Albert Einstein was cool.

That may not be how most people think of the brilliant scientist whose late-in-life appearance – wild white hair, bushy mustache and disheveled clothing – became iconic, but they should, according to Ira Flatow, host of National Public Radio’s Science Friday program. Flatow called for a reassessment of Einstein’s image and the image of scientists in general, along with new approaches to communicating information, during a recent panel discussion on public perception of science that he moderated at Stanford.

The panel, part of a series of events celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Stanford’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, included Chris Field, biology professor and Stanford Woods Institute senior fellow; Jane Lubchenco, former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) head and Haas Center for Public Service distinguished visitor; and Adam Lowry (BS ’96), co-founder of Method home care products.

The image problem of scientists is not limited to impressionable young students. Among politically conservative Americans, trust in science dropped by more than 25 percent between 1974 and 2010, according to a study by University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill postdoctoral fellow Gordon Gauchat.

Communication is a stumbling block, too. Despite widespread scientific consensus on climate change, public confusion on the issue and political resistance to meaningful action persist. Americans' support for government action on climate change dropped between 2010 and 2012, according to a survey led by Woods Senior Fellow Jon Krosnick. The decline was concentrated among Americans who distrust climate scientists, even more so among such people who identify themselves as Republicans.

“The messenger is just as important as the message,” Lubchenco said. Scientists need to be “bilingual” in “the language of science and the language of lay people,” and tell compelling stories with clear metaphors and analogies, she said.

To illustrate her point, Lubchenco described Vice President Joe Biden’s response to a briefing Lubchenco gave on the BP Gulf of Mexico oil disaster of 2010. “‘Now wait a minute,’” Lubchenco recalled Biden saying. “‘I thought you were a scientist. But I just understood everything you told me.’” After audience laughter subsided, Lubchenco said soberly, “So, even somebody like the vice president, who is deeply respectful of science, thinks that he can’t understand scientists. That’s on us. We need to do a better job of being able to talk about what we do.”

Flatow pointed to Woods Senior Fellow Paul Ehrlich as a model scientific communicator. “There are very few scientists around who allow themselves to be seen in the public eye in so many of the great venues. Paul Ehrlich is one of those scientists who has, over the course of over 40 years, going way back to when he used to make many and frequent appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Between you and Carl Sagan and a few other scientists, you have done more to keep people’s interest alive in understanding science.”

No matter how clearly a scientist speaks though, some concepts resist simplification. “Communicating uncertainty and communicating risk is actually very difficult,” said Field, a renowned climate scientist and lead author of a Nobel Prize-winning assessment report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “It’s really hard to provide concise information that accurately communicates risk,” he noted, suggesting that instead of leading with uncertainty, scientists should explain reasons for concern first.

Scientists are not the only ones to blame for the public’s lack of scientific understanding, Flatow said. “The media is partly to blame. They will tell you, ‘We are not in the business of educating anyone. That’s what schools do. We are in the business of selling products.’” The fact that entertainment companies now own all of the major broadcast networks has contributed to the declining quality of broadcast journalism, Flatow said.

Of course, some people simply cannot be convinced. Flatow described a Science Friday caller who was not swayed by scientists’ presentation of overwhelming evidence that vaccinations are unrelated to autism. “Is there any amount of data in any form, in any amount in any magnitude that I can present to you by any person that will change your mind?” Flatow asked the caller. “She said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Thank you very much.’” The problem, Flatow said, is that the caller and people like her allow emotion to overrule objectivity.

Still, there is reason for hope. Scientists remain among the most trusted information disseminators, and public opinion on issues such as climate change has evolved. “Many people are very curious about the world around them, but they don’t necessarily think of that as science,” Lubchenco said.

Scientists and others can tap into that curiosity by not only telling better stories but also by striving to meet people’s levels of interest and find approaches that resonate with different people, Lowry said. “To be honest, when we first started the business, we emphasized the design elements of the brand much more than the green elements. Sustainability wasn’t really a word that was in the lexicon.” More recently, Method created a series of documentary films about how and why the company uses recycled plastic, some of it from waste removed from the ocean, and what consumers can do about the global plastic waste problem. “That has a reverberation effect in people’s minds,” Lowry said.

Experiential learning can be valuable, too, Lubchenco said. As an example, she mentioned a NOAA project that employed citizen volunteers to comb through old naval logs for useful historical climate information. Citizen science, Lubchenco said, is an “entryway into science for a lot of people.”

Communication training programs for scientists can make also make a difference, Lubchenco said. She mentioned a program she co-founded, the Stanford Woods Institute-based Leopold Leadership Program, as an example.

“I don’t think any Ph.D. should be able to graduate unless they go through some course of public speaking, and they can tell you in three minutes what the heck they work on,” Flatow said.