I Am Baffled Regarding Chris Mooney

The kerfuffle of the moment in the science blogosphere once again relates to Chris Mooney, who is pretty much a kerfuffle looking for a place to happen at this point. This time around it centers around a Washington Post op-ed that is basically the executive summary of a American Academy of Arts and Sciences paper that is itself the executive summary version of a series of four workshops on science and the public. You can get a reasonable sense of the kerfuffle from the links in Chris’s responses to the responses.

I’m currently making one of my intermittent attempts to be a better person– trying to eat less, biking to work, etc– so I did the responsible blogger thing and read the whole AAAS paper (which you can download for free at the link above), and I’m baffled. Not by the paper itself, which is very clearly written and not overly complicated.

I’m baffled by the reaction.

As I said,t he paper is a summary of a set of four workshops discussing different aspects of science communication, relating to specific problems with both technical and policy aspects: Nuclear energy and nuclear waste, the Internet, genetic testing, and new energy technologies. It pulls examples from all four to show how communication breakdowns between scientists and the general public exacerbate problems with the development of these fields, and how this is not just a matter of an ill-informed public, but is partly do to failures on the part of scientists and policy makers, who don’t appreciate the real concerns motivating opposition to scientifically based policies. Public concerns are misunderstood or brushed off, people get upset by this, and by the time anybody understands what’s really wrong, the whole situation has become an intractable mess.

Nothing in the paper struck me as remotely controversial. Everything was backed up by anecdotes or references to prior studies of these communication issues, and the whole thing hangs together. The policy recommendations made in the paper– basically, that scientists and policy makers should get some social scientists to poke around and figure out what the likely trouble spots will be before important and expensive projects get too far along the path to implementation– strike me as perfectly sensible. If anything, it’s just a call for public institutions to do what private corporations have been doing for decades– nobody launches a major new product line without first doing some research into the potential market for it. (They don’t always do a good job of this, leading to some spectacular flops, but they at least make the effort…)

I honestly don’t see what the problem is, here. I didn’t find the argument muddled or confusing, I don’t find the recommendations offensive, I don’t really understand the kerfuffle. Is it just that Chris is blogospherically radioactive? Maybe, but then I’ve never really understood that, either.

The problem may just come down to the fact that none of my oxen are being gored, here– none of the issues talked about are things where I have a huge personal stake in one side or the other. But ultimately, what he says makes sense to me. In fact, it seems almost too obvious to be controversial.

So, what gives?

Comments

  1. #1 Stephen
    June 30, 2010

    I haven’t read the AAAS piece, but the reaction to Mooney that I have seen has centered about his piece being so obvious and bland that it’s useless. Take his conclusion, for instance:

    Rather than simply crusading against ignorance, the defenders of science should also work closely with social scientists and specialists in public opinion to determine how to defuse controversies by addressing their fundamental causes.

    What does this mean?

  2. #2 Brian Switek
    June 30, 2010

    Perhaps because the negative reaction has primarily been to Mooney’s op-ed, which preceded the paper, and not the paper itself. (Maybe I have missed something, but I haven’t seen any other responses to the actual paper as yet – I expect they’ll start popping up soon). Hence I am baffled by your being baffled. The negative reactions published so far – which you don’t link to in favor of linking over to Chris’s responses to responses – specifically cite the op-ed, so complaining that people aren’t addressing what was in the paper doesn’t make sense.

  3. #3 Zach Voch
    June 30, 2010

    Here are Orac’s complaints.

    I’ll summarize the key complaints:

    1. Mooney is reinforcing the egghead/condescending stereotype of scientists that isn’t true for many of those attempting to communicate science.

    2. Mooney himself has been naive and proposed counterproductive measures in the past (see Orac’s links to the “Building Bridges” post) in the spirit of communication.

    3. Mooney doesn’t propose anything beyond “listening” and assumes a very dodgy hypothesis, i.e., that denialists are actually interested in dialogue.

    4. Scientists moving towards ideology and straying away from the science in public debates risks their perceived objectivity and credibility.

    Here is the Evil Monkey’s reaction. Mostly, (3) is repeated. He links to PalMD here. These are common point:

    5. Mooney wants to treat science like a democracy. It isn’t, and it isn’t a good idea. (Note: In his response, he appears to only mean listen to public opinion as regards scientific fact. Are we not? What does he mean?)

    6. Though there’s little doubt some scientists are unaware of the problem of ideology over ignorance, scientists active in addressing denialism are very aware of the role of ideology, and it’s rather hard to miss.

    Here is PZ’s take.

    7. The conclusion is do-nothingness (like (3)).

    8. When we attack ideologies, do we lose support for the science in doing so? (What has Mooney been saying about New Atheists all this time, who agree with him that ideology is at the root of the issue?)

    I read Mooney’s response to criticisms (the only worthwhile ones listed were those of PalMD). But, he seemed to miss some of the big ones. I think his piece would be useful for scientists with little to no experience in engaging with denialists. Otherwise…

  4. #4 Lorax
    June 30, 2010

    Well maybe it is because your oxen are currently immune to the sights of Mooney, framing, etc. I think one of the perennial problems is that Mooney is great at saying “this is a problem” and “you are doing it wrong,” but sucks at giving concrete suggestions at how to fix things or do it right. He is great at throwing out (IMO) meaningless pablum, but that does not really help in the real world.

    Also, like Don Quixote he seems to spend his time fighting windmills and not true opponents. When attacking the New Atheists, he initially took the approach that New Atheists (aka atheists he disagrees with) need to let other people do the talking because they are not helping. Some inferred that Chris was telling them to shut up, which seems like a reasonable conclusion. Chris then railed about how he never said “shut up” completely ignoring the point.

    He frequently props up strawmen and set ups talking points as new that are anything but (maybe this is framing). Mooney has learned that more education is not sufficient and goes off in the WaPo op/ed like this is unknown to the practicing evolutionary biologists, public health officials, doctors, etc. Its frustrating trying to engage him because he seems to habitually ignore and squash disagreement.

    In his response to response post he wrote:
    PalMD also raises the question of the public’s role in science policy. To be clear, I don’t think the nonscientist public has any role in determining what the scientific facts are. However, that is very different than saying it has no role at all. It needs to be included, and it needs to be listened to–and those who ignore it are going to find their own policy goals thwarted, I’ll wager.

    my response to this was
    Im sorry but I havent the foggiest idea what you are talking about. Who said the public has no role at all? John Q. Strawman? The public needs to be included and listened to you say. How and when are the public not included/listened to? In the US, the public elects the legislatures that provide funds to NIH NSF etc. If the public is unhappy, then they can elect representatives to not fund these organizations. Whenever public education decisions are made, the public is invited for feedback at many levels. Short of making science a democratic enterprise, what more do you want?

    Those who ignore it are going to find their own policy goals thwarted. WTH does this mean? So, a group of anti-vaxxers, or creationists, or global warming denialists, talk with the relevant scientists. The medical doctors, evolutionary biologists, environmentalists then do what?! We have established that more facts will not change the views of this part of the public, so what are we supposed to do? You say we ignore them at our peril. So what do we do? Do we give the creationists a little time in the classroom? In Mississippi, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and many other states the majority of the public wants some form of Genesis taught in the science classroom. Tell me how this problem is solved by listening to the public. Scientists pastors and education policy makers sit at a table and have a non-combative 6 hour discussion of the issues (evolution, big bang, plate techtonics) and the concerns (poorly educated students in science, eternal damnation), then what?!?! Because at the end of the day, when good science is maintained the majority public is not going to say “Well at least we were involved in the discussion, we won’t worry about evolution anymore.”

    Now maybe Im missing something, but I think these real world issues are not solved by throwing the word engagement around over and over and over with a slice of scientists are arrogant and will eat your babies tossed in every so often.

  5. #5 Rob Knop
    June 30, 2010

    People don’t like Chris Mooney because he’s had the gall to speak out against the fundamentalist atheists (more often known as “new atheists”). They are legion in the science blogosphere, and you offend them or say something bad against their prophets (Dawkins, PZ) at your peril. Try to be a voice of conciliation and reason, and they will find excuses to jump all over you.

  6. #6 Chris Mooney
    June 30, 2010

    Chad,

    Thanks for this. and, Zach, what a helpful summation of all the points….(I disagree with almost all of them.) I am still doing responses, to all the reactions to my oped and the American Academy paper, e.g., here:

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2010/06/30/do-scientists-understand-the-public-cont/

    I will probably try to go through something like Zach’s summation of all the points and respond one by one. # 3/# 7 is the easiest:

    “3. Mooney doesn’t propose anything beyond “listening” and assumes a very dodgy hypothesis, i.e., that denialists are actually interested in dialogue.”

    Yes, much beyond “listening” is proposed–especially in the paper. Of course a 1,000 word or so Washington Post oped can’t give the same level of detail that a 15 page paper can. Interestingly, the people making this critique don’t seem to mention the longer paper, yet it is referred to in the Post piece’s byline.

    I don’t assume “denalists are interested in dialogue”…I don’t think I’ve ever said that. I don’t think all “denialists” are necessarily unreachable, but there is a much more important point here. One key conclusion of the American Academy’s work is that there are many different subsets of the public and you have to identify them and treat them differently…the extremely hardcore ideologues would be only one part of the public. On global warming, for instance, the “dismissive” are only one of six major subsets of the public, according to Anthony Leiserowitz’s work

    http://environment.yale.edu/uploads/SixAmericasJan2010.pdf

    More soon

    chris

  7. #7 Zach Voch
    June 30, 2010

    … Knop, you are aware that Orac isn’t a fan of New Atheists either, right? There are plenty of criticisms of the Mooney approach that do not come from New Atheists.

    I’m a New Atheist, and I don’t have any problem with criticism of Dawkins or PZ. My problem is that a lot of the criticism is misguided, speculative, or just inaccurate. So, “PZ is sometimes unnecessarily rude” and “name-calling doesn’t help” are items to which I can assent.

    The self-aggrandizing “voice of conciliation and reason” line is interesting. So is the “fundamentalist atheist” moral equivalence you seem to be implying. If you want to avoid being mocked, you might want to be careful with how you communicate.

    Otherwise, don’t give hypocritical lectures about tone.

  8. #8 Jonathan Vos Post
    June 30, 2010

    I partly understand his motive. After all, I taught Evolution by Natural Selection to high school classrooms roughly 1/3 filled with Creationists and Intelligent Denial teenagers whose parents sometimes tried to have me fired. I had students in my college Astronomy lectures tell me that they thought the Apollo moon landings were hoaxes. But I’m unclear on his proposed methodology. Maybe after I read the paper one more time…

  9. #9 Gurdur
    June 30, 2010

    What Rob Knopp said, and a bit more. By this stage it is only all too obvious that there are some who will attack Chris Mooney for anything at all, and they also attack Sheril Kirshenbaum. The attacks have sometimes been very dishonest.

