Mike the Mad Biologist

Chris Mooney is encouraging people to read the longer paper on which his Washington Post op-ed piece was based (some of my thoughts on the op-ed are here). So I did.

My short take: there’s some good, mixed in with some bad. I’ll behave unusually and describe the good first.

The powerful influence of politics and ideology is underscored by a rather shocking survey result: Republicans who are college graduates are considerably less likely to accept the scientific consensus on climate change than those who have received less education. These better-educated Republicans could hardly be said to suffer a knowledge deficit; a more apt explanation is that they are politically driven consumers of climate science information–and often quite voracious ones at that. They strain information through a powerful ideological sieve and end up loudly supporting a viewpoint that is incompatible with modern scientific understanding.

A more scientifically informed public, then, is not necessarily the same as a public that will side with scientists more frequently. Perhaps what is needed instead is a public that is more familiar, comfortable with, and trusting of scientists; that is more regularly engaged by the scientific community on potentially controversial subjects; and moreover, that is engaged before truly fraught conflicts are allowed to emerge.

I think a point Mooney makes that is critical is that, to the extent we can anticipate potential problems, we should, and grapple with them earlier, rather than later. Here’s a good instance (one I’ve dealt with myself):

While observable traits certainly run in families–as do diseases–in many cases their emergence, expression, and characteristics are conditioned by hundreds, sometimes more than a thousand, separate genes, as well as by interactions with the environment and random events in human development. The increasing speed and declining cost of gene sequencing provide some access to this complexity, but the information revealed may not be particularly profound: it is not as if any single gene “causes” anything in the vast majority of cases. Yet members of the public may latch on to newly revealed genetic information anyway and scurry with their 23andMe reports straight to their doctors, who may not know how to handle or advise about the results.

Many other potential problems could arise in a world of cheaper, easier, and largely unregulated access to personal genetic information. Will there be discrimination based upon one’s genes? Will there be more terminations of pregnancies based on five-week fetal genome sequencing and the alleged “flaws” it reveals? Will law enforcement agencies have universal DNA databases for all citizens? Will particular genetically based diseases become linked to particular races–echoing eugenics, Tuskegee, and other nightmares of the earlier days of genetics and biomedical science? Certainly, one of the most important recognitions about the “public” that came out of the workshop is the fact that particular segments, such as the African American community, have very good, historically grounded reasons to be suspicious of medical research and advances, particularly with regard to genetics.

Where I think the report goes awry is the emphasis on the deficit model:

One response to such offenses is simply to dismiss the public, to paint average Americans as stupid, scientifically illiterate, or emotional. During the 1970s, Nobel laureate James Watson famously dubbed those hoping to constrain recombinant DNA research as “kooks,” “incompetents,” and “shits.” Another more recent example of such lashing out was captured in the 2006 documentary Flock of Dodos by scientist-filmmaker Randy Olson. Olson gathered a group of scientists around a poker table to talk about the anti-evolutionist “intelligent design” movement and how to respond to it. One offered the following strategy for addressing the creationists: “I think people have to stand up and say, you know, you’re an idiot.”

Whether or not these scientists recognize it, they are working in what science and technology studies (STS) scholars have dubbed the “deficit model.” They assume that if only their fellow Americans knew more about science and ceased to be in a state of knowledge deficit, a healthier relationship between science and the public would emerge.

Actually, I think this shows a deficit model of why some scientists, including the Mad Biologist, have adopted the “stand up and say, you know, you’re an idiot” strategy. For me, I’ve adopted this strategy in certain contexts because the true believers serve as a foil. As Nicholas von Hoffman, who wrote a biography of Saul Alinsky, put it (italics mine):

He [Alinsky] was not worried about hurting their feelings. Having grown up in Chicago in the wild old days, Alinsky was a rough customer when he needed to be and would not have done well in a sensitivity class. In fact, Alinsky was very good and often quite imaginative when the occasion for name-calling arose, but when he used names he would be referring to particular individuals, not groups of people.

