A simple way to get the antiscience crowd to come around?

Chris Mooney- a man with his heart in the right place and absolutely no idea what do do after that. Don't get me wrong, I like the guy. He's a force for good when dissecting a scientific issue for the public. But Mooney has been trucking out this same "communication" bullshit for a few years now. As usual, nothing much is offered other than "listen to them". I agree, communication is important, and scientists need to listen as much as talk. Ok..... then what? If, as he says, so many people only consider science as a small part of forming their opinions, what makes him think that they're even open to changing their minds? By his own logic in the article, antivacc'ers are more interested in the science than the general public, yet impervious to sound interpretations of it. So are anti-evolution folk. So are climate change deniers.

Mooney: Listen the Fuck UP. Just because some segments of the population are interested in cherry-picking data doesn't mean they have any interest in dialogue, in sharing information, in reformulating their opinions, in understanding the process of science, or in interpreting the data in light of the larger framework that they are willfully misunderstanding. This is true by your own logic.

Secondly- stop making the false dichotomy of scientists vs "the public". Um, hello, we're not always this misanthropic insular group that only shuffles between home and the lab by moonlight, shunning all interpersonal interactions. We have families, we take our kids to ballgames, we do our own sports clubs, we volunteer at churches and animal shelters, we go out on the weekends. Some of us engage in public outreach quite regularly, we tell the public about our research in a host of settings from evolution dialogues at colleges and churches to practical public health dissemination at dormitories. We answer questions and discuss the consequences of our research.

In fact, Chris, we are the public. Not every scientist is an expert outside their field. We rely on the news, Scienceblogs, Discoverblogs, SciAm, the NYT, and other popular outlets for our info and interpretations. We don't always go to the primary literature for the same reasons "the public" doesn't. When I need to know about global warming, I hit realclimate.org and The Intersection, because these sites distill the science well (btw thank you Chris and Sheril).

Mooney cites a Pew study that says the general public is generally positive on the scientific community, it's the scientists who are wary of the media. Maybe if those in the media and popular press would stop treating us like a different species, "the people" who we don't reach would feel less wary about trusting us when the data we generate challenges their preconceptions. Maybe if the media would stop treating everything like a "controversy", and stop giving free air time for dissemination of misinformation, we wouldn't have to spend our time debunking crap that was debunked 150 years ago (in the case of evolution) and could focus more on education. Here's an example; anybody even remotely familiar with the "controversy" surrounding mercury and autism knows who Andrew Wakefield is. He gets mentioned in practically every article and gets the media's "equal time" treatment, even though the guy is a total slime and we've known it for years. How many legitimate medical researchers, on the other hand, get more than a two-sentence quote? How many autism researchers fighting the good fight get profiled to the extent that Wakefield does? If you're not in the field, can you even name an autism researcher on the other side of the line from Wakefield?

So what can scientists do? Well, we have to pull double-duty debunking misconceptions of the data and of scientists in general. Universities and especially tenure committees need to be more supportive of scientists devoting time to outreach, especially for those conducting the so-called "lightning rod" research. That means more settings where scientists take the practical side of their research and tell the public about it, before it becomes an issue (which admittedly is about the only thing Mooney lays out as a strategy, even though he doesn't get into the nuts and bolts). Kids need to be made aware of how vaccines benefit them and the population as a whole. The general public needs to understand how evolution impacts their local ecosystems. We need to get out there and engage the public more, as scientists we've always fell short here. More scientists need to consider media-based careers, like Phil Plait. More scientists need to speak up in church if they hear bullshit getting peddled. More scientists need to sit on school boards. If you're a scientist and you're active in politics, find somebody like-minded in the opposing political party and organize a politics-free teachable moment where both sides of the aisle show up and see each other as human beings with common science-based problems that transcend their petty politics. Find ways to have teach-ins with legislators and staffers at the state and federal levels, if possible.

There, I've already done more than Mooney. I've made a couple concrete suggestions for how the problem needs to be addressed. Go check out PalMD's blog post for a good response to Mooney's article.

Let's actually do more than just listen.

More like this

Look, here's the one thing that the scientific community doesn't do that would help.

It's what the denialists do that get them their traction.

Hire a think tank. Charge them with developing teams of writers to write hard-hitting articles that put the real science out there on the issues. They also have to woo big money (this can be done, believe me).

Hire a team of lobbyists. Have them target certain politicians and offer them whatever it takes to get on board with the actual science, not the pseudo-science.
If some of your guys slip up and get involved in ethics scandals, drop them like hot potatoes and get new ones. This is attrition warfare, you'll lose a few, that's part of the game.

Hire a team of aggressive crack lawyers to represent scientists in court and also to aggressively go after denialists who print, say, or do stuff that is, or could be, prosecutable. Don't worry too much about sham charges as long as the PR slants the way you want it. By the time the corrections come out (which no one pays much attention to anyway) the damage on the targeted denialists will be done.

You can find the resources to do this. If there's money to build particle colliders and space telescopes, then there money to kickstart a think tank and hire some lobbyists and lawyers.

