From the Lab: Scientific Advocacy

In The Science of Speaking, I wrote, “Whereas our scientists and engineers often protest the pitch …” There’s an important, unanswered question here: why do our scientists and engineers protest?

There are several possible reasons for this.

First, many scientists and engineers believe that pitching is something they shouldn’t need to do—it’s their job to generate ideas, and someone else’s job (sales and marketing) to sell them. This belief is understandable, but ultimately wrong: as I note in the book, everyone engages in persuasive speaking, even if they don’t think about it in those terms.

Second, there is a significant subset of scientists who believe that pitching is something they shouldn’t do (note the deletion of the phrase “need to” here). They believe that scientists should stick to science and not get involved in advocacy. This is because they think that getting involved in advocacy will harm their credibility as scientists and perhaps even the credibility of the scientific community as a whole. Based on these assumptions, some have even gone so far as to say that science and advocacy are fundamentally incompatible.

Thankfully, a recent scientific study (published just this past weekend) thoroughly debunks this myth.

In a randomized controlled experiment, John Kotcher and his colleagues tested public reactions to six different advocacy statements made by a scientist—ranging from a purely informational statement to an endorsement of specific policies. Here’s what they found:

We found that perceived credibility of the communicating scientist was uniformly high in five of the six message conditions, suffering only when he advocated for a specific policy—building more nuclear power plants (although credibility did not suffer when advocating for a different specific policy—carbon dioxide limits at power plants). We also found no significant differences in trust in the broader climate science community between the six message conditions.

As the researchers conclude, “Our results suggest that climate scientists who wish to engage in certain forms of advocacy have considerable latitude to do so without risking harm to their credibility, or the credibility of the scientific community.”

Hopefully, this research will encourage more scientists to speak up and share not only their brilliant findings, but also their recommendations for how we can apply them!

In the News: Science for Everyone

In a recent edition of The Los Angeles Times, Eric Scerri writes about the ordinariness of science, saying:

science isn’t unusual. Like life itself, it progresses by trial and error. It depends on humans simply trying things out, even if its practitioners don’t always want to admit it. Science is what we know to the best of our human abilities. … Even the rarefied field of atomic theory is built on human error and serendipity, on non-geniuses randomly groping around.

This is relevant to The Science of Speaking in several ways.

First, as I note in the book, the ability to speak well doesn’t require genius. Just as practicing science simply requires a working knowledge of the scientific method, speaking well simply requires a working knowledge of the fundamental tools of the trade. It’s hard to make fire if you’re rubbing two sticks—not so hard if you have a box of matches. Learning the skills of effective speaking is like filling up your box with matches. While it’s true that some people start with their box mostly filled, and others start with their boxes mostly empty, it’s also true that everyone can work to fill theirs.

Second, the science of speaking is not some perfect, unchanging body of knowledge that has been passed down from on high. It’s simply the result of human research, collated by human teachers (i.e., me). Anyone—yes, that means you—can contribute to it, by practicing the scientific method, or in other words, “simply trying things out” and seeing what patterns you can find. As you give presentations, try different things, and see what works best for you and your audiences.

If you find anything interesting that you’d like to share, don’t hesitate to let me know. Your insights may even be featured in the blog, or in future editions of the book!