    There are two reasons for the personal attacks and/or dumping on Mooney, Kirshenbaum, Rosenau and others like them:

    1) some, no matter what, dislike hearing that some scientists really do have problems communicating, and show arrogance and marked hostility in reaction.

    Even looking at Evil Monkey’s blog post on it all, what is striking is how much first Evil Monkey devotes a whole lot of space to venting and to denying that it’s scientists at fault at all, then he actually ends up admitting:

    ” …. We need to get out there and engage the public more, as scientists we’ve always fell short here. … “

    Contrary to what Evil Monkey says there, Chris Mooney is obviously not just advocating “listening”.

    2) Some of the atheists, more especially the demagogues. Since Mooney has made a point of his stance that advocating science is more important than advocating atheism, and since there are some atheists who simply cannot stand such deviance and seek to stamp it out, then they’re going to attack no matter what, for whatever excuse they can manufacture.

    I point out I am an atheist myself, I simply don’t buy the rationalizations put out by the demagogues.

  10. #10 Rob Knop
    June 30, 2010

    Zach — the term “fundamentalist atheist” is absolutely appropriate. They are a group of people absolutely convinced that they have the One Truth about religion, and who heap scorn of some sort over those who disagree with them, and who who even think that there might be some value in talking to those who disagree. They behave about religion in much the same way that fundamentalists of other faiths behave, up to and including the attitude of smug superiority that you show when you think that people are labelling you wrong.

  11. #11 Zach Voch
    June 30, 2010

    You are aware of what the term “fundamentalist” denotes, are you not? Granted, there is ambiguity in how it is used, but it is generally used to describe a person who has a certain set of inflexible, unchangeable beliefs unmotivated by or in spite of evidence and reasoned argument. Do New Atheists satisfy this condition? Let’s look:

    “Absolutely convinced”?

    No, every New Atheist I have read has been able to offer lists of things that would change their mind. No one that I have read affirms absolute certainty, and in fact, they usually assert the strong opposite: nobody can reasonably maintain absolute certainty. And “One Truth”? Really?

    Certainly, some “heap scorn,” but the basis for doing so is not “disagreement” generally. We don’t spend a lot of time heaping scorn on pantheists, deists, and theists broadly on the basis of their being X. Rather, a terrible argument or use of a slur (like “atheist fundamentalist”) very well might become a scorn heap, as well as ridiculous positions like creationism. However, scorn heaping is usually done on the basis of argument. But as I noted in my comment above, I don’t pretend that every bit of it is justified.

    But this is interesting as well:

    “…and who who even think that there might be some value in talking to those who disagree.”

    That is just false. Coyne, among others, is quite happy to engage with theists. The difference is that not all of the talking is going to consist of agreement. If you haven’t noticed, recent squabbles over exclusion of New Atheists from certain panels have been about the exclusion of New Atheists, not the existence of the panel.

    They behave about religion in much the same way that fundamentalists of other faiths behave, up to and including the attitude of smug superiority that you show when you think that people are labelling you wrong.

    Do we really?

    I guess I’ve been over the basics here already. But as for my “smug superiority,” where was it? Your comment about “conciliation and reason” was egoistic. You blamed New Atheists for all of the kerfuffle even though criticism of Mooney came from other quarters. You called PZ/Dawkins “[our] prophets.”

    And my accusation of hypocrisy still stands, but with an added example.

    Keep assigning yourself moral superiority, and that’s what you will perceive. I have no pretenses of superiority to you, Knop, as sometimes I fall into the same traps. However, don’t describe my criticism of your comment as proof of your slur-usage of “fundamentalist.” It isn’t.

  12. #12 TB
    June 30, 2010

    That Orac post Zach links to is not about the paper but about the WP article, which Chad accurately says is the executive summary.
    Chad’s post is about the paper, which is more complete and does give concrete recommendations for what to do and, more importantly, when to do them.
    Zach disingenuously used Orac’s legitimate post to mischaracterize Chris’ report.

  13. #13 Johan Larson
    June 30, 2010

    Those who worry about a communication gap between scientists and the public would do well to read David Foster Wallace’s essay “Tense Present” in which Foster celebrates a success story of sorts. He describes how someone who is very much a technocrat managed to tread a very fine and measured path between two very contentious groups concerned with English usage: the Prescriptivists (proponents of traditional grammar) and Descriptivists (anything goes, basically). The whole essay is very fine, but here are two key paragraphs:

    “The most salient and timely feature of Garner’s book is that it’s both lexicographical and rhetorical. Its main strategy involves what is known in classical rhetoric as the Ethical Appeal. Here the adjective, derived from the Greek ethos, doesn’t mean quite what we usually mean by ethical. But there are affinities. What the Ethical Appeal amounts to is a complex and sophisticated ‘Trust me.’ It’s the boldest, most ambitious, and also most distinctively American of rhetorical Appeals, because it requires the rhetor to convince us not just of his intellectual acuity or technical competence but of his basic decency and fairness and sensitivity to the audience’s own hopes and fears.”

    “Garner recognizes something that neither of the dogmatic camps appears to get: Given 40 years of the Usage Wars, ‘authority’ is no longer something a lexicographer can just presume ex officio. In fact, a large part of the project of any contemporary usage dictionary will consist in establishing this authority. If that seems rather obvious, be apprised that nobody before Garner seems to have figured it out — that the lexicographer’s challenge now is to be not just accurate and comprehensive but credible. That in the absence of unquestioned Authority in language, the reader must now be moved or persuaded to grant a dictionary its authority, freely and for what appear to be good reasons.”

    In the same way, I think scientists would do well to recognize that they are not by default accepted as authorities at the intersection of science and public affairs, but have some work to do to establish it. And a large part of that will be establishing that they share the public’s values and priorities, or at a very bare minimum that they are willing to listen to the public seriously and respectfully.

    The essay is here:
    http://instruct.westvalley.edu/lafave/DFW_present_tense.html

  14. #14 Zach Voch
    June 30, 2010

    TB,

    The bafflement is over the reaction the the op-ed (which Chad stated at the beginning of his post), which is where most of the criticism has been directed as it came out earlier. Most of the posts I linked to were to the summary.

    So, that stated, we’ll look for reactions to the paper specifically. But if the confusion is due to things omitted from the op-ed that were included in the paper, then the “bafflement” is explained.

  15. #15 Chad Orzel
    June 30, 2010

    A few comments were held for moderation, and only just approved, which may make some of the above discussion look weird. Apologies for the hold-up, but I was at the gym.

    I have errands to run, and thus can’t respond to anything at great length, but I’ll note one short example. Comment #1 quotes the WaPo piece:

    Rather than simply crusading against ignorance, the defenders of science should also work closely with social scientists and specialists in public opinion to determine how to defuse controversies by addressing their fundamental causes.

    Then asks:

    What does this mean?

    See, this is what I don’t get. That sentence seems perfectly clear to me. It’s saying more or less what I said in the post:

    basically, that scientists and policy makers should get some social scientists to poke around and figure out what the likely trouble spots will be before important and expensive projects get too far along the path to implementation

    Mooney gives a number of examples where public resistance to science policy issues has caught scientists off-guard, and points to evidence suggesting that those objections spring not just from simple ignorance, but from other grievances that scientists and policy makers failed to anticipate, and then misunderstood for a long time. That sentence is saying that next time around, it would be a good idea to get some social scientists to investigate the public’s attitudes first, rather than plunging ahead, creating a giant PR debacle, and waiting for social scientists to start writing Ph.D. theses about it.

    There are a number of examples of this given in the paper– as I recall, one of them was that much of the opposition to the Yucca Mountain site sprang not from ignorance about the dangers, but from a feeling that Nevadans had been cut out of the decision-making process. This is not a situation that can be fixed by lecturing people about how they fail to understand the risks properly– that may be true, but it’s not getting at the root cause. If you assume that the problem is just ignorance, then you end up with the public feeling not just disenfranchised but patronized, and they get even more irritated, not less.

    This is the root of my bafflement: that sentence, taken in context, seems absolutely clear to me. I don’t see what’s confusing about it, let alone what’s offensive.

    I’ll try to get to the longer list of responses later this afternoon, but I need to go somewhere without Internet access and check over the index for the forthcoming UK edition of my book, first.

  16. #16 Kishore Hari
    June 30, 2010

    So much energy/conversations is devoted to the denialists. I don’t care about them – let them make noise and remain intractable.

    The science community should remain focused on my constituency: the middle. A group that by in large has a positive view of science and scientists, but are largely underengaged.

    I have been running a science cafe for 3.5 years to meet that challenge. Participating scientists comment with surprise in regards to certain perceptions of their work. Maybe this is naive, but I hope that their “listening” to local public audiences over the long term will encourage them to consider public perception as they approach research. And this happens not just with the hot button topics (vaccines, climate change, etc) but with the more innocuous topics like particle physics and modern engineering of bridges.

    Scientific research happens in the context of society. I interpret Chris’ report as a reminder of that, with broad encouragement from scientists to evolve what public engagement has been.

  17. #17 Rob Knop
    June 30, 2010

    Kishore is right — the extremists are probably a lost cause. (Not certainly; even some of them may be won over.) The real issue is the broader public, who are put off by the image of the arrogant ivory-tower scientist who can’t communicate with “regular” people. There are lots of reasons why this has come about, and it’s not just ignorance of science — scientists themselves are partially to blame, as Mooney and Kirshbaum lay out in their book “Unscientific America”.

    This is also where the “New Atheists” do the most harm. There are many out there who are religious but not fundamentalist, who would be very open to learning more about science– but who are going to react predictably when they hear bloggers and science popularizers loudly proclaiming that science is incompatible with religion. The creationists and religious fundamentalists already have a whole line of (bogus) defenses against science, and they’re not going to be much moved by anything any pro-science person says. But the folks in the middle are the ones who will be pushed away by extreme claims of the incompatibility between science and religion, whichever side it comes from.

  18. #18 TB
    June 30, 2010

    Zach said:

    “The bafflement is over the reaction the the op-ed (which Chad stated at the beginning of his post), …”

    That would be an adequate response, if Chad hadn’t written this:

    “…so I did the responsible blogger thing and read the whole AAAS paper (which you can download for free at the link above), and I’m baffled. Not by the paper itself, which is very clearly written and not overly complicated.
    I’m baffled by the reaction.”

    And that would have been an adequate response if you had noted that the objections you listed were ALL regarding the WP article. Except you didn’t. You just trolled a bunch of criticisms without regard to whether they’re valid in light of the report.