This is attrition warfare. You locate denialists, defame them, remove them as a threat. Set the next target. Repeat.

I'm telling you, this is how you're getting creamed.
You are not organized.

These blogs and places like Climate Progress, etc are good steps in the right direction.

But you need an army. You need money, you need lawyers, you need lobbyists, and you need clear targets to focus those resources on.

Right now, you're standing around being all truthy and stuff while the other side shoots your limbs off one by one.

Not a workable strategy, sorry.

"There, I've already done more than Mooney".

Written three books on science and public policy recently, have you? Get your hand off it.

I totally agree with James. For some reason, communication of science is way underfunded. We certainly can't rely on the media to do it. We need to get people who can communicate in the way the public understands. Scientists often rely on data, which doesn't connect with the public as much as certainty and emotion-based appeals. A lot of scientists feel this is manipulative, but we need to get over it. We're bringing a knife to a gun fight.

Yogi, we cannot use the same tactics they do. They rely on lies. Science cannot do that.

Ironically, James, that's exactly the kind of thing that Mooney would say scientists do wrong, per the article.

Mooney writes decent books for a living, and gets paid to talk to a small audience for an hour at a time about them. I teach college students how to think critically about science. I also involve myself in scientific outreach and do more than just "present facts", I engage the participants. Scientists and educators like me are the ones on the ground, the ones that Mooney and Nisbett alienate.

Which do you think has a more lasting impact? Writing a book, or teaching it to people?

When it comes to this anti-vaccine movement, I always remember one class of microbiology I had two years ago. Our professor was a Jesuit priest was talking about vaccines and vaccination in general. He recall the event at his time in Georgetown, where he was getting his PhD in Microbiology and Immunology. He had to go to a hospital and give last rite to three year old child in ICU dying diphtheria. He asked his parents why didn't the child did not get DPT vaccine to prevent this from happening. The father's answer was he did not believe in vaccination. He jokingly told us that security had to keep him from beating up father. The professor is cheerful and caring man, but to this day I remember the hint of emotion in his voice and I can't imagine rage he felt for that man when telling a story.

The problem that scientific community has at this moment in regard to anti-vaccine movement(evolution is whole another matter) is the use of emotion as a tool, and glut of resources this movement has at their disposal. Those spearheading the movement are using a combination of ignorance and fear for parents making them believe vaccines are dangerous, and diet of grass wheat and whatever is capable of curing autism. I only have a bachelor degree in science compare to MD and PhD of PalMD and Drug Monkey, the only way I can see to handle this situation is remind people what is at stake for there child without vaccinations, and show the who is profiting from anti-vaccine movement. Remind them the son or daughter will become that three year old in ICU dying, while in the background someone is profiting from scared parents with New Way treatment.

But this is multi-facet problem and I can only think of way to handle one facet.

EM, I think you have totally missed the point of Mooney's article. Mooney is saying that people treat particular controversies (climate change, vaccines/autism, nuclear waste disposal) as symbolic acts in a deeper political struggle. In the last paragraph of the first page he writes:

"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."

And these underlying causes/fears are often more reasonable and flexible than the controversy de jour. Micro-regulation by "big government" IS an impost on business. The pharma industry and the sorry excuse for a medical/healthcare establishment the US has HAVE committed outrageous abuses and are corrupt. And nuclear issues, especially health effects, ARE something that governments routinely lie about under the protective veil of "national security". It so happens that in the specific cases highlighted, people's worries about these general issues are leading them in the wrong direction, and when they meet an expert like you, their reaction is "well, he would say that, wouldn't he?".

What Mooney is advocating is that scientists endeavour to engage with the underlying general issues. The fanatic single-issue cultists, being people who mistake the symbol with the message, will then wither on the vine in the absence of a broad support base (same tactic is usually used for counter-insurgency campaigns, incidentally). So for the US this might mean: linking carbon-emissions limitation to broader tax and regulatory reform ("we have this new revenue stream from carbon permits, so we can lift these other taxes which are much more business unfriendly"); cleaning up the incestuous relationship between "big pharma" and doctors by forbidding all those freebies and requiring public disclosure of all drug trial results, including unsuccessful ones; and shutting some of the revolving doors between government regulators and private industry in the energy and weapons businesses. Failing actually doing something about these concerns (on the grounds that they are outside your power/remit/etc) at least acknowledging them and discussing why they are irrelevant to the case at hand, rather than ignoring the issue, can have suprisingly positive results. Given that scientists are members of the public, as you point out, you might well have something to say about those points as well.

"Hire a think tank. Charge them with developing teams of writers to write hard-hitting articles that put the real science out there on the issues."

Yeah! Establish institutions where "colleges" of scientists collaborate and have (as one of their duties) communicating with the public!

James, thanks for that post. It is insightful and what we need to hear (and frankly that would make a better op-ed than Mooney's if it were re-targeted slightly, so go write and submit it, seriously).

EM, I am truly flattered. In the spirit of reciprocity, I apologise for my irritable opening remarks. However, since I am a nobody who hasn't completed his PhD yet (and also not an American), I somehow doubt that anyone will be publishing any op-eds by me anytime soon.

