Evolving Thoughts

Rarely has science been as much a public issue as in the past 30 years. Sure, people have queried the wisdom of this or that science or technology in the past, like the use of nuclear power or for weapons. But apart from anti-vaccination movements since the late nineteenth century, very little public attack was made on the science itself, and, when it was, it was rarely taken seriously. Sometime in the past few years, things changed. Why?

This is merely my impression, but I think that science began to be treated as equivalent to personal opinion some time in the 1970s, with the New Left movement. Most of the critics were not scientifically educated themselves, but instead were politics majors, journalists, literature students and social studies experts. Science was to be “democratised”. I believed it at the time, and in some ways I still do – science ought not to be an arcane authoritarian social structure. But it went too far.

Critics of genetics being used in a human context felt free to assert all kinds of basically false claims about genetics without feeling the need to learn anything much. Indeed, the very notion of falsehood in science was challenged. Experts were denigrated as running a political scam or shoring up their social position. The idea that they might actually know much about their topic was laughed at, at least in the social circles I inhabited at the time.

So it is interesting to see the responses of the scientists and critics of the IPCC report into global warming, where science is often treated as a political tool. Why there is a consensus needs to be explained to the laity, who think this is just about hacks for hire to the deepest pockets. Why they think that is due to the use and abuse of science by the conservation movement over many years – now in recession, thankfully – and of course the persistent claims by antiscience movements ranging from GMO oppositions to creationists to antivaccinationists to global warming “skeptics” (who are anything but skeptical) who attack ideas they dislike as “unsound science”. And this failure to understand science leads to bad law.

Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet have just published a paper in Science, which is not bad for a couple of fellow bloggers, in which they declare that scientists themselves have got to frame the issues better for the media, to overcome this problem. I can’t access the article, but their press release is here.

I don’t disagree with the release, nor do I disagree with their critics and fans, but there is something deeper here than just manipulating the media and the message. Education. We will never be able change minds unless science is taught to as many people as possible, in a manner that leads to understanding. And the mainstream media will never be that medium of education.

The media are high on bandwidth and low on information for a reason. High bandwidth provides glossy entertainment. High information content makes for low entertainment, for the core of entertainment is to take the mind away from effort. With very few exceptions, and they are often more the illusion of substance than actual substance, television and radio shows don’t do content as well as, well, hard study.

Every science requires that the audience has done some hard work to get to the point where they can assess the claims being made even slightly. In a properly educated democracy, this would be achieved sometime around year 10 or so of education, at least for that portion of the populace that has any ability in a field of science. We do not need to ensure that everyone is scientifically educated, but we do need to ensure that those that can be are. Without that division of political labour a democracy cannot work. Politicians are rarely those with any scientific education, which is why so many of them are susceptible to lobby group spin – sorry, framing – but if you have enough scientific literates in your society at large, this can be hedged against simply by votes and public discussion.

The case and place for “framing” is in political, not educational or scientific, discourse. To frame a topic is to prejudice the terms in which a discussion is held. Like propaganda, this can be a good thing, or it can be a bad thing – framing, which is a form of propaganda, is not in itself desireable. To assume that the media is the way to educate the population is to itself frame the subsequent debate. It denigrates the underlying rationale for education, for a start. It privileges players in the media who are often, nay, always (find me an exception!) the very worst commentators on scientific matters. And it gives undue weight to the opinions of anti-science activists.

If we want science to be a core part of our social and intellectual milieu, then put the funds and effort into teaching it properly. Sweep away the curricula that are framed in terms of benchmarks and amount of facts learned. Replace them with curricula that require competence before advancement in that subject. Ensure that we fund and support those who can do this, say at least as much as we fund and support competitive sports or the arts (or, as we call it in Australia, the Yartz), and then a generation down the track you will have those who truly do understand science acting as a goad and a brake on the political agendas of special interests. Media is epiphenomenal on social discourse. It is not a conduit of very much of use. Of course, this is also true in the political, but as most reported politics is itself epiphenomenal on society, it’s a case of the fluff on the fluff, and doesn’t much matter.