    You do say the criticisms are about the op-ed and not the report, but only after I called you out on it: “… which is where most of the criticism has been directed as it came out earlier. Most of the posts I linked to were to the summary.”

    So no, I don’t find your explanation compelling. You uncritically posted out-of-date criticisms to a newspaper op-ed in a post clearly about the op-ed AND report.

  19. #19 Zach Voch
    June 30, 2010

    “So no, I don’t find your explanation compelling. You uncritically posted out-of-date criticisms to a newspaper op-ed in a post clearly about the op-ed AND report.”

    Ok, TB, you accused me of being disingenuous. I didn’t claim to adhere to the criticisms I posted, and I noted that Mooney had responded to many of them (as given by PalMD). Orzel said he was baffled by why people objected to things he considered common sense. An explanation of this is that the reaction was to the op-ed and not to the paper itself. That’s what I proposed in response to your comment.

    Does that clear up this? “And that would have been an adequate response if you had noted that the objections you listed were ALL regarding the WP article. Except you didn’t. You just trolled a bunch of criticisms without regard to whether they’re valid in light of the report.”

    If my comment left the impression that these were criticisms of the paper and not the op-ed, then I apologize for the error in communication. In retrospect, I should have clarified, but it wasn’t an intentional misrepresentation of Orac and others. However, I never claimed that these were criticisms of the paper. If Orzel took them as such, then that would explain his bafflement.

    Yes, I was just listing criticisms I had found. I never pretended otherwise. Actually, I thought that it was quite clear that that was what I was doing.

    If you’re interested in my impression of the paper and problems I find with it, you’re free to ask. I think it has shortcomings relevant to addressing politically motivated denialism, but I think it’s a good paper overall, and yes, as said by Orzel, much of it is common sense, solid stuff that’s hard to object to.

  20. #20 Gaythia
    June 30, 2010

    I posted a comment on Matt Nisbet’s site (http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/2010/06/reflections_on_american_academ.php#comments)about my take on what Chris Mooney had to say about Yucca Mountain. This is different than that expressed by Chad in #15 above. I would largely agree with Chad if that is what I though I had read.

    My objections to the paper, and to the previous op-ed are what I see as drawing divides that are too sharp between scientists and non scientists. Are the scientist directly involved going to poke around, find new information and revise their positions accordingly if necessary? Or are they just going to be extra clever in how they present things?

  21. #21 Evil Monkey
    June 30, 2010

    Gurdur-

    Quote me where I denied it wasn’t the scientists’s fault at all. Please. I beg you to show me you’re not a moron.

  22. #22 TB
    June 30, 2010

    OK Zach, I apologize for misinterpreting your intentions.

  23. #23 Zach Voch
    June 30, 2010

    TB,

    No big deal. It happens. Thanks in any case for criticism that lead to clarification.

  24. #24 Zach Voch
    June 30, 2010

    Chris,

    After reading the paper, I wouldn’t maintain most of the criticisms either. In particular, I don’t feel that #3 and #7 are accurate.

    But, looking forward to further response.

  25. #25 TB
    June 30, 2010

    Zach: I could have offered it better. I appreciate you taking it so well.

  26. #26 Will
    June 30, 2010

    Hi all,
    I just read the first part of the paper. I haven’t seen the op-ed piece. Maybe I was primed poorly by reading blog posts on the subject, but I think the paper is not as effective as it could be. It suffers from the same maladies it warns against.

    For the purposes of this post I’ll distinguish two different goals one might want to undertake: firstly, to understand the world, and secondly to change the world to achieve a certain outcome. Of course this is not a clear division and many things are a combination of both. I think of the first as traditional science, and I think of the second as politics (or engineering, but politics is relevant here). Scientists are people that do elements of both: they try to understand the world, but they also try to change the world based on that understanding. This is particularly true when their understanding seems to point to an obvious way to change the world. Some examples: understand climate = science, reducing CO2 emissions = politics. Understanding evolution = science, teaching evolution = politics.

    To the extent that the paper says, “If you want to solve a political problem, you are better off to solve it in a political way”, I think that is obvious. That is also a ‘scientific’ statement. But if we also say that the goal of the paper is to change scientists behaviour, then the paper also has a political goal: “Scientists should change their behaviour to be more political”. If that really was a goal, then the author didn’t follow his own advice. He didn’t study the sociology of scientists and see how his ‘advice’ would be received. From the reaction, this seems particularly true of the op-ed piece (although I haven’t read it).

    As I said, the paper suffers from the same maladies it warns against.

    (As a final aside, I was listening to a talk once on better teaching methods. The speaker noted that lectures are a very poor method of changing people’s behaviour, and that this has been known for a long time. He then had the self awareness to note that the reason lectures were still widely used was because the people who thought we should move away from lectures tried to achieve that change by lecturing about it.)

  27. #27 Ax
    June 30, 2010

    The main problem is that Mooney pretends he has something meaningful to say but doesn’t. He has a sort of “humanist” approach to writing – he writes sentences which sound nice to him and he seems to think it makes them correct and insightful. But meaningful communication takes much more than that, it takes logic and internal consistency and it takes a clear message. But all that is lacking in Mooney’s writing, his is just writing for the sake of writing, as he has nothing meaningful to say.

  28. #28 Chad Orzel
    June 30, 2010

    OK, here’s a crack at some of the other complaints, based on my reading of the paper. Taking the laundry list from comment #3, and throwing out the third and seventh per comment #24, we have:

    1. Mooney is reinforcing the egghead/condescending stereotype of scientists that isn’t true for many of those attempting to communicate science.

    This is pretty much irrelevant. Yes, many scientists who have a strong interest in public communication avoid many of these pitfalls; they’re not the problem. The problem lies with the many scientists who do come off as condescending eggheads to the general public, and make a mess of science-based policy issues.

    2. Mooney himself has been naive and proposed counterproductive measures in the past (see Orac’s links to the “Building Bridges” post) in the spirit of communication.

    Again, this is largely irrelevant to the current argument. It’s entirely possible for Chris to have made naive proposals in the past, and still have a valid point here.

    4. Scientists moving towards ideology and straying away from the science in public debates risks their perceived objectivity and credibility.

    This varies a lot from case to case, but I think one of the important points of the article is that in many cases scientists have already lost their perceived objectivity and credibility. The argument is that with more attention paid to ideology from the start, that loss of credibility and objectivity could be avoided.

    5. Mooney wants to treat science like a democracy. It isn’t, and it isn’t a good idea. (Note: In his response, he appears to only mean listen to public opinion as regards scientific fact. Are we not? What does he mean?)

    I have no idea where this is coming from. Both the paper and the op-ed are very clearly (to me, at least) talking about involving the public in science policy decisions. The key bit of the op-ed is:

    These three controversies have a single moral, and it’s that experts who want Americans to take science into account when they form opinions on contentious issues need to do far more than just “lay out the facts” or “set the record straight.” What science says is important, but in controversial areas, it’s only the beginning. It’s critical that experts and policy makers better understand what motivates public concern in the first place; and in this, they mustn’t be deceived by the fact that people often appear, on the surface, to be arguing about scientific facts. Frequently, their underlying rationale is very different.

    Thus, for instance, resistance to climate science in the United States seems to be linked to a libertarian economic outlook: People who resist what experts tell them about global warming often appear, at heart, to be most worried about the consequences of increased government regulation of carbon emissions. Similarly, based upon my observation, vaccine skepticism seems closely connected to distrust of the pharmaceutical industry and of the federal government’s medical research establishment. As for Yucca Mountain, much of the outrage appears to originate in the perceived unfairness of having Nevada proposed as the sole dump site for the waste of an entire nation.

    This is not saying that the scientific facts about Yucca Mountain, vaccination, or climate change are in any way up for a vote. Quite the contrary– it’s saying that those facts are not the real problem. What they’re recommending is that scientists and policy makers find out what people are really worried about on the policy level, and move to address those issues. Had the Yucca Mountain site, for example, been selected in a more open process, with input from and outreach to the communities involved, it might not have become the colossal mess that it is now.

    Both the op-ed and the paper are explicitly concerned with science policy– those areas where science intersects with the public interest. They’re recommending that scientists take public opinion into consideration in setting policy, not doing science.

    6. Though there’s little doubt some scientists are unaware of the problem of ideology over ignorance, scientists active in addressing denialism are very aware of the role of ideology, and it’s rather hard to miss.

    This is the closest thing to a valid criticism of the current paper and op-ed on the list. The main thrust of both the paper and the op-ed is toward trying to avoid situations where denialism becomes entrenched in the first place. The only really on point comment in the paper is pretty pessimistic on this front (page 10):

    [D]ecades into such debates, the political and societal rift already exists. The crisis-communication opportunities have probably been missed or squandered,and much analysis is retrospective and “woulda, coulda, shoulda” in nature. Battle lines have hardened (as in the Yucca Mountain case), and it may be far too late to “fix” the situation.

    I would like to see something more positive here, but that’s all there really is.

    I do think, though, that in many cases the understanding people think they have of the ideology of the situation may be mistaken. There may be ways to re-cast the discussion that could lead to positive results, or at least progress– if the fundamental issues around climate change denialism are economic in nature, as suggested in the quoted bit above, then it may be possible to address those concerns more directly, and thus undermine the support for the denialist position. But then, I’m an optimist at heart.

    I will agree, though, that this is the weakest point of the current paper and op-ed– it doesn’t really make recommendations about what to do when you’ve hit an intractable ideological gulf. The argument for the defense is that it’s asking those documents to be about something that they’re not trying to be about. Which may or may not work for you, but that’s all there is.

  29. #29 bioephemera
    June 30, 2010

    What I don’t understand is why many people seem to be attributing the whole package – the paper, the talk, and the op-ed – to Chris Mooney as if he’s the prime mover in this. The Academy organized the workshops without Chris Mooney; I know one of the people who did organize them (and yes, she’s a PhD scientist, like many of the participants). The Academy brought Chris in, if I understand it correctly, to communicate the results. If one has complaints about that communication, those may well be appropriate to lay on Chris. But for anyone who thinks the series of workshops was a stupid or redundant idea, go tell the Academy of Arts and Sciences that; it was their idea.

    You know, Chris Mooney and I haven’t always seen eye to eye, but I see so much vitriolic hostility directed at him – and at anyone who admits to agreeing with him on one point or another – that I’m now inclined to back him up just out of the principle of the thing. I’m just ornery that way.

  30. #30 MRW
    June 30, 2010

    Bioephemera-

    Wholly off-topic, but both times you’ve posted, the link to your blog has been broken.

