As regular readers of this blog know, I find myself occasionally embroiled in discussions of how those of us working on climate change might best engage the media and the public. It happened in the earliest days of this blog, and again more recently – and my thoughts on this have turned up on Dot Earth at the New York Times site here and here (h/t to Andrew Revkin). In the end, I think we need to be very open and transparent in what we do, but we need to engage people who work on messaging as professionals – scientists are generally poorly trained in this area, and our universities are mired in the idea that press releases will be sufficient for disseminating important ideas to the public or the policy community (see a good post on this at Marc Bellemare’s blog).
So, I was mortified today when I saw that Tom Paulson, a journalist in Seattle, was more or less denied permission to ask a question of a panel at the Pacific Health Summit . . . even when he was willing to follow Chatham House Rules (where comments made in a session are not for external attribution unless the speaker explicitly gives permission – it allows people to speak more freely, and resolve/address difficult issues more directly). It is one thing to protect people talking about a sensitive issue (in this case, vaccinations) so they can speak freely at an event aimed at specialists, but entirely another to actively prevent the press from asking questions, even when panelists are free to refuse to answer, or to answer as they please, without fear of identification. This does nothing to enhance the dialogue within the sessions, nor does it help to foster productive relations with the media.
Now, I was not at the event, and Paulson notes that there were prohibitions against the press asking questions at the event, so to some extent he walked into this one . . . but that does not absolve the organizers of this Summit of blame. The rules themselves make little sense, unless there is such remarkable mistrust of the media in this community (and I speak from a pretty media-averse community these days) that the organizers felt nobody could be trusted.
This is not a press/media relations plan designed by professionals. We in the scientific and academic communities need to get over ourselves – our data is not truth/justification/validation to anyone but us. To most of the rest of the world, our findings are just different viewpoints to be considered. I’m not saying this is how it should be . . . but this is how the world works. We can sit around and demand that everyone understand us on our terms, but we’ve seen how that has played out for climate science, for those who argue against the “vaccines are dangerous” crowd, etc. (For those unclear on this, it has played out very, very poorly). This strikes me as completely pointless, and forever doomed to failure. My life is too short for pointless – I’m a pragmatist. This is yet another screaming argument for the need to engage the professional messaging community. It doesn’t ruin science to engage – it will make what we do a lot more effective.