William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

At least they’re admitting it

Here’s the problem. You are a scientist, working on measuring the levels of aragonite in ocean water. It’s not very sexy and nobody beyond a small cadre seems to care. But it’s grant time and you and your team are “figuring out how to make the issue more potent” so that you can bring in the bucks.

How do you do it?

The first thing you should immediately consider these days is “turning up the heat on the issue through the media.” However, convening a press conference on “The Importance of Aragonite in Ocean Water” is unlikely to interest even the New York Times.

You need to be clever. Your job in “expanding awareness” has to start with a snappier moniker. You need a term that is “easy to comprehend” and, if you’re lucky, sounds “alarming.”

Renaming is thus “a critical step.”

So you ponder. Then you recall that aragonite levels are related to the amount of diffused carbon dioxide in ocean water. Some chemistry helps: when CO2 dissolves in water it lowers that water’s pH. And what is lowering pH sometimes called? Acidification!

Success! Not only is this a fantastically frightening term, it drives “home the idea that carbon dioxide [i]s a pollutant.”

Your next step is to find a PR firm whose specialty is to “link researchers with policy-makers and the media.” The good news is that there are no shortage of such places.

Of course, you have to be honest about “the” science and the uncertainties (as you understand them). But if you’re lucky, even the possibility, no matter how small, of risk will be enough to frighten Congress into action.

I think we can agree “the acidification story provides a model of how to get science on the congressional agenda.”

A fuller account of this fascinating and inspirational story may be found here (Nature magazine, again leading the way).

9 Comments

  1. Sorry to say, in some scientific circles this trick is already well known and abundantly used.
    Science by press release.

  2. Matt:
    It looks like you have a career as a spinmeister if you ever get bored with plain ol’ numbers.
    Speaking of spinmeisters do you have a take on Naomi Oreskes’ presentation, The American Denial of Global Warming?

  3. Briggs

    July 4, 2008 at 6:24 pm

    Not me, Bernie. I stole all those quotes right from the magazine article, which openly boasted of the practice.

    Naomi Oreskes’s presentation?

  4. That’s too bad – the world need a spinmeister who understands Bayesian statisitics.
    I was pointed to the Oreskes video by Michael Tobis in response to a query as to why some believe that skeptics are all part of a huge conspiracy. It is a video on You-tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2T4UF_Rmlio&eurl=http://www.uctv.tv/search-details.asp?showID=13459

  5. At last, Nature makes no bones about what kind of rag it is. Let’s all applaud this quantum leap in self-awareness.

  6. Nothing new in that.

    “To capture the public imagination, we have to offer up some scary scenarios,
    make simplified dramatic statements and little mention of any doubts one might have.
    Each of us has to decide the right balance between being effective, and being honest.”
    (Dr. Stephen Schneider, NCAR, in interview for “Discover” magazine, Oct 1989)

  7. Nature News also interferes in disputes within scientific institutions.
    Neuroscientist: my data published without authorization are ‘misleading’
    “The director of a top laboratory in Germany has charged that two of his former research students took data from his laboratory without his permission and published scientifically incorrect interpretations of them against his advice.
    Neuroscientist Nikos Logothetis (pictured), of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in T?bingen, further claims that the journal involved, Human Brain Mapping, acted incorrectly by publishing the paper after he told them the data were inappropriate.”
    I do not have access to the article, but a quote from the comments gives a different slant on the case.
    “Although he agreed at first, Logothetis withdrew his permission when he realized that the data […] were being used to support a theory about spontaneous brain activity.”
    A scientific dispute becomes administative/political and Nature weighs in (with a one sided view).

    http://www.nature.com/news/2008/080702/full/454006a.html

  8. I have seen this technique of “applied grantsmanship” used for over 20 years. I first recall it in the 1980’s with the use of the “ozone hole” to ring alarm bells for attracting research funding into CFC alternatives (about the time the original Freon patents were due to expire). Now we see gratuitous references to “global warming” and “climate change” inserted ad hoc into otherwise responsible but uninteresting research papers. “Saving the world” has become a much sexier selling point for all kinds of research than any of the old ideas such as curing cancer, losing weight, or protecting endangered species, because it seems to be applicable to any research.

  9. PaddkJ
    “At last, Nature makes no bones about what kind of rag it is. Let?s all applaud this quantum leap in self-awareness.”

    If by quantum you mean the smallest measurable change, then you are quite correct.

    Sorry for being pedantic, but in this case I think you have been more correct than you thought!

    Rob

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