  31. #31 Lorax
    July 1, 2010

    I think we are talking by each other. In your noble defense you note that:

    This is pretty much irrelevant. Yes, many scientists who have a strong interest in public communication avoid many of these pitfalls; they’re not the problem. The problem lies with the many scientists who do come off as condescending eggheads to the general public, and make a mess of science-based policy issues.

    This is NOT irrelevant! You note that many scientists, note you used the word many, are interested in communication. But many don’t. I agree, many don’t. So fucking what! Do all scientists have to be involved in public communication? and be good at it (otherwise its problematic not helpful)? I was trained to do research and barely to teach (although I seem to do a good job). My job description is to do research and to teach. WTF do you want from all scientists? This is the unrealistic BS that gets many of us, ie me, annoyed.

    This is not saying that the scientific facts about Yucca Mountain, vaccination, or climate change are in any way up for a vote. Quite the contrary– it’s saying that those facts are not the real problem. What they’re recommending is that scientists and policy makers find out what people are really worried about on the policy level, and move to address those issues. Had the Yucca Mountain site, for example, been selected in a more open process, with input from and outreach to the communities involved, it might not have become the colossal mess that it is now.

    Let’s use your vaccination example (evolution would be another excellent example). Ok, we are agreed the facts of vaccination are not the problem or in any way up for a vote. Do you think for even a second we don’t know what people are really worried about on the policy level regarding vaccination? Its fucking AUTISM! Sure we can argue that there is some philosophical issue regarding distrust of government and big companies, but I anecdotally know educated individuals who are concerned about the vaccine-autism link even though they are pro-vaccine! The other side of the issue has a great frame and deep coffers. So, how do we address that issue that hasn’t been done? We are investing NIH research dollars pursuing this well decided issue (which means other research is not getting done)! We have even more facts addressing these concerns now because we have listened and responded to these public concerns. This is why I call Mooney’s suggestions pablum, we already do what he suggests and still lose fucking ground, but he tells us we suck (my words) and need to frame and engage without saying how (and I appreciate your acknowledgment of that critique).

    You note that the Yucca mountain decision might have come out differently. The use of “might” I think completely undercuts your argument. I will counter that the “not in my backyard” philosophy MIGHT beat out any engagement by scientists/policy makers.

    Engage the public, NIH has the National Center of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. That seems to me to be a pretty good example of what Mooney is arguing for and it hasn’t changed a thing, I would argue it has helped the pseudoscientists gain more credibility.

    In K-12 education, the public is heard at all levels numerous times, yet we still constantly fight for evolution, geology, and physics. Mooney is currently being paid to argue that we need to be cognizant of the Christians who may be scared by the geology physics and evolution. Ok, let’s be cognizant. Biologos (these arguments don’t exist in a vacuum) says Adam and Eve fit perfectly with evolution. Well they do, but only if you contort Adam and Eve to such a degree as to be meaningless from a biblical perspective, most Christians concerned about this issue won’t go for these contortions. Earth 6000 years old or more than 1000000000, do you think the population that believes the former, and admittedly will not be swayed by facts, will get on board by talking with them or by telling them to alter their beliefs? These real problems are not solved by saying frame and engage ad nauseum.

  32. #32 Chad Orzel
    July 1, 2010

    This is probably futile from the standpoint of direct communication, but comment #31 is such a perfect example of what the paper is talking about, that I’ll respond to highlight the issues.

    This is NOT irrelevant! You note that many scientists, note you used the word many, are interested in communication. But many don’t. I agree, many don’t. So fucking what! Do all scientists have to be involved in public communication? and be good at it (otherwise its problematic not helpful)?

    Not every scientist needs to be an expert in public communications, but those scientists who will be involved in setting public policy damn well better be. Or at the very least they should be willing to listen to people who are experts in public communication, and take their advice.

    A relevant bit from the AAAS paper (bottom of page 6):

    As [Janet] Kotra [head of the NRC’s High-Level Waste Public Outreach Team] put it at the American Academy meeting: “I will never forget a former colleague who said, ‘You mean, I have to dumb down my presentation for Ma and Pa Kettle?’ And of course, the answer to that is, yes, if you see it that way. But if you see it that way, I don’t want you talking to them.”

    If your view is that public communication is beneath you, find a line of research that won’t ever require you to communicate with the public. Otherwise, you’re going to have problems, and more importantly, you’re going to create problems for everybody else.

    Let’s use your vaccination example (evolution would be another excellent example). Ok, we are agreed the facts of vaccination are not the problem or in any way up for a vote. Do you think for even a second we don’t know what people are really worried about on the policy level regarding vaccination? Its fucking AUTISM! Sure we can argue that there is some philosophical issue regarding distrust of government and big companies, but I anecdotally know educated individuals who are concerned about the vaccine-autism link even though they are pro-vaccine!

    Because, of course, your personal anecdotes trump data collected by social scientists.

    This is such a perfect demonstration of exactly the kind of communication failures the paper is talking about that it’s too good to pass up (even though I will likely regret continuing this conversation).

    The argument that Mooney and the other participants in the American Academy workshops are making, along with communications researchers who have studied these sorts of situations is that distrust of government and drug companies isn’t a side issue, but the fundamental problem that’s blocking acceptance of the science. If people don’t trust the government and drug companies on this issue, you can show them study after study debunking the link between vaccines and autism, and never make a dent. Because who funded those studies? Drug companies and the government, who we have already established are not trusted.

    The entire argument of the paper and op-ed, and the social-science research that backs them up, is that you need to address the concerns about trustworthiness of the government and drug companies before you can get people to accept the science. When you treat those concerns as some insignificant side issue, not only do you not speak to the real concerns of many people in the general public, but you make them feel like you’re arrogantly talking down to them. Which pisses them off, and makes them even less likely to accept the next government-funded study showing no link between vaccines and autism.

    But you very badly want this not to be about social science and public opinion, so you are willing to casually dismiss the scholarly work of people who study public opinion for a living because you know some people who appear to behave otherwise.

    Think about that for a second– if you put a study in front of someone showing no link between vaccines and autism, and they responded with “I anecdotally know individuals whose kids got vaccinated and two months later became autistic,” would you find that convincing? Because that’s exactly what you’re doing.

    Social science research, like public health research, necessarily deals in aggregates and averages. The fact that you know a couple of people who don’t seem to fit the trend does not invalidate the trend for the population as a whole. If responsible social-science research into these issues shows a correlation and provides a reasonable model for that correlation being causal, the scientific thing to do is to take that seriously, and see if it leads somewhere promising.

    The alternative is to keep throwing money at new studies that won’t do a bit of good, and fuming about the idiocy of the public. Which, as you point out, has been done already, and isn’t working out too well.

    (The big question, of course, is how you fix the trust gap, if that’s the problem. That’s a hard problem, and I don’t have any answers. But then, I’m not a scholar of public communications, or a marketing expert. We’ve got universities full of social scientists who study this stuff, and ad agencies full of people who put it into practice– ask them. Which, again, is the whole point of these papers.)

  33. #33 Ibid
    July 1, 2010

    Bravo Chad, a very good response, exactly what I intended to write, written better.

    I find it weird that when presented with an argument that says “Science is not being communicated to laypeople for many reasons, one of them which is often denied is that scientists appear arrogant to some and do not engage in ways which we have some evidence will work better- for example situations X and Y may have worked better handled differently” some people react by saying “People are idiots, we’ve tried telling them what’s right, we’ve tried engaging them (with the implication that they have tried it exhaustively and completely) and it doesn’t work, mainly because they’re all illogical idiots who wouldn’t know good science if it was dripfed to them by Steven Hawking himself. TELL ME how we reach idiot Q?!” – where Q is a complete basketcase who does not fall into the group of laypeople Mooney is suggesting we can reach with different tactics.

  34. #34 Lorax
    July 1, 2010

    Thanks for the response and I am more convinced than ever that we are talking by each other and am inclined to think you actually don’t want to consider what Im saying. Its just easier to make accusations based on superficial interpretations of what Im saying (clearly I am at fault in this by not being explicit in my responses).

    First, we both agree that many scientists are good communicators (plus there are many non-scientists that are great science communicators). I even agree with you that scientists involved in policy issues need to be good communicators. I call this a “Duh” statement, you know what scientists should probably be pretty good at? research. So we agree people should be competent at their jobs. Currently, stem cell research is a politically hot button issue, should all SC scientists be required to be great communicators? Before it was a hot button issue did this requirement exist? If not, does a poor communicator in SC research have to change fields based on the political changes? I expect you think this is absurd, but my point is that these arguments seem to exist in a vacuum with no history. When a field of science (this is independent of scientists directly involved in policy all of whom should be able to do their job competently) becomes a publicly sensitive issue, I think its ridiculous to yell at scientists for not magically gaining some new ability.

    Second, I do not think anecdotes trump data. My point, which I obviously made poorly, was that some real life human beings are concerned about vaccines because of all the press on vaccine-autism. So I am not questioning that distrust of government and/or big pharma is the driving force behind the anti-vaccine movement, I am only suggesting that the problem is compounded by the advertising and vocalness of the anti-vaxxers. If trust can be restored, the anti-vaxxers lose their momentum and both problems are solved.

    Also, I did not disparage social science research. And while Im trying to maintain civility and consideration of your points, I think you are being kind of a douche by saying multiple times that I am.

    We agree that at least some of these problems are about trust in certain entities. We also agree that social scientists, professional communicators, et al are best to help deal with these issue. However, I found a fair degree of scientists are poor communicators and need to do better dealing with the public, listen to the public, etc in Mooney’s OpEd (did you not see any of that?). I did not read the AAAS paper, which obviously makes me evil. But my concern is that many lay people are reading the OpEd and being reinforced with how arrogant and elitist (my words) scientists are, none of them are reading the more flushed out AAAS paper, which may make the reasonable (and dare I say somewhat obvious, because I am slightly familiar with the research on public communication) point that concerned scientists should seek help from social scientists.

  35. #35 Zach Voch
    July 1, 2010

    Observation: The main objections are to the op-ed, not the paper.

    Judgment: Many of the complaints are due to items lost in summary. I think that many of the criticisms I listed previously are inaccurate or unfair once the paper has been read.

    Other Judgment: The op-ed is itself a problem of communication. It seems to have failed to deliver an accurate impression of the paper. Given, summarizing has inherent difficulties, but we can expect most people to read the op-ed and not the paper. So, we can reasonably expect the popular impression of the paper to be something similar to what many of the comments/blogs have denounced.

    Suggestions:

    1) In the future, we could circulate similar papers around the critical blogosphere and gain feedback/criticisms before publishing a summarizing op-ed in order to preempt these problems. IMO, many bloggers have taken the article/paper as an attack against themselves that, for example, did not recognize their understanding of the problems with the “deficit model.” Note: I haven’t checked to see if this has been done, but it’s an idea.