Comments

  1. #1 coturnix
    April 8, 2007

    The case and place for “framing” is in political, not educational or scientific, discourse.

    And all the responders on blogs keep talking about educational and scinetific discourse. Yes, this is about politics, about winning (elections, court cases, public opinion), not about educaiton or popularization of science.

    Furthermore, it is about talking to people who mistrust you to begin with, do not care about the topic, fo not have any background, have no idea what science is, do not want to do any mental work, and want to move on within a few seconds. Not the self-selected audiences of college classrooms, Cafe Scientifique meetings, science blogs and popular science magazines – that audience is willing to work and trusts you and has some background.

  2. #2 RBH
    April 8, 2007

    Why there is a consensus needs to be explained to the laity, who think this is just about hacks for hire to the deepest pockets.

    A few weeks ago a local talk radio host, a conservative, argued that the scientists who have warned of global warming are doing so just to keep their grant money flowing. I called in and said, “In essence, you are claiming that those scientists are willing to prostitute their professions for a few bucks.” He responded, “Well, if you put it that way, yes, they are.”

    This guy is not an outlier, he’s a pillar of the community (well, it’s a small community), and he really believes that.

    I’m trying to figure out how to lead him away from that level of looniness, but it ain’t going to be easy.

  3. #3 natural cynic
    April 8, 2007

    RBHI’m trying to figure out how to lead him away from that level of looniness, but it ain’t going to be easy>/i>

    Point out that they could get a whole lot more money much more easily from Exxon/Mobil to say the opposite.

    Then you would have to contradict his next claim – that scientists are just elite snobs who want to wreck the economy. But then you could say that, if the economy is wrecked, how will the scientists get their grant money?

    Logic can win out, except where there are those who are impervious to it.

  4. #4 Mark Duigon
    April 8, 2007

    I think Creationists have led the way in muddying public understanding of science. They’ve been at it for many years, but in recent years have been campaigning vigorously. Part of the problem in this case is that Creationists with PhD.s, or who are professionals (lawyers, engineers, and doctors), bring the appearance of qualification to the ignorant side of the argument. The Creationists are strongly and purposefully spreading myths like “Present both sides of the argument, to be fair” and “How Stalinesque to censor the opposing theory.” They cite as “empirical evidence” various servings of codswallop, they dismiss well-supported ideas as evolution as “only a theory” and they erect strawmen, quotemine, and engage in other such misbehavior.

    It is perhaps because now, more than before, rational regulatory decisions depend so much on background scientific information and science education is so important, that there is a rush to define these factors to match one’s ideology before the opposing someone else does.

  5. #5 Dan S.
    April 8, 2007

    Why there is a consensus needs to be explained to the laity, who think this is just about hacks for hire to the deepest pockets. Why they think that is due to the use and abuse of science by the conservation movement over many years – now in recession, thankfully – and of course the persistent claims by antiscience movements ranging from GMO oppositions to creationists to antivaccinationists to global warming “skeptics” (who are anything but skeptical) who attack ideas they dislike as “unsound science”.

    No doubt all of these factors play a role, but by globbing them all together you fail to stress the most important proximal cause (imho) why the laity think global warming in particular is about “hacks for hire” – the concerted, sophisticated, and well funded deluge of politicized propaganda claiming that global warming is nonsense – quite possibly, dangerous nonsense cooked up by “Fat Albert” Gore and nameless (anti-capitalist?) liberal elites, grant-grubbing scientists, and cultish ‘Church-of-the-Earth’ worshippers. Even folks who don’t directly lap up the constant spewage from (for example) Rush and Coulter on down to local talk radio hosts get to hear it reflected and repeated. They might come across a sci-fi book that tells them how global warming is all a crazed green scheme, or hear something about how an longstanding GOP senator thinks it’s all a big hoax, or read about how silly it all is on a blog – etc. Even the bits that might be pretty highbrow – WSJ op-eds, or something – with limited initial effects echo through a dense web of social capital and interaction, as opinion makers pass the nonsense on to the mass of opinion takers.

