Our former Press Secretary Mike McCurry was interviewed by Tom Fox of the Washington Post on “good communication and its importance for good leadership.” He described effective communicators in 5 nouns starting with “C”: Credibility, Candor, Clarity, Compassion, and Commitment. These five Cs also apply to scientific communications and scientists.
Credibility. Mike McCurry uses three adjectives to qualify credible communicators (as opposed to spin doctors): “authentic”, “straight-shooter”, and “factual”. Factual and authentic scientists have to deal with spin doctors. Spin doctors are not scientists. Under the thin disguise of pseudo-science, they promote their wares to a population eager for credible scientific solutions to their daily problems. Confident, straight-shooting spin doctors are vocal and credited, while tergiversating opinion-in-holster scientists are mute and discredited. The quack opinions of spin doctors are hash-tagged and re-twitted, while the scholarly papers of scientists are cited in circulation-limited scientific journals read by a precious few.
Candor. Scientists don’t lack candor. They are quite willing to state the limitations of their work as proof of their intellectual honesty. But candor outside the ivory tower of research can be crippling. Why interface with the world when, like Voltaire’s Candide character, it is so much easier to quietly work in the hanging gardens of science and grow tomorrow’s uncertainties.
Clarity. If only clarity were objective, for all to see through the eyes of the beholding scientists. Alas, what is clear to a few is unclear to many, and the vision-impaired public is walking with a white stick in a world of clairvoyant scientists. No amount of lasik surgery is going to fix the problem. Only scientists can correct public vision, and for that they have to understand that they need to communicate simply, and share their science in words all can understand.
Compassion. Medical Doctors are compassionate. They took the hippocratic oath. “I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.” Is compassion compatible with science? Is compassion an opinion? What oath have scientists taken? Have some taken instead an hypocrite oath for the good of their science towards which they will do no harm?
Commitment. Yes, it is up to the granting agencies: Will they continue to show their commitment to science? But it is also up to the scientists. Will they get out of their Science parks, their Science labs, and show commitment towards public issues? Or will they ultimately turn into the Essenes of Science burying their precious papers in jars of clay?
Having said my piece, I am honored to be the friend of many scientists who are credible, candid, clear, compassionate, and committed. I just wished there were more of them