    2) An accompanying blog post explaining who the paper targets as poor communicators, and further, specifically to what group that the recommendations apply. As again, it is difficult (or impossible) to give such specifics in a short news article without sacrificing other details, many critics (seem to) have taken the article as an attack on their experience.

    3) It would help if institutional barriers to communicating scientists were discussed in this same accompanying post. This way, it doesn’t come across so much as a simplistic “blame the scientists” approach.

    Just some ideas.

  36. #36 Chad Orzel
    July 1, 2010

    Currently, stem cell research is a politically hot button issue, should all SC scientists be required to be great communicators? Before it was a hot button issue did this requirement exist? If not, does a poor communicator in SC research have to change fields based on the political changes? I expect you think this is absurd, but my point is that these arguments seem to exist in a vacuum with no history. When a field of science (this is independent of scientists directly involved in policy all of whom should be able to do their job competently) becomes a publicly sensitive issue, I think its ridiculous to yell at scientists for not magically gaining some new ability.

    I don’t think that all stem cell researchers are required to be great public communicators. If somebody really wants to work in the lab and not deal with the public, that’s fine– we need great researchers at least as much as we need great communicators.

    However, I do think that researcher who aren’t great public communicators should recognize that they’re not, and stay out of policy making. Or, if they have a burning desire to get involved in public policy, they should consult with or hire somebody who does understand public communication, and follow their advice to the letter. The problem is, too many scientists assume that being a really good scientist is enough, and everybody will see the rightness of their position. The “Ma and Pa Kettle” comment is all too typical, and that’s the sort of thing we can’t afford.

    Cases where humble bench scientists are catapulted into the middle of a policy firestorm with no possible advance warning are actually pretty rare. What generally happens is that a field becomes a political hot button over a period of years, which provides ample warning for someone to start developing communication skills, if they’re paying attention. We need scientists to pay a little more attention to politics, and we especially need scientific and policy organizations to be aware of these issues, and keep their members apprised of potential trouble spots.

    Science doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and can’t. Too many scientists want to pretend that they can be completely insulated from politics and public opinion, and that’s just not feasible in the modern world.

    Second, I do not think anecdotes trump data. My point, which I obviously made poorly, was that some real life human beings are concerned about vaccines because of all the press on vaccine-autism. So I am not questioning that distrust of government and/or big pharma is the driving force behind the anti-vaccine movement, I am only suggesting that the problem is compounded by the advertising and vocalness of the anti-vaxxers. If trust can be restored, the anti-vaxxers lose their momentum and both problems are solved.

    So… what’s the problem, then? Your previous comment made it sound like suggesting that distrust had anything at all to do with the situation was completely outrageous.

    This is also the origin of the comments about disparaging social science. The obvious reading of “Do you think for even a second we don’t know what people are really worried about on the policy level regarding vaccination? Its fucking AUTISM!” is “Despite what social science research says about public attitudes, I know what the real problem is.” Which is pretty much the definition of disparaging social science research.

    We agree that at least some of these problems are about trust in certain entities. We also agree that social scientists, professional communicators, et al are best to help deal with these issue. However, I found a fair degree of scientists are poor communicators and need to do better dealing with the public, listen to the public, etc in Mooney’s OpEd (did you not see any of that?).

    I saw that just fine. I don’t object to it, because he’s right. Particularly in the policy realm, which is where this stuff really matters. The track record of scientists in policy making is pretty dismal, as illustrated by the examples in the op-ed and in the paper, and scientists as a group do need to do better. It’s not a message that I particularly like to hear– I’d love it if we got more “Scientists are awesome!” stories in the Washington Post– but it’s a message that needs to be heard.

    The aid and comfort this might provide to the enemies of science is trivial compared to the damage that can be done by continuing on the historical path of dismal public communication and policy making.

  37. #37 bsci
    July 1, 2010

    I have another thought on the reaction towards Mooney’s work. While he can think intelligently about communication, personally, he’s a mediocre written communicator (never heard him speak), and the briefer the piece the worse he is at communicating.

    Every time he writes an op-ed or even a controversial blog post, it’s not just the push-back from others, but the number of times he repeatedly says something like “you didn’t understand what I was getting at” or “I couldn’t get into more detail in this format, but you should read my book/longer paper.” Simply put, these are comments of someone who is writing in the wrong medium. If he wasn’t able to put the core points of a long article into the opinion piece he should have either focus better on a specific part of the story or simply not write the piece. Writing it and then asking people who were confused/bothered by it to read the longer work is simply amateur.

    Like I said, he has interesting things to say, but I suspect that a side effect of becoming a comfortably selling author and popular speaker is that it doesn’t push much introspection on the quality of his own writing and communication.

    While I have disagreed with some of Mooney’s ideas in the past and probably will again, I respect that he’s clearly working hard and trying to make things better. I just wish he’d get better and getting his own message out in a clear manner.

  38. #38 Zach Voch
    July 1, 2010

    Chad,

    On your comment #28, I note my overall agreement and thank you for the responses!

    Some qualifications:

    With #6, I agree that our main goal should be preventing the creation of these severe impasses. However, as many of them are grounded in a deeply entrenched aspect of American politics, such as the conspiratorial element, reflexive anti-authoritarianism, and etc, there are many cases where attempts at prevention stray immediately into these “situations where denialism becomes entrenched in the first place.” So, I think much of the pessimism Mooney expresses is justified.

    Criticisms #4 and #8 are related, though the parenthesized portion of #8 is dealing with a case separate from the paper. If, for example, scientific organizations work in any perceptible way against a popular political strain of thought, might we only be reinforcing (and justifying) the perception of scientists as political advocates?

    More separately from the paper, but relevant: how does this apply for criticisms of (certain forms of) religion as a means for removing ideological barriers to accepting evolution?

    I guess word choice to sidestep ideologies might be relevant, like in the case of the absence of term “climate” from proposals. So, this works as a way to sneak the science around the ideology as to avoid denial up to moving through bills, etc. But in cases where the science states something in flat contradiction to a given ideology, e.g. common descent vs. special creation, this is a lot trickier. It’s also trickier when the results translate into items with which the population at large has immediate contact, e.g., science education, vaccines, etc.

    From my memory of Orac and SBM, anti-vaccination is largely based on fallacies of correlation vs. causation (I vaccinated my healthy baby just weeks/months before signs of autism started occurring!) which are reinforced by propagandists. On this issue in particular, how are we to sidestep fallacious thinking with word choice when the results depend on compliance in the face of misguided intuition and false pattern seeking?

    So, for many issues related to denialism, I’m just not sure that prevention is possible. Still, I think it’s always worthwhile for potential ideological problems to be investigated beforehand, so Mooney’s call for attention to the social sciences remains relevant.

    But again, thanks for the feedback.

  39. #39 ponderingfool
    July 2, 2010

    Writing it and then asking people who were confused/bothered by it to read the longer work is simply amateur.
    ******************************
    In other words he is doing exactly what he complains too many scientists do. The truth is many of us in the sciences do have that problem. Guess what, same is true of doctors and lawyers. Ever sit in a room with teachers as they talk about their day was like? Every field (& sub-field) has its shorthands and jargon. In other words, scientists are people too. Their is nothing unusual about how we communicate. Teachers are trained specifically how to translate their jargon, same with doctors and lawyers who on a regular basis interact with patients and clients. Why? It is their job. They routinely practice overcoming the bias of expertise.

    The hardest part is not finding the right frame but remembering your audiences’ knowledge level. Most fellow scientists know what interests others about their work (the right frame), it is scaling back the knowledge level.

    Why? My guess is that we get used to speaking in certain way about a subject and when we talk about said subject that becomes our cognitive bias to speak in that manner. To overcome it as mentioned above takes training and practice.

    How many PIs really have the time to do this along with interacting with family members, friends, and communities outside of science? The PIs I have seen are extremely busy as is. They manage labs, write grants, papers, and letters of recommendations, serve on various committees on the department, program, and university levels not to mention reviewing grants, articles, etc. of other scientists, filling out paperwork, dealing with budgets.

    Do enough of them have the time to communicate to the public? To lobby scientific organizations to rise to the occasion (& more importantly raise enough $$?

    Having grad students trained in communication is all well and good but the whole argument against education is that we need changes now not when these students finish their training.

    On a pragmatic level, I just don’t think Mooney’s suggestions will really make much of a difference and resources are better placed by strengthening the scientific communicators we have and undermining the entrenched interests that feed denialsm, which is what Mooney used to do I might add.
    .

  40. #40 Chad Orzel
    July 2, 2010

    I have another thought on the reaction towards Mooney’s work. While he can think intelligently about communication, personally, he’s a mediocre written communicator (never heard him speak), and the briefer the piece the worse he is at communicating.

    Again, we circle around to the ultimate cause of my bafflement, which is that I don’t find either of these documents confusing. I read the op-ed before the long paper, and didn’t have any trouble getting the point– if anything, I was slightly disappointed that there wasn’t more new stuff in the longer paper.

    The only thing I find confusing here is that other people think there’s anything confusing about what Chris wrote.

  41. #41 ponderingfool
    July 2, 2010

    The only thing I find confusing here is that other people think there’s anything confusing about what Chris wrote.
    *******************
    Given the past on such things, is that surprising? Chris speaks to your frames. You have agreed with him in the past and mostly likely will again in the future. Nothing surprising. It fits with everything Nisbet and Mooney have mentioned about communication. He evidently doesn’t speak to the frames of Mike the Mad Biologist, Orac, Evil Monkey, Paul MD, and Joe Romm at Climate Progress.

    If he is writing to get people like you motivated then he is doing his job. If on the other hand he is trying to get the latter group on his side, he is doing a poor job at communicating. His framing is failing. And lets face it, the latter group has to actually deal with denialism that we need to overcome on a regular basis.

  42. #42 Chad Orzel
    July 2, 2010

    Given the past on such things, is that surprising? Chris speaks to your frames. You have agreed with him in the past and mostly likely will again in the future. Nothing surprising. It fits with everything Nisbet and Mooney have mentioned about communication. He evidently doesn’t speak to the frames of Mike the Mad Biologist, Orac, Evil Monkey, Paul MD, and Joe Romm at Climate Progress.

    Or, to put it in terms less flattering to the uncomprehending, they are falling prey to their own hidden preferences and preconceptions (“ideology” is a terrible, terrible word for this) in the same way that the people they are failing to reach do.

    That’s probably a good way of looking at it.

    If he is writing to get people like you motivated then he is doing his job. If on the other hand he is trying to get the latter group on his side, he is doing a poor job at communicating. His framing is failing. And lets face it, the latter group has to actually deal with denialism that we need to overcome on a regular basis.

