Mike the Mad Biologist

One of the topics I discuss on this blog is the idiocy surrounding Social Security–despite all of the hype, Social Security is not DOOMED!! (To make a longish explanation short, every year for the last fourteen years, Social Security has been predicted to become insolvent in 32 to 36 years. ‘Insolvency’ will only occur if the economy underperforms on an unprecented scale–including the decade surrounding the Great Depression–for several decades. In that case, a very modest increase in the payroll tax will cover all necessary payouts. There is, however, a general budget crisis that the Social Security surplus is used to reduce*.)

So whose fault is this?

Part of the blame can be laid at the feet of those Democrats who adopted the ‘Social Security lockbox’ mantra. While this was a politically successful strategy in that it checked the proponents of privatization (more about them in a moment), it could only work if people believed that Social Security is DOOMED!! (which it isn’t). Of course, the advocates for privatization also play fast and loose with facts because they want all of those Social Security payroll taxes to flood the stock market. These advocates are heavily bankrolled–there’s obviously a lot of money in supporting this position. The third component is a highly ignorant pundit class and political reporting clique that simply can’t bother their pretty little heads with numbers and stuff.

But no one blames ‘economists‘** for this misunderstanding. That’s not to say that there aren’t economists who use their superpowers for evil–there are. But most commentators, regardless of where they fall on this issue, recognize that the underlying forces at work have to do with political power, funding, and a dysfunctional media.

By now, you might have figured out where I’m going with this. If the various misperceptions of Social Security aren’t the fault of ‘economists’ who communicate poorly, then maybe various science issues–evolution, global warning, anti-vax lunacy–have slightly deeper roots than just poor science communication. By misidentifying the problem-TEH GEEKY SCIENTISTZ CAN’T SPEAK GOOD–Sizzle and its supporters fail to address the far more important issues of funding and political mobilization. That’s why I think this response to Orac’s question about how to counter anti-vaccination lunacy by PalMD is worth highlighting (italics mine):

A little while ago, I started a Facebook group to explore the idea of communicating about vaccination. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with it but I had a few ideas. Now I have more. The antivaccination crowd has a very effective grassroots movement to suck us back into the dark ages. They have an advantage—they are motivated by zeal, whereas most of us who believe in modern medicine are, shall we say, more level-headed and not prone to activism. It’s time to change that.

I propose that folks interested in brainstorming an effective grassroots way to encourage vaccination join the group and discuss amongst themselves strategies. This could be an epic phail, but it just might end up with some benefit. I don’t really care if the facebook group lives or dies, but if it gets people talking and working outside the insular blogosphere (and outside the insular facebook community), that’s good enough for me. I’m not looking for rabid antivax cultists or those on my side who are unable to set aside their snarkiness. I’m looking for people genuinely interested in communicating about vaccination with their friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc.

In a slightly different context, this would be called activism or political mobilization. When you look at any major political change in the U.S., it has been a result of mobilized activists, funding, and political power. By focusing on geeky scientists, we ignore the real impediments to translating good science into good policy. There is a difference between marketing and a movement.

The final problem with focusing on one-way communication is that it assumes that most people can be convinced. Again, most major political change in the U.S. argues otherwise. This is what I have termed the Halberstam fallacy:

When I started first dealing with creationism, I suffered from what I call the Halberstam fallacy. In his landmark book about Vietnam, The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam describes how, once he realized the horrible mistake that war was, he would talk to various civilian and military officials. He earnestly believed that if he could just provide them with yet one more piece of evidence, one more story, that these men of intellectual honesty would come around to his opinion. What Halberstam ultimately realized is that these men were not intellectually honest, that they were not interested in rationally assessing the evidence, but instead, had decided that the war was the desired outcome, and that the facts must be altered or ignored to fit the ‘reality’ of the war (if this sounds in any way, shape, or form similar to contemporary events….).