James- And Chris Mooney's Ph.D. is in.....? :) Don't know until you try. Friends and colleagues of mine have had shit published in WaPo, what matters is how you present yourself. Yeah you're probably not going to get an OpEd there, but there are other rags and other types of submissions to that rag for which you may get lucky.

Spit shine it and get your voice out there.

Where is the money going to come from to do what Chris and yogi suggest?

There are underlying economic reasons as to why certain denialists viewpoints are supported and able to spread their message to hit the right frames. Chris does point to them but never seems to actual want to deal with the actual socio-economic issues, focussing instead on those "others, those scientists". As you correctly point out, what Chris is doing is feeding the frame that scientists are different, not part of our society. Science is a part of society not separate from it.

By ponderingfool (not verified) on 29 Jun 2010 #permalink

If I may, the discussion here misses a mountain of social science evidence, and a good does from neuroscience as well, that explains why people's perceptions of fact are not always 'factual'. This is not about science literacy. As Antonio D'Amasio's work in "Descartes Error" showed, and much other evidence supports, the human animal uses an affective system to perceive the world...a combination of fact and feeling, cognition and intuition, reason and gut reaction, cortex and limbic system.
Many of the strongest of these debates about whether the public "gets it" center around risk-related issues, and for good reason. Risk perception taps survival systems, which are sensitive and powerful and more emotion-based than reason-based. Forgive the self-promotion, but I have tried to bring the evidence on risk perception from various fields together in "How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts". With examples including vaccines, nukes climate change, and lots of other risk issues, it explains why our fears don't match the facts, and WHY THEY NEVER WILL, at least at this point in human evolution

Pal, the think tank doesn't have to lie to be effective - does it? I'm thinking of the Daily Show.

The scientists are not organized. We generally are all just off being all truthy among ourselves, while the organized, well-oiled, well-funded propaganda machines of the opposition spin furiously day and night.

@yogi-one: Perhaps you're trying to be ironic but personally I'm not comfortable with some of those suggestions especially if we are supposed to "not worry about sham charges". I also think that the idea that we are somehow being 'creamed' is unsupported.

Back to the article: I think Mooney is incorrect on a number of points not to mention makes some pretty broad assertions for which he provides zero support.

e.g. "But once again, the skeptics aren't simply ignorant people."

I'd assert that most of the anti-vaccine folk I read are most charitably described not only as ignorant but seemingly engaged in keeping themselves and in some cases others so. Consider that what many anti-vaccine folk cry for are vaxed/unvaxed studies which would likely not quell their fears. Either they are unaware that the population of unvaxed is just too small to provide them with what is likely a satisfactory result in which case they are ignorant or they know and they are promoting this anyway in which case they are something worse. Neither of these seem to be about Mooneys idea that this is about distrust of Big Pharma. Considering the lengths that places like AoA go to manufacture a conflict of interest (and how eager they are to dismiss those of people like Wakefield) it's difficult to believe that any group of scientists would be trusted to perform this study.

That said, more and more I wish there was some more 'tangible' evidences of supporting scientific skepticism. For example, why shouldn't we have a legal defense fund for scientists and skeptical writers?...and why the heck can't I buy organic milk where the cows weren't treated homeopathically (I wish I was joking about this).

Enough with the circular firing squad. We need lots of different kinds of talents and approaches. A reminder not to be so testy is not out of place, on diplomatic/communication grounds, and with a dedicated movement well described in Mooney's Republican War on Science (I read the updated 2004 paperback which is almost a "bible" on denial) poised to use every trick in the book to push their agenda, and make it about you instead of the issues, don't give them fuel.

I particularly loved Storm World which is a superb history of hurricanes and hurricane science.

I was at first disappointed by the third book, but realized this was a natural progression. Having thoroughly researched the evolving "science" of denial, and explored the byways of one type of climate, it seems natural to move towards encouraging action and exploring ways to communicate better.

One thing I've noticed that pleases me is that scientists are finally supporting the idea of changing the automatic disclaimer about the relationship between weather and climate. It is now OK to mention that extreme weather is characteristic of the type of thing we may expect. This is a road to communication for ordinary people - get away from your computer screen, and check on weather and its effects in a larger long-term sense (global, decades).

By Susan Anderson (not verified) on 02 Jul 2010 #permalink

No accident that science is misunderstood. It is by design! Yup. Language science tells us that normal speech is seldom misunderstood and that such speech is about 60% redundant and loaded with stock phrases & cliches. It is the redundancy and the contextual cues that stock phrases & cliche add that sort out alternate meanings and CONVEY.

Editors comb reports for EVIL REDUNDANCY and see cliche as loose thought not derived from content. Then, of course, you need to sound smart when talking to others who say some rather ordinary stuff in a way only the editor on 16th rewrite understands.

Mooney cites a Pew study that says the general public is generally positive on the scientific community, it's the scientists who are wary of the media. Maybe if those in the media and popular press would stop treating us like a different species, "the people" who we don't reach would feel less wary about trusting us when the data we generate challenges their preconceptions.