    Why the particular themes come up and (apparently) resonate so successfully takes us in another direction, charting out the particular strands of rightwing reaction both recently and over the last few decades.

    _________

    However, to go back to more general causes, I wonder if revelations re: tobacco companies and other corporate wrongdoers also helped encourage this attitude?

  6. #6 Laelaps
    April 8, 2007

    “We will never be able change minds unless science is taught to as many people as possible, in a manner that leads to understanding. And the mainstream media will never be that medium of education.”

    I agree John, and that seems to be an aspect often left out of this debate. I remember seeing a video last semester (oddly enough in a “communicating science” course) where Harvard graduates, still in cap & gown, were asked why trees got to be so big or why there are seasons; none of them got the answers right. In my own experience, science wasn’t very important in public schools because it wasn’t covered on the flood of standardized tests that determined funding and such, and from what I could tell science was more of an “elective” than anything to be taken seriously.

    As others have already pointed out in this debate, the responsibility does not rest only with scientists (often represented as old cranks who don’t know how to talk to anyone but other scientists), but with the teachers, those in the media, and the public itself; I think there’s been a lot of unfair characterization involving scientists being crotchety old men who don’t want to talk to anyone or old fossils incapable of change. Quite the contrary, I find the development of scienceblogs (and the explosion in science blogging in general) to be heartening, and many of the bloggers are trying to reach out and make a difference, so I can imagine that it can be infuriating when writer after writer keeps saying that scientists aren’t making an effort or are lousy communicators.

    Anyway, I don’t think the ongoing problem of communicating science accurately and effectively is the responsibility of any one group or that scientists should all be lumped together as bad communicators.

  7. #7 steppen wolf
    April 8, 2007

    People on ScienceBlogs keep speaking about science education – and I support such emphasis. Although, it seems that the same people do not realise how science curricula and funding for science education are indeed decided for in the political scence, where plenty of framing goes on, and where votes get decided after heavy campaigning, and still in a matter of hours.

    If we really want to see a bigger emphasis on science ed, we need to advocate for it in the political arena, sending out messages that are relevant and accessible even if accurate, and that takes skill, will, constance and a thoughtful communication strategy.

    Shouting and insulting others won’t do, nor will preaching to the choir.

  8. #8 steppen wolf
    April 8, 2007

    sorry, typo: I meant “political scene” not “scence” [sic]

  9. #9 John Wilkins
    April 9, 2007

    For a second, I read that as “political seance”…

    I wonder if the surplus of science graduates who never get a job as scientists could function as science educators and communicators if the funding for them was there…

  10. #10 steppen wolf
    April 9, 2007

    There are many science graduates who opt for “alternative science careers”, as they are called. Some of them do become freelance writers.

    However, this is a hard step to take: both economically, and in the sense that often those who opt for these careers are not as “respected” as those who stick with traditional academia. By traditional I mean “teach some science, do a lot of research”, which rarely includes a serious involvement in helping shape science education policy, writing for newspapers, etc.

    These science communicators are destined to be both bullied by their editors, and not taken seriously by the “ivory tower scientists” – I can say this because I have been there, though I am a scientist in training.

    I believe that it is possible for people in academia to commit some of their time to learning new communications skills, and to be active participants in the public sphere of political debate when it comes to science education and research.

    Many opt not to get involved, and for that we all pay the price – in all countries, mind you. I am not from the U.S. and still I have witnessed first hand the power of framing, the same framing used in the U.S. and other countries who eventually end up imposing irrational limitations to biological research.

  11. #11 Collin McD
    April 10, 2007

    I dont have too much to say about this but your posts are fantastic. PLEASE keep up the great work.

  12. #12 Josh
    April 11, 2007

    “the scientists who have warned of global warming are doing so just to keep their grant money flowing”
    This sort of thing is always funny when you realise that the best way to get attantion (and maybe money) is to go against the concensus. Suddenly you have the best and brightest in the world debating with, and thus in a way equated to, whatever hack or lifetime testtube polisher will step out and make the opposing claim, evidense or no.

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