    I don’t think he’s writing for the latter group, though. It’s important to remember that science bloggers are not all there is to science, and they’re not even a representative sample. The vast majority of scientists and policy makers don’t write blogs, and most don’t even read science blogs. Those are the people he’s trying to reach by writing in the Washington Post, not the tiny handful of already-committed bloggers and activists.

  43. #43 bsci
    July 2, 2010

    I just reread Chris’ Post piece with the eyes of an editor. I think the first half of the article was pretty good. He starts with some assumptions that people have and shows how those assumptions are often wrong. My one complaint, as others have noted, he keeps talking about “the public” and “scientists.” Making “scientists” a group of people that isn’t part of “the public” is terrible framing. Simple phrase changes like, “When scientists try to communicate with OTHER members of the public” can go a long way.

    His writing is significantly weaker in the second half. He obviously has a space limit, but instead of trying building on an example for recommendations, like he does at the beginning, he throws out two disjointed examples with minimal explanation about them. The brevity of these examples is what opens complaints for more questions.

    I’ll put some numbers on this. He has a 220 word intro. In the examples laying out the problem, he devotes 228 words to climate change, 185 words to vaccines, and 108 words to Yucca Mountain, and another 205 words to summarize the conclusions of these three examples. Like I said, these sections are good, but a bit long.

    When Chris switches to his examples of applications, there’s 64 words on nuclear waste, 35 words on nanotechnology, 64 words as core recommendation, and another 61 words to end on a happy statistic that doesn’t directly relate to the recommendations.

    He wanted to summarize a long document, but chose to try to include as many examples as possible from that document rather than summarize the overarching point in a way that stands on its own. If I was editing this, I would have suggested to cut one example from the first part (Yucca mountain is the most incongruous), and remove a few asides from the intro and other examples. In the recommendation, I’d focus on only one example for 200-300 words to give a better picture how this approach led to success.

    Like I said, I thought the writing was mediocre, not bad. It’s better than a good chunk of the stuff that ends up in the Washington Post. It’s simply that I think he can do better if he doesn’t get defensive when people criticize what he writes.

  44. #44 bsci
    July 2, 2010

    To make my own writing a bit more brief, although it seems the criticisms are about omissions, that’s not the case for made of the serious critiques. The criticisms are presenting half a story and omitting the other half. The examples and conclusions in the piece need to stand on their own. In the current text, they don’t.

  45. #45 TB
    July 2, 2010

    BSCI: I disagree with your edits – I don’t believe they would be particularly helpful. And using a word count to help judge the impact of words isn’t particularly useful. Some of the most effective communication can come in brief sentences.

    And mediocre is such a vague description. Mediocre in what context? The op-ed isn’t intended to be great literature, it’s intent is to inform a mass media audience using a limited amount of print space.

    The op-ed also wasn’t just a summary of the paper – that’s a useful characterization as far as it goes, but that characterization doesn’t fully describe what it needed to accomplish. For many it was an introduction to the entire issue and using multiple examples served a couple of purposes:

    – It showed that the problem was one that touched multiple issues. If it was found in just one issue, there could be questions about whether it’s too parochial to address. But no, multiple examples of it in different situations show that it could be a legitimate field of study.

    – It kept the focus on the problem on not on one hot button issue. To use only one example – like Yucca Mountain – would have left the article mired in the overall debate about Yucca and nuclear waste disposal.
    Instead, we know that the article isn’t just about nuclear waste, vaccinations or global warming.

    It’s about effective communication, in this case anticipating resistance to actions taken in response to solid, scientific information.

    Chad:

    There is, of course, another reason for resistance to Mooney. The goal of better science communication and advocacy conflicts with the political goal of New Atheists in that the advocates have no problem including the religious with their efforts, whereas New Atheists seem to want use science as a dividing line for their political purposes. This is characterized by lumping all religious – even religious scientists – into the same camp, even going so far as to redefine the popular notion of creationist to describe them.
    Mooney doesn’t buy that meme and has openly criticized it and the people who promote it, so politically he is opposed in all areas.

  46. #46 JohnV
    July 2, 2010

    If it will help to stop people from throwing out the new atheist strawman for this particular discussion, I’m not an atheist (new, old or whatever) and I’m leaning towards the criticisms by Mike the mad biologist and Orac. Perhaps because I have to deal with cranks because of my field of research.

  47. #47 bsci
    July 2, 2010

    TB,
    A short piece, like the op-ed, is a compromise of what to include and omit. When a writer, as Chris is doing, says, “I had to omit X because there wasn’t enough space,” what he’s really saying is, “I decided it was more important to write about Y than X.”

    You’re right to say this touches multiple issues, but is the gain from 3 instead of 2 examples a useful prioritization of space? Does mentioning both the Canadian system and nanotechnology without any serious details contribute anything to the piece?

    I’m calling the piece mediocre based on it’s goals. It’s goal was to communicate a clear point of view to the people who read it (both scientists and non-scientists). While disagreement is fine, the responses and lack of understanding of the piece show that it’s fallen short of clarity.

    I’ll also call you out on blaming this on New Atheists. I’ve never seen several of the prominent critics like, Orac and PalMD, call themselves “New Atheist” or express that point of view. I definitely don’t fit in that label. It’s generally not considered a good persuasion skill to assume anyone who disagrees with you is part of group X and can therefore be ignored.

  48. #48 ponderingfool
    July 2, 2010

    Or, to put it in terms less flattering to the uncomprehending, they are falling prey to their own hidden preferences and preconceptions (“ideology” is a terrible, terrible word for this) in the same way that the people they are failing to reach do.
    *****************************************
    You could also say the same about you and Chris. It works both ways after all, just a question how you want to frame yourself and those who disagree.

    The vast majority of scientists and policy makers don’t write blogs, and most don’t even read science blogs. Those are the people he’s trying to reach by writing in the Washington Post, not the tiny handful of already-committed bloggers and activists.
    ***************************************
    And do we have any idea how they are responding to op-ed? And really how many scientists will read it in the Washington Post let alone the full report? I am guess a high percentage of those in science policy will but isn’t the point to change scientists? They are the ones who review grants, who review tenure, who are the membership of scientific organizations.

  49. #49 Zach Voch
    July 2, 2010

    TB:

    There is, of course, another reason for resistance to Mooney. The goal of better science communication and advocacy conflicts with the political goal of New Atheists in that the advocates have no problem including the religious with their efforts, whereas New Atheists seem to want use science as a dividing line for their political purposes. This is characterized by lumping all religious – even religious scientists – into the same camp, even going so far as to redefine the popular notion of creationist to describe them.
    Mooney doesn’t buy that meme and has openly criticized it and the people who promote it, so politically he is opposed in all areas.

    New Atheists do not generally treat theistic evolutionists as “in the same camp” or “equal to” creationists in any way. In the technical sense, theistic evolutionists can be said to believe in “intelligent designers” and “creators” (Miller himself said this), but obviously, this is not a conflation of TE with ID. I haven’t seen this behavior by any of the New Atheists I have read, at least not in any way that is designed to be deceitful. Are you thinking of a particular example?

    And I’ll second bcsi on this, just as I called out Knop before. I will at least qualify that since Mooney has “othered” New Atheists, it is very well likely that many might react reflexively against him. However, up to the communicating evolution issue, I find myself agreeing with New Atheists more than I do Mooney or Rosenau. My points in comment (when discussing criticisms 6/8) #38 relate to why I feel this way.

    I’ll also add that we should take care when othering New Atheists just as we should take care when othering accommodationists. We end up addressing a preconceived notion of the other side instead of the relevant arguments at hand. As far as I can tell, this debate and related items have this as a property, not any particular side.

    And a factual note (not an argument, just an observation): the primary concern of non-accommodationist atheists is, as far as I can tell, the use of scientific/educational organizations to write/endorse (bad) apologetics for religion. In the name of tactics in increasing support for evolution, this approach has been supported, however, New Atheists disagree that this tactical approach has or will work, and that ultimately, removing resistance to science necessarily involves working against religious doctrine and/or the public influence of religion. They agree with Mooney that ideology is the issue, however, they disagree about how that ideology is to be circumvented and/or countered.

  50. #50 TB
    July 2, 2010

    BSCI: “You’re right to say this touches multiple issues, but is the gain from 3 instead of 2 examples a useful prioritization of space?”

    Perhaps not, but you wanted to cut it down to one example.

    “I’m calling the piece mediocre based on it’s goals. It’s goal was to communicate a clear point of view to the people who read it (both scientists and non-scientists). While disagreement is fine, the responses and lack of understanding of the piece show that it’s fallen short of clarity.”

    Clarity? None of the criticisms listed so far highlighted clarity as a problem. And I pointed out the goal: “it’s intent is to inform a mass media audience using a limited amount of print space …” and ” …For many it was an introduction to the entire issue.”

    I’m just not convinced by your arguments.

    “I’ll also call you out on blaming this on New Atheists. I’ve never seen several of the prominent critics like, Orac and PalMD, call themselves “New Atheist” or express that point of view. I definitely don’t fit in that label. It’s generally not considered a good persuasion skill to assume anyone who disagrees with you is part of group X and can therefore be ignored.”

    I didn’t call Orac or PalMD or you “New Atheists.” The remark wasn’t directed at you, but to Chad. I have no idea if you fall into that camp. But you could certainly put PZ in that camp, and over at Intersection the first comment on this thread …

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2010/06/29/do-scientists-understand-the-public-or-the-media/#comment-62141

    … on the subject started out with …

    “Crud, I sully myself by venturing onto this blog to comment, …”

    You think maybe a few posters are coming at this with some preconceived notions? If you don’t want to self-identify as a New Atheist, that’s fine – I wasn’t labeling you as such.

    But seriously, too often I’ve had commentors assure me that “New Atheists don’t believe X…” and then someone who self-identifies as a New Atheist comes along and defends X to the high heavens.

    Zach seems to be an example of this: There are those who self-identify as “New Atheists” who do not necessarily know what other people who self-identify as “New Atheists” think and say. And many times they don’t necessarily agree with them.

    So, to Zach, who I mistakenly assumed had nefarious motives (sorry about that friendly fire), I have to point out in reply to “New Atheists do not generally treat theistic evolutionists as “in the same camp” or “equal to” creationists in any way.”

    Coyne: “Although Giberson and Miller see themselves as opponents of creationism, in devising a compatibility between science and religion they finally converge with their opponents. In fact, they exhibit at least three of the four distinguishing traits of creationists: belief in God, the intervention of God in nature, and a special role for God in the evolution of humans. They may even show the fourth trait, a belief in irreducible complexity, by proposing that a soul could not have evolved, but was inserted by God.”