Calling the Germans Nazis during World War II was OK but in American politics terms such as racist, sexist, antisemitic, trailer trash, etc. are an invitation to alienate those with whom you might find common cause. Name-calling should be aimed at individuals or small groups such as boards of directors. The names must be calculated to make the other side look ridiculous or convince a wider public than he or she is a bum. Good name-calling, Alinsky would tell you, is like sharp shooting. Don’t do it until you have the target firmly in the cross hairs.

You will never convince everyone, so don’t waste your time. Don’t engage in the Cumbaya Fallacy. Instead, use them to sharply define the differences between and implications of science and pseudo-science:

The other thing we evolutionary biologists don’t do enough of…is make an emotional and moral case for the study of evolution. Last night, I concluded my talk with a quote from Dover, PA creationist school board member William Buckingham, who declared, “Two thousand years ago someone died on a cross. Can’t someone take a stand for him?”

My response was, “In the last two minutes, someone died from a bacterial infection. We take a stand for him.”

This is how I think we need to argue. We need to put creationists on the defensive by arguing, part of the time, on behalf of the utility of evolutionary biology. Doing genomics without evolutionary biology is like drilling for oil with a dowser. Force creationists to defend the morality of their position.

And we should use phrases exactly like “genomics without evolutionary biology is like drilling for oil with a dowser.” We have to hit them hard.

Finally, a larger problem with this paper is that it seems focused on nascent scientific issues–which do have to be dealt with–but it ignores how to deal with opposition to ‘entrenched’ issues. By Mooney’s own admission, pseudo-science is a component of a larger worldview that is often tied into identity politics. While these identities can be fluid, to the extent they change, it’s usually caused by very personal shocks and trauma, either at an individual or group level*. Clever wordplay isn’t going to cut it here; only a bracing dose of reality–and consequences of these beliefs–will do. Until then, we should try to woo the undecideds, and sometimes that requires being harsh, not gentle.

So it’s not a bad report, but doesn’t really seem useful for dealing with the tough issues.

*For example, fundamentalist Protestants either supported Roe vs. Wade or didn’t care about it until Carter removed the tax deductions for Christian ‘segregation academies’, at which point conservative Southern Protestants aligned themselves with the Catholic right out of political necessity–it was the full-fledged threat of having to send their children to school with ‘those people’ that forced many Protestant fundamentalist to revisit their relationship to politics.

Comments

  1. #1 ponderingfool
    July 7, 2010

    These better-educated Republicans could hardly be said to suffer a knowledge deficit; a more apt explanation is that they are politically driven consumers of climate science information–and often quite voracious ones at that. They strain information through a powerful ideological sieve and end up loudly supporting a viewpoint that is incompatible with modern scientific understanding.
    *********************************
    Does college educated necessarily equate to being scientifically educated? Maybe the education they are getting reinforces ideological assumptions.

  2. #2 SLC
    July 7, 2010

    Re Saul Alinsky

    I personally heard Mr. Alinsky put it this way: the way to accomplish a controversial task is to rub raw the sores of discontent. Interestingly enough, Mr. Alinskys’ most devoted followers these days are the tea partiers, although, of course, they are entirely unaware of the origins of their shtick.

    Re Chris Mooney

    Mr. Mooneys’ accommodationist attitude which is in evidence when he discusses the anti-vaxers and the anti-evolutionists seems to go into hibernation when he discusses the global warming deniers. I don’t think he will be attending any Nationals’ games with Marc Morano.

  3. #3 Russell
    July 7, 2010

    Education is no guarantee of intellectual integrity. Those who pursue ideology can be quite educated, and use that education to improve their arguments, even mimicking the rhetoric of science. They learned. Not necessarily what their universities hoped they would learn — unless they went to school at Liberty University. But they learned.

  4. #4 Joshua
    July 7, 2010

    Indeed, they could be economics majors or MBAs or engineers, majors that either reinforce or at least don’t challenge their ideological assumptions. Might be interesting to see a breakdown of the most common majors for college graduates who self-identify as conservative vs. liberal both pre- and post-graduation (to identify whether certain majors cause ideological shifts or if they just attract people with certain ideologies).

