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Know thy audience! Know thy self! Know thy stuff!

The scientific community is a bunch of elitist snobs that don't listen to or care about what other people have to say. Perhaps they are even setting up a conspiracy against all the rest of us!

How can scientists handle such images? How do you argue against them? How do you explain something in 20 seconds on tv?

Those kinds of questions were raised in the session Communicating on the State and Local Level: How can Scientists Support Policy Makers? at the AAAS annual meeting in San Diego yesterday.

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, talked about the attempts in Lexington, Kentucky, to get permission to teach "creation science" in school, a debate that started in the 60s and went on until 1981. School boards, Eugenie underlined, consist of elected politicians - but scientists are not a political group.  In order to influence decisions, scientists need to learn about and understand what politicians need and what their perspectives are. Think politically, and cooperate with others!

Steve Schneider, Stanford professor and member of the IPCC, did a very engaged talk about people's misperceptions of science. Science is not democracy! he stated. So, even if 98% of climate scientists agree that global warming is influenced by human activities (ref: Pew-AAAS 2009), that's not really relevant. There is no equal right to have a say about a scientific issue regardless of your scientific background. Trouble is, media seems to think so.

Both speakers pointed at the importance of knowing your audience and to some extent adapt to it. Even though Steve seemed to hate the "soundbite-culture", he argued that scientists need to learn how to use it. Prepare soundbites to use when you need them! Steve Schneiders's three "commandments for communication": Know thy audience! Know thy self! Know thy stuff!

On the other hand, as Eugenie pointed out, scientists cannot act as politcians. In politics, if one group says 2+2=4 and the other says 2+2=6, the compromise would be to agree on 2+2=5. Such compromising is not possible in the scientific community!

So, the key to dialogue is to listen to the other part and trying to understand his/her point of views. But what do you do when the other one doesn't want to listen to you, even though you really try to listen? If he/she doesn't want to accept the scientific process, or uses arguments like "you are hiding facts from us"?

Unfortunately, yesterday's discussion didn't really deal with these questions. However, I find them very interesting and important.

In Sweden, we haven't (yet) had any debate about creationism in schools. An issue that is quite a lot debated, though, is global warming, especially after climate gate and the other "scandals" around IPCC. Another issue that interests many, and causes quite a lot of debate, is diet/nutrition (is Low-Carb-High-Fat-diet good or bad, for instance).

I think the dilemmas of the debate are quite similar in these cases: The scientific community is pointed at as being an arrogant elite, the debating parties don't listen to each other, and they often use both media (traditional as well as social) to "scandalize" each other.

What is there to do, then? What do you think? What are the best ways of handling these issues?

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Karin Hermansson

is a Swedish physicist who has gone from studying semiconductor interfaces to science-society interfaces.