It has been decades, but I still have a distinct memory of a friend disparaging Carl Sagan. “A mile wide and an inch deep,” he said. Here, I think is part of the reason why engineers and scientists do not have an impact on public policy that is proportional to their knowledge and qualified perspectives.
Of course, many technical people are very focused on their fields and are not interested in public policy (or communications, for that matter). But I those who are not put off by equations that fill half a page usually have spouses, children and a stake in the future. If the interest is there, why does faux science work its way into bestsellers, talk shows and political speeches (not to mention “news” programs)?
Clearly, the profit motive keeps lotteries, daily astrology reports and fad diets alive. But there are a lot of fair fights where technical people could win or at least last a few rounds.
The same friend (a chemist and a rock-and-roller) also said that by the time you could afford a superior sound system, you no longer had the ears to hear its quality. Perhaps part of the answer is—faced with disdain for public communication that could derail a career—those who establish credentials and can safely participate in public discourse (without risking tenure or losing grants) find that their communications skills have attenuated though a lack of use. They don’t know how to talk to lay people about their fields, so we lose their insights.
We need their insights. In the face of climate change, genetic engineering, the complexities of healthcare and a dozen other issues, we need sane, informed voices. Having a huge chunk of the population that has rare critical thinking skills silenced is not healthy.
A natural cure for this situation is encouraging young scientists and engineers—who may not be rhetorical geniuses, but may be as good as their non-technical peers—to speak out. That would mean telling the older generation to dare to imagine they might not be second-rate in their chosen fields. I’d like to think this would work, but I’m not optimistic.
More useful might be to get younger people to communicate in small ways early in their careers. Talk in high schools or blog to a limited audience. Hone the communication skills under the radar. This has a lot of appeal. I’d expect to see good result in 15 or 20 years.
A third choice is for good scientists who are secure in their careers but lousy communicators to go out and fail. Over and over again. If they put themselves out there, withstand the humiliation, and keep trying, most will get good enough to contribute to the discourse. (They will also discover that bad communicators from other fields have no shame. Sit through a few town meetings, and it is difficult to feel bad about your communications skills.)
I think this last just might give us good results in a short enough time for our species to avoid some horrible mistakes. In addition, it might just start a change in the culture of scientists and engineers. It might make it friendlier toward those in their number who want to communicate and have careers. Perhaps some of the younger folks can then emerge in less that 15 to 20 years, and we can really get the participation of those who have vital contributions to make.