    Moran: “The difference between Ken Miller and Michael Behe is trivial compared to the difference between Ken Miller and Richard Dawkins. Coyne is not the only one who has trouble seeing why Behe isn’t a theistic evolutionist and Miller isn’t an intelligent design creationist.”

    Rosenhouse acknowledged that some have already taken that step and warned against it:

    “This is a prelude to an argument that Miller and Giberson are effectively creationists themselves.
    There are a number of people on my side of the issue who go this route. Carving out space for a meaningful Christian faith within an evolutionary view of the world, it is argued, somehow reduces you to the level of a creationist. Considering that, among scientists, calling someone a “creationist” is pretty close to calling them an ignorant jerk, I think we ought to be real careful about how we apply the term.”

    I think he’s been ignored:

    Moran: “Theistic Evolution is a form of creationism that limits God’s involvement in the creation event. ”

    And just a few of the commenters I see all the time:

    “And yes, if you are religious, you are not a real scientist, that’s correct. Hopefully the mistake will not be made and we will be spared having to listen to creationists bringing up Francis Collins as an example of not only a very outspoken religious scientist, but of a very outspoken religious Nobel Laureate in the field that clashes with religion the hardest”
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2010/06/21/science-and-religion-dialogue-at-the-aaas/#comment-61132

    “Indeed, any useful definition of creationist encompasses Collins very specific belief in a designer/interventionist deity.”
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2010/06/21/science-and-religion-dialogue-at-the-aaas/#comment-61315

    I don’t point all that out to dredge up an old argument, but simply to note that Zach may not represent what a “New Atheists” is. I think it would be useful if someone like Zach were commissioned to write the official “New Atheist” platform as he seems like a reasonable person, but until then we’re stuck with the evidence we have.

    I will agree that it’s wrong to make assumptions about specific people. Hey, when I’m wrong about a specific person I apologize. But I don’t see enough evidence to disprove the observation I made to Chad. Indeed, I’ve just provided evidence to support my analysis and if need be I can provide more.

    If someone has a problem with that observation, I would recommend changing the conditions that contributed to forming that observation. Or stop self-identifying with a movement until that movement is more completely defined.

  51. #51 TB
    July 2, 2010

    I have a comment in moderation, due to the number of links included.

  52. #52 TB
    July 2, 2010

    Ah, and there it is! I do want to emphasis a few things:

    – I’m not going to get into a discussion regarding who’s a creationist and who isn’t. That wasn’t my intent in posting those quotes and links. I’m merely showing that I didn’t produce my analysis in a vacuum.

    – I’m pointing out the political goals of the “New Atheists” conflict with the political goals of science communicators such as Mooney, specifically regarding religion and how to perceive the religious. That conflict has contributed to ill feelings toward Mooney that carry over into other areas and that is what I’m pointing out to Chad. With that understanding, I have to say that I’m also not interested in dredging up the “accommodationist” debates.

    – Zach questioned my analysis and that’s fine. I’ve provided evidence to back up my analysis. I can provide more. I do believe NAism exhibits the characteristics of a political movement. And in that context, it’s fair to point out messages that come from people who self-identify as NAs – both major figures and foot soldiers. If someone disagrees with those messages that’s fine. But it doesn’t change the fact that those messages are associated with NAism as I have shown.

    – I did not address Zach’s observations about “accomodationists” because A) I disagree with it and B) I’m really not interested in dredging up the “accommodationist” debates here, as I said above.

  53. #53 Chad Orzel
    July 2, 2010

    I’m pointing out the political goals of the “New Atheists” conflict with the political goals of science communicators such as Mooney, specifically regarding religion and how to perceive the religious. That conflict has contributed to ill feelings toward Mooney that carry over into other areas and that is what I’m pointing out to Chad.

    Believe me, I’m familiar with the different political goals of Mooney and the New Atheists. I’m less committed to it than Chris, but I’ve made the same argument about incompatible goals before, and gotten the charming comments that come with such discussions. I’m really not interested in hosting a repeat of that particular pissing contest, so let’s try to bring this line of argument to a close.

  54. #54 Chris Mooney
    July 2, 2010

    I’ve added my own gloss to the Zach Voch/Chad Orzel criticisms and responses list.

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2010/07/02/more-responses-on-scientists-understanding-of-the-public/

    thanks everyone for a valuable dialogue

    chris

  55. #55 TB
    July 2, 2010

    Chad: Agreed!

  56. #56 Zach Voch
    July 2, 2010

    TB,

    This is your original statement:

    This is characterized by lumping all religious – even religious scientists – into the same camp, even going so far as to redefine the popular notion of creationist to describe them.

    Now, my response is that I haven’t seen this done in a way that misrepresents theistic evolutionists or assigns moral equivalence, a message I tried to convey with this:

    New Atheists do not generally treat theistic evolutionists as “in the same camp” or “equal to” creationists in any way. In the technical sense, theistic evolutionists can be said to believe in “intelligent designers” and “creators” (Miller himself said this), but obviously, this is not a conflation of TE with ID. I haven’t seen this behavior by any of the New Atheists I have read, at least not in any way that is designed to be deceitful.

    Note that I qualified the “equal to” statement with the line concerning technical sense, and I emphasized the importance of not conflating ID/creationism with TE. I don’t think that Coyne, Moran, etc were lumping together in any crude way, at least not in those passages.

    Now let’s look at what Coyne said. He noted traits that are common to creationism and theistic evolution as positions. For Moran, the second is also, so far as I can tell, true, (or if you disagree, at least tenable). For Moran’s first quote, he gets into more dangerous territory, as this is a value judgment. The reference to Coyne in this quote reminds me of his New Republic review of Miller/Gibberson. Coyne noted that Behe and Miller used similar arguments for their positions. Behe, among the IDers, accepts nearly all of evolution. The key distinction between Miller and Behe positionally is over political agendas (morally, there’s no comparison IMO). With Dawkins and Miller, there are far more philosophical and positional differences.

    So, I willingly grant that Rosenhouse’s caution which you referred to should be applied. However, I still do not view these comments as dishonest or conflationary. If somebody says that non-accommodationists and creationists are similar in that they find a conflict between Christianity and science, they’d be right! The question is whether or not Moran or Coyne drew a moral equivalence between the TE crowd and the ID crowd up to value judgments, and up to facts, the question is whether or not this was done using lies and misrepresentation.

    On the comments you found, yes we agree that that guy is a moron and that’s exactly what we should be avoiding. In defense of Coyne (I don’t read Moran as frequently) and other New Atheists, they maintain that religious people can be/often are great scientists. GM was spouting the straw man New Atheists reject most strenuously.

    tl;dr: The examples you gave didn’t contradict my position. Yes, I’ve seen New Atheists make observations like “technically, the positions are similar,” but they do not, as a rule, equivocate on this matter, and quite frequently, they speak against the sort of nonsense you rightly disdain in GM’s comment.

    This is my complaint: though there are certainly examples of the behavior which you’ve noted (the comments), it is another thing entirely to claim that this is representative of those who identify as New Atheists. It’s certainly not representative of any of the “big names” in New Atheism.

    Moving on:

    But seriously, too often I’ve had commentors assure me that “New Atheists don’t believe X…” and then someone who self-identifies as a New Atheist comes along and defends X to the high heavens.

    Zach seems to be an example of this: There are those who self-identify as “New Atheists” who do not necessarily know what other people who self-identify as “New Atheists” think and say. And many times they don’t necessarily agree with them.

    I think the confusion here is understandable… New Atheists are pretty good about disagreeing with each other as well. Agreeing with you, I don’t think it’s a well defined group either. Perhaps I should write a platform :D

    Another note: though I identify as a New Atheist because I agree with them as much or more than any other similar type of group, that doesn’t mean that I’ve committed myself to group mentality. I do not claim to represent New Atheists at all. I think the danger in having a label like this is that it leads to undesirable group behaviors.

    If I had first come online and spent time at The Intersection/TFK before reading New Atheists, I’d have a different view, perhaps. I have taken it upon myself to go back and read some of the comments that New Atheists have left. There are plenty of morons, I’ll say! I’ve had to go after several of them myself. The question is this: do we continue to give the benefit of the doubt to any given New Atheist (or accommodationist, similar considerations apply) and treat him/her as an individual, or do we treat him/her as a member of a group (in particular, focusing on the worst examples of the group)?

    I’ll try circulating a tentative platform, actually. I doubt that it’ll succeed :p

  57. #57 Zach Voch
    July 2, 2010

    And TB, no need to apologize again. I’ll bet that you have encountered ill-natured posts frequently enough to have learned to assume the worst. I think that your intentions are honest.

    And of course, I sometimes make that mistake as well.

    You’ve distinguished yourself as a sincere, thoughtful commentator, quite distinct from a fisking-bent ideologue with your responses alone. So again, no need to apologize.

    Interestingly, getting involved with the comments here as opposed to just lurking all the time has actually increased my hope in the internet. That’s different than most places. Just sayin.

  58. #58 Zach Voch
    July 2, 2010

    And I’ll put out a similar qualifying post as yours at #52.

    I noted that the end of my post that you responded to was an observation of what I perceived to be the substantive disagreement between Mooney and NAs. It wasn’t to put out the position as fact.

    So, I don’t want to go through the accommodationism arguments here (maybe some other time), but I felt that the nature of the argument was certainly relevant as context for the quotes you provided.

    That said, I agree with you that the key differences are political. It’s a question of approach.

  59. #59 Zach Voch
    July 2, 2010

    Forgive me for putting down a fourth consecutive post, but this picks up from my talk with TB, and since it mentions him, I think that he should be able to look at it.

    http://zachvoch.blogspot.com/2010/07/new-atheism-or-problem-of.html

    tl;dr I’ve decided to not identify myself as a “New Atheist” anymore in the interest of accurate communication and avoiding groupthink traps.

  60. #60 GM
    July 2, 2010

    A single paragraph copy-pasted from another thread rarely reveals the whole story, so let me clarify:

    Yes, I stand firm on what I said about Collins. It doesn’t mean that the man has not contributed a lot to science. But he is a creationist as everyone who has heard him talk and has basic critical thinking skills would have noticed. And he is not a “real scientist” as he is guilty in egregious violation of the basic epistemological rules of science. People have been fired for research misconduct when they didn’t bother to do controls for their experiments (which, ironically, were good experiments, and the conclusions still stand). When asked why they didn’t do the controls, they replied that it didn’t matter as they were certain that the experiments worked. Collins, and every person who claims that God exists because he “has faith” does exactly the same thing and it would be research misconduct in every other case, except that, even more ironically, it does not concern an experiment in the lab on something fairly small and insignificant in the cosmic scheme of things, but it concerns the grandest claim one can make about the Universe.

