Scientists Are Lousy Communicators: September Newsletter


I wonder about a lot of things; not only about who … who, who wrote the book of love, but whether or not Gerry and the Pacemakers now all have actual pacemakers. I’ve also wondered if, and how, levels of trust differ between older and younger people, and we’ve found some answers.

I’m writing this from the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) North American conference in Charlotte, NC. It’s always great to connect with old friends and colleagues and hear about what’s new and going on in this challenging field. You’ll find a piece below to give you some insight.

An old Greek proverb says, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” That strikes me as the epitome of empathy and the greater good. Things don’t feel that great right now, if you pay any attention to national and global news. But ultimately I believe that we will learn to (re)build trust.

Stay Curious,



This Is Us

As conveners and managers of people who have challenges and need to solve problems, we’re usually asked to help groups figure out what their members collectively think – what the priorities actually are. That sounds simple enough but it almost never is … thus we facilitate those conversations. People and groups are almost always surprised by what they collectively think – where they diverge and what they have in common. (Spoiler alert: They usually have a LOT in common, we just help them discover it.) Public Agenda recently released a multi-year study to find out what Americans think about the state of Democracy and how to strengthen it. The short answer is, “… Americans … feel a sense of responsibility to help find solutions to the problems facing communities and the nation … most are open to a variety of approaches to community problem solving, especially if they can contribute their skills and experiences, someone they respect invites them and public officials are there to listen.” Here’s the more complete answer. Read More 


Scientists and Other Experts are Lousy Communicators

A recent Pew research study finds that Americans tend to have a positive image of the work of research scientists (which is great news), but don’t think much of the ability of those scientists to communicate (which is entirely fixable). Once again, it corroborates what we’ve seen for years. Some of the best, smartest scientists, engineers and other specialists focus their careers in the public sector because of their belief in public service – the public good, in spite of the fact that they can make a boatload more money in private industry. Scientists and engineers tend to choose their occupations because they’re critical thinkers who relate to the logic and dynamics of observation, measurement, criticism and hypotheses. Notice there was no mention of people’s moods, feelings, perceptions, biases or politics. For many folks in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, the rest of us are mostly indecipherable – sometimes even crazy, and many of them stopped trying to figure the rest of us out long ago. How can you blame them? But here’s the paradox: working in the public sector means occasionally having to deal with … the public! Our business is helping the scientists work with the indecipherables, and helping the indecipherables work with the scientists. Read More 

The research and empirical evidence is clear: people don’t trust big institutions. That poses a big challenge for a fragile democracy that relies on freedom of speech, which also means freedom to make crap up. The burden is on the consumer to discern right from wrong, fact from fiction and wisdom from BS. And, unfortunately, we’re not very smart about that; we have a long history of being taken in by con-artists, grifters, and confidence-men. Read More 

A client running a government regulatory agency that is dealing with credibility issues recently asked me whether or not she should just ask her stakeholders to trust the organization. Answer – no. Read More 


Urban Public Involvement Works

The most effective public involvement being done these days seems to be in communities where public services are already closer to the people using them. Urban planners are significant users of public engagement and many of them have asked us for some examples that are a little out of the ordinary. So we thought we’d explore outside of the U.S. a bit, and here’s an example from one side of the planet … to the other.


Talking Trust

Marketers play on our emotions and sensibilities. People who choose to go out of their way to buy free range eggs do so because at some inner emotional level they can picture that proud, independent chicken majestically loping across the wide open prairie under azure skies with a big happy grin on its beak.

Advertisers play the trust card by often painting themselves as green or as socially responsible as they can. Research shows that millennials in particular see through the images of puppies romping through wildflowers and dismiss a lot of enviro-claptrap when they see it. But if you’re actually legit, there are ways of communicating it better. Read More …

We’ve shown you ample research and studies in past newsletters showing that people don’t trust institutions – especially government. A newer Pew research study says that younger people are even more mistrusting than their elders – sometimes by a lot. This isn’t encouraging news for a fragile democracy and we have to deal with it. Read More …


Purveyors of B*ll$#*t

The Facebook page titled ‘Stop Mandatory Vaccinations’ has more than 140,000 followers. These are people who may have meant well in trying to learn what’s best for their children, but have reached dangerous conclusions that put other children at serious and unnecessary risk. Social connections – meaning social media, trust, our engrained need to conform, and the growing sophistication of propagandists all manipulate our beliefs and spread disinformation. Here’s how it’s done. Read More