24 May 2017

Lucy Jones: scientists need to create “scientifically-defensible” stories

Posted by Olivia Ambrogio

By Nanci Bompey

OFUNATO, Japan (March 15, 2011) A tug boat is among debris in Ofunato, Japan, following a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Matthew M. Bradley/Released).

Scientists have an obligation to communicate what they know in a way that ensures it can be understood and acted upon by policymakers, seismologist Lucy Jones told attendees at the JpGU-AGU joint meeting this week.

Jones, a former seismologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, research associate at the Seismological Laboratory of Caltech and founder of the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society, told geoscientists from around the world that society wants and needs scientists help to save people’s lives. That means scientists have an obligation to make sure their warnings can be understood and acted upon by decision makers by creating “scientifically-defensible” stories and working closely with policymakers.

“I am not proposing that every piece of research needs to have a concrete benefit,” Jones said. “I am saying that as a science community, I believe we should, as a moral duty, foster the creation of information that can be used to make a safer society and ensure that science is used.”

Jones’s keynote address at the inaugural JpGU-AGU joint meeting comes more than six years after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. After the magnitude-9 earthquake and resulting tsunami, which killed more than 15,000 people, Jones was invited to Japan by Women’s Eye, a non-profit aimed at supporting women working to rebuild communities after the disaster.

Jones said the experience taught her first-hand the human toll of such a devastating event and showed her that people want to understand the risks they face. It also highlighted the obligation scientists have to victims of disasters like the Tokohu earthquake to communicate the information they have discovered.

Jones’s decades as a seismologist, as well as her work with the city of Los Angeles and her study of social science, has taught her that the best way to communicate the risk of disasters like earthquakes is for people to connect emotionally to their consequences. While scientists deal in probabilities, people don’t take action based on probabilities, so scientists need to take a different tactic, Jones said.

An aerial view of Oshima-Mura, Japan, 11 days after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Dylan McCord/Released)

In her work with the city of LA, Jones developed a scenario of what a major earthquake would do to the region economically based on scientific evidence. She focused on what scientists know about how a major earthquake would affect the region to develop a narrative that people could connect to emotionally. By creating one concrete event, Jones avoided the discussion of probability and what scientists don’t know, and instead created a likely enough scenario that would be worth preparing for.

Just as someone would warn a person crossing the street that a car was coming and could hit them, not that force equals mass times acceleration, scientists need to think about how they are communicating their message so it gets heard and acted upon, Jones said.

“As scientists, we know that stories mislead us, anecdotes are a good way to get the wrong answer, but human beings make decisions through emotional connections,” Jones said. “The process of creating a scenario is a way to get scientists to agree that an outcome is plausible. It is a process to create a scientifically-defensible story and bridge this divide between scientists and users.”

Scientists also need to develop relationships with stakeholders and decision-makers, Jones said, but there also needs to be a clear boundary between science and policy.

Scientists can give policymakers information about the consequences of their decisions but it is up to the policymakers to choose what policy to pursue. That distinction is important, Jones said, because “if we invite the scientists to start making policy, we are inviting the policymakers to start making science.” Policymakers will also fight for the policies they have made, she added.

“It is not just the credibility of the science, which has always been there, but the relationship with the scientists,” Jones said. “People listen to people they trust and that trust comes from familiarity and shared experiences.”

Nanci Bompey is the Manager of Public Information at AGU.