  5. #5 ponderingfool
    July 7, 2010

    breakdown of the most common majors for college graduates who self-identify as conservative vs. liberal both pre- and post-graduation (to identify whether certain majors cause ideological shifts or if they just attract people with certain ideologies).
    *************
    Would be more interesting to break it down on denialism of vaccines, global warming, and evolution and how they met their science education requirement.

  6. #6 BaldApe
    July 7, 2010

    it is not as if any single gene “causes” anything in the vast majority of cases.

    Unfortunately, that’s what we have to teach in high school biology. I have repeatedly been told not to “confuse” the students by trying to explain how it’s not really that simple.

  7. #7 abb3w
    July 7, 2010

    [Mooney:] The powerful influence of politics and ideology is underscored by a rather shocking survey result: Republicans who are college graduates are considerably less likely to accept the scientific consensus on climate change than those who have received less education.

    It shouldn’t be shocking, really. It seems similar to the way in the GSS that acceptance of evolution (SCITEST4) increases with intelligence (WORDSUM) for those who consider the Bible (BIBLE) merely inspired or fable but decreases with increased intelligence for those who take the Bible as the Inerrant Word Of God.

    Republicans who are better educated have additional resources to call into doubt evidence and reasoning that contradicts preconceived OUGHT conclusions that they hold as deeply rooted (although perhaps not quite to the Inerrancy of Scripture). Some may eventually find the preconceptions too difficult to maintain in the face of the evidence — but at that point, much like a deeply religious individual might decide that the Bible can only be considered Inspired rather than Inerrant in the face of the evidence of a 4.5 billion year old planet, the change in the preconceptions tends to make the holder no longer a Republican.

    On the other hand… poking at the GSS data doesn’t turn up this effect using the variables ICECAPS, DEGREE or COLDEG1, and PARTYID or POLVIEWS. This may be a byproduct of small sample size, combined with a lump of Democratic/Liberal Lawyers who seem to think the ice caps are growing.

    Mike: Where I think the report goes awry is the emphasis on the deficit model:

    I would agree in part. On the other hand, I don’t think he’s entirely wrong. A deficit model simply presumes ignorance, a void waiting to be filled; a contextual approach seems to presume that all the audience “knows” is in fact correct. Both are (alas) crap. Simply telling people the correct information isn’t good enough, nor is trying (when deciding what to information to present) to take into account their existing beliefs. “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” What’s needed seems to be what I’ll term a Twain model: a way to root out the mis-knowledge; and that isn’t simple and easy. (Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a problem.) And while there needs to be some degree of “you know, you’re an idiot” to rooting it out, by itself that empirically appears to be often more counterproductive than helpful.

    Fortunately, there’s a diverse ecology in science communication, so YKYAI is very seldom by itself. Unfortunately, the ecology is still too shallow and fragile a niche, and a better Twain model hasn’t evolved yet.

  8. #8 Min
    July 7, 2010

    ponderingfool: “Does college educated necessarily equate to being scientifically educated?”

    Of course not. Graduating Harvard students a few years ago did not know what causes the seasons. (Most thought that the Earth was closer to the sun in the summer.)

  9. #9 abb3w
    July 17, 2010

    Stumbled across this evening: (doi:10.1037/0022-0663.73.5.722). The abstract:

    Tested the proposition that ridicule is an effective educational corrective by including 1 of 3 motivators (ridicule, insult, gentle reminder) or 1 of 3 controls in a handout of course reading assignments. Sex of Ss was included as an independent factor; 180 undergraduates participated. Scores on an unannounced test on the assigned readings, administered during the next class, provided a measure of information acquisition. Although the gentle reminder and insult increased test scores somewhat, relative to the controls, only ridicule produced a significant increase on information acquisition. Sex differences were found for the insult vs ridicule conditions: Males scored higher than females when insulted; females scored higher than males when ridiculed.

    So, “You know, you’re an idiot” may be less effective that “That’s as ridiculous as the moon being made of green cheese!”

    Of course, some people may be too tone-deaf to distinguish ridicule from insult.