Monday, August 29, 2011

The Age of Cassandra

Kristen Marhaver is a PhD student studying coral biology who wrote the absolutely fascinating Ecosystems in the Age of Cassandra in the May 5 Science Progress. She cites Adam Cohen's New York Times editorial wondering why policymakers do not react appropriately to scientific warnings of impending disaster such as the Hurricane Katrina flooding, September 11th attacks, and Bernie Madoff fraudulence.

Marhaver suggests that the problem is the difference in pace between science, which takes years to research and verify, and news, which doesn't spend more than a day or two on a story, especially one about scientific research or predictions. She has a number of notable suggestions for indicating to publishers and policymakers which research is really, really important and making research findings openly available.

The comments are worth reading as well, especially for people who want to make their message heard. One journalist remarks on the importance of a story - protagonist, antagonist, beginning, middle, end. People respond to research written with a narrative theme. They respond to the stories of individuals too - "the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic" (misattributed to Stalin).

There are systemic problems leading to a failure on our part to heed important warnings. Research reports written for peer-reviewed journals aren't necessarily appropriate for lay people, even when the information is crucial. And researchers who are embedded in their own little world may miss the forest of the larger world for the trees of their own point of view.

Scientists must find ways to choose the message and frame it in a way that important audiences can hear and act on. Policymakers have many competing interests. So does industry. So does the public at large, so do teachers, so do students, but they aren't all the same interests. It's important to figure out what messages are crucial and which can be heard and by whom. Then we can hope for success in making the world a better place.

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