Quite simply, they were not operating from a position of intellectual honesty. Words were as weapons to such men. So too, with the creationists.

Or, as Jonah recently noted, we are rationalizing creatures, not rational ones. Some people will never agree (or only agree after they have been shown to be wrong–after it’s too late). Communication serves no purpose here; you simply have to line up and beat them–that is, outmobilize, outorganize, and outbuild them.

*The Social Security surplus (both the annual and the accumulated surplus) is used to decrease the annual budget deficit and the national debt: think of it as the world’s largest municipal bond issue, with roughly 25% of your payroll tax as the lender. As these two surpluses decrease, our general budget woes will become worse, but general budget issues can be solved any number of ways (budget cuts or tax increases). Why should a program successful at lifting millions of elderly, disabled, widows, and orphans out of poverty be first on the chopping block?

**When I’ve read interviews with Randy Olson, he never really provides good examples of scientists who communicate poorly (or well). If Sizzle demonstrates one thing, it’s that a bad interviewer with poor questions can make scientists who can communicate well sound stupid. After all, if climatologists suck so badly at communicating, then why are politicians on both sides of the aisle talking about global warming? The argument in Sizzle really does smack of concern trolling.

Comments

  1. #1 Coturnix
    July 24, 2008

    “….that a bad interviewer with poor questions can make scientists who can communicate well sound stupid….”

    That is pretty much the main point of ‘Sizzle’ methinks.

  2. #2 KJC
    July 24, 2008

    Wonderful post that really gets to the heart of the issue. There are *ideas* (even facts) that are hard to communicate because of the reasons in the post. Not because a class of people are bad comunicators.

    If the framers / science communicators have a point it is that we need to fight fire with fire. That may be a viable position if you believe the ends justifies the means. That is not clear though. They absolutley seem to be falling in to the “Halberstam fallacy”

  3. #3 Coriolis
    July 24, 2008

    Really a great post. But what can you expect, juvenile “zomg teh scientists – teh normalz peeps can’t understand them” is alot easier and I assume sells better. Indeed if Olson stopped trying to pretend to be seriously interested in doing anything and just flat out admitted that he’s just interested in making fun and screwing around, I wouldn’t mind much. Movies poking fun at scientists can be funny too, we certainly have our silliness. But being so pompous as to believe that is somehow helping, or even addressing the actual issue with science in this country is pathetic.

  4. #4 Andrew Biggs
    July 24, 2008

    Uh, Mike — I hate to tell you, but (as one of the evil economists) I think you have the Social Security part a bit mixed up. The short story is that a) the Social Security Trustees don’t project a Depression type situation; per capita GDP and wages will rise about as fast as they have in the past; b) they DO project slower labor force growth, due to a slower birth rate we’ve had for the past 30 years; this will reduce total GDP growth, simply due to a smaller population; and c) faster economic growth won’t do a ton to fix Social Security because benefits are indexed to wages; higher wages equals higher benefits, so the improvement to solvency isn’t huge.

    I’ve blogged on the question you’ve raised in some detail at http://andrewgbiggs.blogspot.com/, and this post (http://andrewgbiggs.blogspot.com/2008/02/gadgets-how-will-social-security-fare_28.html)has a spreadsheet model attached letting you input your own economic and demographic assumptions to see how things play out.

    Andrew

  5. #5 Tobias
    July 25, 2008

    It may not be the point of the post, but I find your comments about Social Security to be very interesting. I agree that this is an issue where what is “probably for the best” will never occur because there is no way to market it in a politically attractive way. In my quasi-informed opinion, the best solution would be to simply “eliminate” social security by rolling it into the general budget. Every year Congress would have to vote on the level of benefits to be provided in the following year. This would make it impossible for them to hide potentially unpopular spending by borrowing against the “sacred” payroll taxes. Instead, they would have to be honest: “Grandma can eat something besides Ramen, we can build a new overpass, or you can have a tax cut. Pick one and only one.”

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