Can Fisheries Scientists Win the War on Science?

By Steve McMullin, AFS President

In case you had not noticed, scientists have a communication problem. When people in the news disregard, deny, or even attack the science associated with a policy issue, they usually have an agenda that runs counter to the scientific evidence. When people who listen to people in the news disregard, deny, or attack the science, they may share the agenda, but also they frequently do not understand the science associated with the issue. The scientific community has lost much credibility in the last 30 years due to orchestrated attempts to discredit science, and the failure of scientists to adequately communicate what they do and why people should care. The “War on Science” began in the 1970s when tobacco companies started challenging the science linking cigarettes and cancer. Although the tobacco companies eventually had to acknowledge the effects of their products on human health, their strategies for attacking science established a game plan for other groups that found scientific evidence to be inconsistent with their policy agendas. Today’s anti-science groups have refined and improved the strategies initially developed by the tobacco companies and they have gained the upper hand in many policy disputes. If the War on Science ended tomorrow, the anti-science side would be declared the winners.

The best known example of science denial is the debate about what to do about climate change. The evidence supporting climate change and the role of humans in accelerating climate change is overwhelming, but the deniers refuse to acknowledge the scientific evidence, designating environmental regulations designed to protect human and environmental health as “job-killing regulations” targeted for repeal. In some school systems, religious beliefs are taught alongside geological evidence and evolution, the bedrock paradigm of biological science, as equally plausible explanations for the origins of the Earth and life on the planet. Although political conservatives comprise the bulk of the anti-science movement on these issues (see Mooney 2006 for a detailed accounting of the efforts of conservatives to attack the science of climate change, environmental regulation, and evolution), politically liberals are just as guilty of attacking science on their issues (e.g., believing that vaccines cause autism and thus refusing to have their children vaccinated against childhood diseases; believing that genetically modified organisms are unsafe to eat).

The point of this column is not to rail at people of either political persuasion. My point is to issue a wake-up call to scientists (of fisheries and other disciplines). We are losing the War on Science because our opponents are better communicators than we are. They do a far better job of telling their story.

For as long as the natural resource professions have existed, we have recognized that we need to improve communication skills (McMullin et al. 2016). However, it will take more than improvement in writing and speaking skills to help us turn the tide in the War on Science. We must learn to communicate the scientific basis of what we do in terms that nonscientists can understand and, even more important, appreciate. We often are our own worst enemies in building public support for science, including fisheries management and conservation. In Don’t Be Such a Scientist, Randy Olson (2009), a fisheries scientist turned film-maker, identified four problems that plague scientists: they talk to the head and overlook the heart, the gut, and even the sex organs; they tend to be literal-minded; they are poor storytellers; and they appear arrogant and unlikeable because they talk above the level of understanding for most people.

Olson (2009) suggests that when scientists talk to the head, focusing exclusively on rational, analytical thought, they speak to the smallest audience and that the further down the body you go, the larger the audience becomes. How much broader would our audience be if we went beyond the facts and the evidence (head) to explain why someone should care about our findings (the heart) and even used a bit of humor or addressed people’s fears to help them relate to our science (the gut)? The literal-minded scientist believes that effective communication consists of laying out the facts as directly and concisely as possible because “the facts speak for themselves.” The facts may speak for themselves, but when they do, they often are so boring that nobody listens. Storytelling is a powerful means of communicating but, unfortunately, few scientists are good storytellers. Scientists could have far greater impact if they could put their findings into the context of a compelling story. The Fisheries Blog, moderated by several AFS members, is an excellent example of putting facts into compelling stories.

Olson’s fourth point—don’t be so unlikeable—really hit home with me when I first read his book. He described how the greatest movie villains were always very intelligent people who knew they were smart and treated others (presumably less intelligent) with disdain (think Hannibal Lecter). The filmmaking term is “rising above.” The anti-science crowd has been extremely effective in painting scientists as arrogant, condescending, and talking down to the rest of the world—the definition of rising above. Unfortunately, some of us do rise above when we fail to explain what we do in terms a nonscientist can understand and then dismiss those who “just do not get it.”

We won’t win the War on Science by debating the anti-science crowd. Scientists work with evidence (data) using a process designed to demonstrate what is not true, because we can never conclusively prove what is true. The anti-science crowd’s world is defined by deeply held beliefs about what is true, often disregarding any evidence to the contrary. In fact, they often conclude that the evidence is wrong because it conflicts with their beliefs.

No, scientists do not need to debate the deniers. They need to remind people of the cases where scientific advice has benefited society and where the evidence was ignored in the making of policy decisions, resulting in less than desirable outcomes. I recently saw an encouraging article in Fisherman’s Voice, a news magazine targeting commercial fishers in Maine. The article reported on the International Conference on Lobster Biology and Management, illustrating the awareness of Maine lobster fishers of how climate change may affect their livelihoods and the need for them to collaborate with scientists (Schreiber 2017). We also must acknowledge that policymakers have the right and the responsibility to make tough decisions where the “right” answer often is not clear. However, with responsibility comes accountability. Fisheries scientists must hold policymakers accountable if they choose to ignore the advice of scientists in favor of their personal beliefs.

Politics today is less about policy than it is about controlling the message. If we want science to get meaningful consideration in policy discussions, we must begin to control the message. That will not happen unless we get much better at communicating what we do and why people should care in terms they can understand. This will be a major focus of the 2018 Annual Meeting of AFS in Atlantic City, where the theme will be “Communicating the Science of Fisheries Conservation to Diverse Audiences.”


  • McMullin, S. L.V. DiCenzoR. EssigC. BondsR. L. DeBruyneM. A. KaemingkM. E. MatherC. MyrickQ. E. PhelpsT. M. Sutton, and J. R. Triplett2016Are we preparing the next generation of fisheries professionals to succeed in their careers? A survey of AFS members. Fisheries 41: 436449.
  • Mooney, C. 2005. The Republican war on science. Basic BooksNew York.
  • Olson, R. 2009. Don’t be such a scientist: talking substance in an age of style. Island PressWashington, D.C.
  • Schreiber, L. 2017Lobster industry grapples with climate change. Fishermen’s Voice 22 (7).