19 February 2015

Four Ways Scientists Can Give Good Answers to Bad Questions

Posted by mcadams

Answering Tough Questions

Scientists are used to asking each other tough questions, but questions from the media, public and policy makers often come with buried assumptions that are worth surfacing. Photo by: American Geophysical Union.

By Aaron Huertas

One of the reasons I love working with scientists is that they tend to be very direct. Ask a question: get an answer. Sometimes the answer is a little long and makes me revisit basic physics I haven’t thought about since middle school, but I definitely get an answer.

Thankfully, most of the questions journalists, policymakers and citizens ask scientists are straightforward. But many are off-base and sometimes even badly framed. If a scientist provides a direct answer to a bad question, they can inadvertently leave audiences with an inaccurate impression of their work. While the examples below won’t happen to every researcher, they illustrate good principles for effectively dealing with such questions.

1. Challenge bad premises, get back to what you know

Someone once asked a climate researcher during an online Q+A session to calculate whether or not global warming over a very short time period was “statistically significant.” It wasn’t, because the time period was so short, but he calculated it anyway and shared the answer. The result? Misleading headlines saying a scientist had “admitted” there was no significant global warming.

A better response would have been to reject the misleading premise of the question outright: “Scientists don’t calculate climate trends over that short of a time period,” the scientist might have said, before explaining what we do know about longer trends.

2. Discussing not knowing vs. not knowing right now

Another scientist told me about a time a reporter asked her a question on a topic that was outside her wheelhouse. ‘I have no idea,’ she replied, meaning that it wasn’t a question she could answer with confidence at that moment. Unfortunately, the reporter used that quote in the story, which made it sound like scientists generally did not understand much at all about the topic at hand.

When scientists don’t immediately know the answer to a question, it’s better to say things like: “I can refer you to a colleague who works on it,” or “I can look it up later if you’d like.” The answers are often out there, even if scientists don’t have them at their fingertips.

And if a question is highly specific, but largely irrelevant – in other words, a bit of a rabbit hole – it’s worth pointing out what is relevant and well known.

3. Understand what’s really being asked

Often times, my colleagues get questions from people who care deeply about climate change and feel despondent. “Is it irreversible?” they ask. “Is it too late to do anything?” What people are really saying is: “Can you give me some hope here?” Similarly, when people ask scientists challenging questions, they’re often really saying, “This whole thing makes me uncomfortable. Why should I trust you and what you’re saying?”

These questions are really about people’s values and their personal reactions to what we should do as a society in response to scientific findings. Many scientists are happy to share their own views on those topics; others are less comfortable doing so. Regardless, it’s important for scientists to point audiences to people who are using science well to inform decisions and policy. On climate change, it might be a local group working on adaptation. On near-Earth-object detection, it might be the Planetary Society. Good science communication anticipates people’s needs and points them to like-minded citizens who are using the science in responsible ways.


Honda’s Asimo robot. He’s awesome. And kind of cute. But I wouldn’t want to listen to him given an interview. Photo by: Romram (Wikipedia: http://goo.gl/zvhTd7)

4. Robots are awesome, but don’t turn into one

Celebrities are great at dodging direct questions. So are politicians. They tend to stick to their messages – no matter what. Taken to the extreme, however, strict “message discipline” can come across as robotic, untrustworthy, and a little slick.

The good news for scientists is that they have the facts, evidence and a healthy dose of public trust on their side. So while it’s important for scientists to emphasize what they do know, it’s also important for them to remain direct and transparent, especially when there are legitimately difficult questions to answer about their research.

Guest blogger Aaron Huertas is a science communications officer with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). He blogs at UCS’s The Equation and loves talking science communication on Twitter. This post also appeared on The Equation.