William Press: Scientists Must Communicate Both of Science’s ‘Story Lines’

Fact-based conclusions and value-based judgments are both important aspects of science, but a clearer awareness of their differences can help scientists engage with a skeptical public, William Press said at the annual William D. Carey lecture.
William Press | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

Science is both a fact-discovering enterprise and a rationalist approach to life, and scientists who want to engage with the public must learn how to communicate about both, William H. Press said recently during the annual William D. Carey Lecture.

The first is a methodology, the other a value system, he said, adding:  "I subscribe to both, but when we want to convince the public we have to keep them separate." 

The first includes quantification of results, repeatability, statistical inference, focus on underlying natural laws, open publication and advancement by merit, Press said.  The second weighs pros and cons, makes decisions based on data, is skeptical about the use of "untestable" facts and assertions based on authority, is utilitarian, and believes in the efficacy of action, he said.

These two aspects of science are not the same, and Press said "we have to be more careful in separating our fact-based conclusions from our value-based judgments, even though both of them are valuable."

"Should is a very slippery word. That's where we sometimes come a cropper in trying to communicate with the public."

William Press

Press, a computer scientist and computational biologist at the University of Texas at Austin, used the 30 April Carey lecture to discuss some of the ways scientists can convince a skeptical public to take action on important issues. The lecture, which honors a former chief executive officer of AAAS, was delivered in conjunction with the 40th annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.

Press outlined two quite different story lines for science-one tied to research, discovery and innovation and what "can" be done, the other related to educating the public and advocating for what "should" be done. "Should is a very slippery word," Press said. "That's where we sometimes come a cropper in trying to communicate with the public."

He mentioned the debate over whether there should be required labeling of foods containing products derived from genetically modified crop plants, commonly known as GM crops or GMOs. He cited conflicting views he has heard, even within the scientific community.

On the one hand, a colleague — like many scientists — argues that labeling is scientifically misleading since research studies have found no convincing evidence that crop improvement by modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is unsafe. On the other hand, another colleague notes that GMO labeling is a matter of consumer preference. As long a GMO label is not designed to be intentionally confused with a safety label, the argument goes, science and scientists have only a limited special role in the debate.

Press took a show-of-hands poll of his audience, and the room was about evenly split on whether there should be mandatory labeling of GMO foods. "This is a debate about values," Press said. "This is not a debate about science. Each half of you are entitled to take your viewpoints out of the room and defend them to the death, but just don't say that it's about scientific evidence rather than about values."

There are other cases in which scientists can make a strong argument for action, Press said, when well-established scientific results, catalyzing events, economic interests and the availability of mitigating technologies make it easier for scientists to demand action to protect public safety and well-being. 

"We need to take delight in both kinds of communication."

William Press

Press cited the advances in fire protection and fire safety in the years after the 1903 Iroquois Theater fire, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. By 1890, the technology had been developed for the automatic sprinkler heads that are in use today.

Press also noted the catalyzing impact of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" on environmental awareness and the 1964 Surgeon General's report on "Smoking and Health," which helped kick off a steady decline in tobacco use in the United States.

Press noted, however, the success by the tobacco industry in creating doubt about the science behind the Surgeon General's report, a communications strategy for challenging inconvenient scientific facts that continues to this day, notably in the field of climate change.

"In recent decades, distrust of science has increased in a way that does not appear merely cyclical," Press said. What should the scientific community do to redress such concerns?

Scientists should not shy away from making "should" statements in the proper context and when policy changes are warranted, Press said.  "Journals should publish more opinion labelled as such," he said, "but they should be sure that opinion isn't sneaking into refereed publications that are supposed to be about facts and the discovery enterprise."

"In recent decades, distrust of science has increased in a way that does not appear merely cyclical."

William Press

At the same time, he said, scientists would become more active in communicating "the rationalist approach to decision making that we all take for granted."  In doing so, however, he cautioned that scientists must be more selective in invoking science as a "privileged platform." He suggests less use of the phrase "the data shows that we need to…" and more use of the phrase "speaking for myself."

Perhaps even harder for scientists to swallow, Press urged his colleagues to be less dismissive of what they regard as unscientific value systems. "This is often taught in business schools as the first rule of marketing," he said. "Knocking the competition destroys credibility — your own." 

In developing a communications strategy, scientists also need to be more assertive in reacting to threats to the integrity of science, Press said. That can include more honest criticism of journal articles that seem to have "irresistible" findings but which are thin on evidence. He also urged full disclosure of all funding sources for research. If foundations decline to disclose the names of individual donors, he said, "The science they support should not be published in our premier journals."

In the end, convincing the public "is a long-term, two-step process," Press said. "We're often pretty good at step two, which is communicating the well-established scientific results." Scientists may not be paying as much attention, he said, "to what has to go first and is harder and takes longer and we can really do often just by example: communicating the value of a rationalist approach to decision making."  Without that first step, he said, there is little use in trying to do the second. "We need to be good at both kinds of communication," Press said. "We need to take delight in both kinds of communication."