    What TB has listed here in what he produces at The Intersection consists of little more than mere assertions of how wrong my take on things is. Why is it wrong according to him? It never becomes clear as he rarely bothers to provide argumentation. Just because something looks appalling to you, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong…

  61. #61 Zach Voch
    July 3, 2010

    GM,

    First, there’s a difference between misconduct in the research lab and what we might call intellectual misconduct or laziness, even if we grant the latter in the case of Collins.

    Are there no distinctions between the ethical concerns here? I could list the relevant information, but I’ll mention “employment,” “use of funds and resources,” and “opinion right or wrong” as key items to include in your considerations.

    Personally, and I think this is an accurate characterization of other more widely known positions, I feel that the incompatibility between science and religion comes from implications of scientific results, not the fact that theistic conclusions are formed outside of the lab.

    You would do well to note that some of the things you have said are actually items that bloggers like Coyne have listed as caricatures and straw men of the non-accommodationist position. Just a “hey maybe I should ask them why” suggestion.

    Also, I’m not interested in purity oaths and other things. “Scientist” is a job description, not some idealistic model.

    Again, one can disagree with Collins, but this does not mean that he’s guilty of some tremendous ethical failure.

    It’s also equivocation and confusion to conflate “creationist” with “theistic evolutionist” for several reasons. Pay attention to the connotations associated with the term “creationist,” and you’ll understand why statements like this will be taken as careless smears.

  62. #62 GM
    July 3, 2010

    First, “Scientists” is not a job description, it has never been and should never be. The members of the Royal Society in the 16th century were not scientists by job description. Neither was Galileo or Darwin. If you see it as a job, you are a victim of the pervasive anti-intellectual sentiment that has permeated most of society’s views of science – it exists to bring cures to disease, develop technologies, stimulate economic growth, etc. No, it’s none of that, those are side effects. The goal of science is to understand the world around us. It was called natural philosophy before it became “science” and for a reason. Questions regarding God were very much a topic of study back then.

    So if you are ready to believe in the grandest possible claims about the world around us on faith, then how confident can I be in your commitment to advancing science towards its goal of understanding the world? You already came to the game with a preconceived views of it. In the case of Collins, it comes down either to basic intellectual honesty or to basic scientific literacy. There is absolutely no way to reconcile the neutral theory of molecular evolution with any form of Christianity. Absolutely none. You are a mathematicians, so you may not understand why, but I do not say this because I have an agenda, it is simply the case. Collins was the head of the HGP, current head of NIH, a world-renown geneticist. So he either doesn’t understand the neutral theory of molecular evolution, in which case he is a very poor scientist, or he is lying when he says that evolution is compatible with Christianity. Or, what’s worse, he knows about the problem, but lets his religious convictions influence his views on the subject. I don’t see another possibility.

    Regarding the term creationist: if you recall correctly, Coyne and Moran promoted the term “New Creationist” to describe people like Collins and Miller. And as I am sure you are aware, the people who believe in literal reading of Genesis, are called Young Earth Creationists. And there are Old Earth Creationists, and other variations of the theme. So it is technically correct to call them all creationists, as they all belong to the same continuum of views. Nobody has called them Young Earth Creationists so don’t claim that.

  63. #63 Zach Voch
    July 3, 2010

    So if you are ready to believe in the grandest possible claims about the world around us on faith..

    I’m not.

    …then how confident can I be in your commitment to advancing science towards its goal of understanding the world?

    Don’t be, for all anybody cares. As scientific fact is open to independent testing, feel free to contest any result you find shaky. The “commitment” of the scientist has nothing to do with the truth value/reliability of the evidence they provide and claims they make, barring differences in practice.

    So again, the problem becomes one of being able to function as a scientist, say, as a job, of being able to honestly apply the methodology. We’ve no place “disqualifying” religious scientists any more than we’ve any place “disqualifying” politically-affiliated scientists. Or scientists who enjoy beer and football. It’s a question of relevance to practice.

    You are a mathematicians, so you may not understand…

    Apparently not. My experience with logic is doing me no favors here.

    Have I mentioned that I’m not an accommodationist? And further, that I feel that (most popular versions of) Christianity have difficulties in light of the science?

    And with that… I’ve lost the desire to continue. Just do me one favor, GM. Ask prominent non-accommodationists like Coyne/Moran/Myers/Blackford/Benson if they agree with you. If not, at least be sure to warn people.

  64. #64 GM
    July 3, 2010

    Sorry to say it, but I am not at all positively impressed by the way you answered my post above.

    I’m not.

    What made you think that I was talking to you?

    As scientific fact is open to independent testing, feel free to contest any result you find shaky. The “commitment” of the scientist has nothing to do with the truth value/reliability of the evidence they provide and claims they make, barring differences in practice.

    Yes, the problem is that there is no result here, there is an empty claim with no evidence to back it up that is taken on faith, together with the whole elaborate house of cards built around it. Your problem is that you do not see the existence of God as a scientific question, that’s why you think there is no problem if a scientist has faith in God. But that’s not the case.

    So again, the problem becomes one of being able to function as a scientist, say, as a job, of being able to honestly apply the methodology. We’ve no place “disqualifying” religious scientists any more than we’ve any place “disqualifying” politically-affiliated scientists. Or scientists who enjoy beer and football. It’s a question of relevance to practice.

    I spend some time trying to explain why that science is not a job. Why did you feel compel to state again that it is? Not good way to have conversation…

    Apparently not. My experience with logic is doing me no favors here.

    Again, what made you think that this was intended to be an insult? I don’t understand a lot of the more esoteric math, and I don’t fell bad at all when my mathematician friends explain it to me. The purpose of that statement was to indicate that it will take more time and effort to explain that claim than there was available, but this doesn’t mean that the claim was not true.

    Have I mentioned that I’m not an accommodationist?

    What made you think I didn’t know that?

    And with that… I’ve lost the desire to continue. Just do me one favor, GM. Ask prominent non-accommodationists like Coyne/Moran/Myers/Blackford/Benson if they agree with you.

    In public or in private?

  65. #65 Zach Voch
    July 3, 2010

    I don’t expect you to be impressed. I treated your comment with sarcasm and irony… That’s all I could manage.

    Your response was another blowing past of all distinctions. If you can’t recognize them, I’m not interested in making them repeatedly.

    I don’t intend to waste your time further. I have to admit that at this point I’m not taking you seriously.

  66. #66 GM
    July 3, 2010

    Well, that’s one way to get out of a conversation that’s gotten too inconvenient for you.

  67. #67 TB
    July 3, 2010

    I’ll take my responses to Zach over to his blog (if I can post there), but as a taster: I was born in the 60s, followed the events of the ’80s, watched the rise of ID in the ’90s and read with delight every word of the Kitzmiller trial in the ’00s.
    In that light, a creationist is anyone who seeks to impose their religion on others by teaching it as science in public school. These people are still around and still working to undermine science. Witness Texas.

  68. #68 Zach Voch
    July 3, 2010

    TB,

    I’ve put the relevant parts of #56 at my blog to continue.

  69. #69 bsci
    July 3, 2010

    This thread has gone a different way, but I figured I’d reply to TB’s post #50.

    I suggested cutting the piece to two examples stating the problem (enough to show it’s not an anomaly) and one example showing a solution that was successfully applied.

    I’ll also stand by my comment that the piece lacked some clarity. You don’t need many people complaining something is unclear for it to be unclear. If you have multiple people seeming to pull contracting messages from the same text and wondering why things were omitted because it seemed like half-stories were presented, then it could have been more clear.

    As these comment thread show, there’s no question that some people who self-identify as “new atheist” will attack any of Mooney’s writing, but this piece has seemed to attract a good bit of criticism from beyond that group and ignoring that fact is a way to ignore their critiques.

    As a factual aside, Francis Collins is the director of the NIH. I’m fairly sure he’s not a Nobel Laureate.

  70. #70 penguindreams
    July 3, 2010

    Going back to 36:
    However, I do think that researcher who aren’t great public communicators should recognize that they’re not, and stay out of policy making.

    This illustrates one of my recurring puzzlements, which is often incited, as this one has been, by a Mooney article. Namely, you list, by my count, 3 different areas that you think scientists should be expert in. Or at least they should become so if they find themselves working in a field that becomes a hot button:

    What generally happens is that a field becomes a political hot button over a period of years, which provides ample warning for someone to start developing communication skills, if they’re paying attention.

    Not clear is whether you think they should abandon the field if it becomes hot button. Not a snark; if people should be developing certain skills for some situation, then those who don’t want to or can’t should be doing something else — what is the something else?

    You list 3 expertises in the first quote — science, public communication, and public policy. While it would certainly be nice if everybody with the first expertise also had the other two, as it would also be if all public communicators had the other two, or the public policy people had the other two, the idea raises two questions. 1) Why is it always and only the scientists who are responsible for developing new fields of expertise? Why does no responsibility exist for the public communicators to learn science, or public policy makers to learn science? 2) Why does anybody think it plausible that all scientists can be experts in those other two fields?

    There’s a notion out there that it takes 10,000 hours to become expert at something. I don’t worry much about the precision in that, or its research backing. It does have some correspondence to the time involved in a graduate program in science. It also looks more or less reasonable for public communication, based on my knowledge of what my journalism student acquaintances spent in school and the first years afterwards to become expert public communicators.

    Regardless, it takes time and effort to become expert. Now, in my particular sub-sub-…field we went from being something nobody except us paid attention to, to quite a lot of attention, and even some ‘hot button’. It took 3 months. If the only thing I’d worked on was becoming a master public communicator, I’d have been, say, 9500 hours short of expertise. And not at all done my job.

    Let the time span for transition to hot button be 3 years. But also let the person spend 90% of the time doing the job they’d been hired for. Still only a few months time to become an expert in public communication, or in public policy. Perhaps the folks are colleges and university can be considered to have public communication as a part of their job. But rather a lot of scientists don’t work for universities, and many universities are more concerned about grants than public communication.

    So, do those saying that scientists should be experts in public communication or in public policy believe that those areas are so trivial that they can be mastered in just a few months?

    If those other areas are taken seriously, which I think they should be, then mastery is about as difficult there as for science. In that case, if scientists are to be required to be masters in science, public communication, and public policy, then the graduate program in science should be tripled in length.

    So I see three options:
    1) Those other fields are so trivial that scientists can indeed master them in a little spare time, or in a few pressed months.

    2) It is important enough that scientists master public communication and public policy that they should be required to triple their time in graduate school.

    or
    3) The other fields are not trivial, and it is not reasonable to expect scientists to be masters of them.

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