiation, acting as educators and trainers, and explaining methods and visualizing techniques in a “pedagogical manner” to transfer knowledge.

    If one wonders why no one is listening to earth scientists, we have ourselves to blame. Communication in the earth sciences has to extend beyond just publishing papers in technical journals and relying on Power Point presentations to disseminate ideas at technical conferences.

    Dumbing down, or adopting a new paradigm for science communication? I don't know the answer. But I am willing to try different delivery options.

  3. I have seen many examples of great communication by scientists and yet the information they provide can get trampled into the dirt by members of the public throwing a tantrum (essentially) because they don't want to do their fair share of taking care of the problem. There are examples everywhere, even in Central Oregon where the upper Deschutes is being contaminated. How do we up the ante in the elementary and secondary school rooms so that the lowest common denominator starts getting bigger? I keep asking questions, maybe they're too big, and I keep looking and listening for answers.

  4. How to increase the common denominator? Excellent question, with no easy answer. I think the science communication is easy - get scientists more comfortable in discussing their important work in terms that are not just targeting a *journal* audience. In an editorial written by Daniel Dickerson and Tim Callahan for the journal Ground Water, they discuss the hard part - navigating the world of formal science education. The National Science Education Standards (a document from which the majority of the states and school systems in the country develop goals for K to 12 science instruction), marginalizes the *hard* questions facing society. They point out that moving into adulthood, this lack of understanding translates into the inability to make informed decisions as voters, parents, and citizens regarding personal and public health, environmental stewardship, and sound economics.