Denying Science – All a Big Miscommunication?

About the author

Ania
Scientist, Geek, Passionate about Communicating Science, Foodie. Australian doing a Post-Doc in Boston, USA!

10 Comments

  1. comment-avatar
    Robert MerkelJune 17, 2014 - 11:48 am

    Nice piece.

    You might be interested in some of the work of the “Cultural Cognition Project”. Not to paraphrase too much, but part of the challenge is that it seems to be when science challenges people’s cultural worldviews, rather than altering their worldviews people reject the relevant science.

    I’d also point to failings in the way science was, and I believe to a large extent still is, taught in schools. Too many scientific facts, not enough scientific method.

    • comment-avatar
      AniaJune 17, 2014 - 1:23 pm

      Thanks! I agree about failings in scientific teaching also! Perhaps the subject of another post? I will definitely check out the Cultural Cognition Project, thank you for the advice!

  2. comment-avatar
    And Then There's PhysicsJune 17, 2014 - 1:13 pm

    Very interesting post, and I certainly don’t know if it is simply miscommunication or not (although, I would argue, that it’s not only this). However, I have recently become embroiled in some discussions that have involved physicists (myself being one) and Science and Technology Studies researchers (social scientists). What I have found (and this is still a view that I have to fully form and understand) is that there appear to be some at the science/policy/society interface who are presenting a view of science that is not consistent with my own view of science. Science (the physical sciences at least) is a process of gaining understanding of some system (be it the universe, our climate, biological systems) that involves collecting and analysing evidence – which could be observations, measurements, theories, models. Science also has a set of fundamental laws that – if violated – would invalidate an idea/theory. So, even though an individual piece of work could have errors and could be influenced by the researcher’s biases, if others start to test such ideas and find errors/problems, it will be rejected. Similarly, once more and more people have tested and reproduced some result, it becomes more and more accepted until it is regarded as “correct”. So, science has a level of robustness that may not be present in other areas.

    So, my current view is that it’s not just that people may not understand the details of the science itself, it’s that many do not understand the fundamentals of the scientific process. When scientists collecting accept an idea, it’s not because someone clever and influential has just published a paper with this idea, it’s because this idea has been tested and reproduced by so many researchers, in many countries, probably over a reasonably long time period. In a sense I think scientists should start not only communicating about their own specific science, but should also put effort into communicating about science itself and how the scientific method is a process that gives us the confidence to ultimately trust some scientific ideas. Of course, as you say in your post, scientists also present science with all the caveats and uncertainties and this too is something some don’t understand. Uncertainties don’t mean we’re uncertain, it actually represents our level of confidence.

    • comment-avatar
      AniaJune 17, 2014 - 1:22 pm

      Thanks for your comment! I hope I got what you mentioned across – that we need to improve scientific literacy to make people understand the scientific process which may circumvent some of the radical views that are held by some members of the public. Although, it is a complicated story to tell so I am very appreciative that you also spelt it out for other readers to see.

      • comment-avatar
        And Then There's PhysicsJune 17, 2014 - 1:26 pm

        Yes, nicely put. That’s indeed the point I was trying to make, although I was maybe more verbose than was necessary 🙂

  3. comment-avatar
    Richard GrantJune 17, 2014 - 1:34 pm

    Ania, thank you for this thoughtful post. A couple of observations from a non-scientist:

    I think it’s important to begin by clearly delineating the problem. At the top of the post, in listing examples of science denial, you’ve grouped a number of different issues together that, really, are quite distinct. Climate-change denial, for example, is largely driven by politics and (as with evolution) shows a strong correlation with cultural self-identification. People tend to believe what the people around them daily believe. Such views are very hard to change by presenting their holders with facts.

    Opposition to GM crops is quite different, as people tend to *believe* in the basic science, and in fact are probably better informed than the populace at large. Their opposition is more of a Frankenstein’s-monster kind of thing: We don’t know what this powerful thing will do after we unleash it from the table. And BTW, we hate Monsanto! So this is a case where reasoned, respectful dialog is possible — and, I would say, necessary.

    The anti-vaccination movement represents yet a third distinct phenomenon: a faddish pseudo-science, with a tinge of conspiracy theory about it, that is being actively promulgated by certain identifiable players, based on a tiny number of flawed studies and a lot of urban legend. Unfortunately, for mostly cultural reasons, it has attracted a following among otherwise well-informed people. Nonetheless, this is by far the least nuanced, most straightforward case on the list. It should be amenable to a concerted and forceful campaign of public education.

    Now, I draw these distinctions partly by way of making a different point, which is that the stance taken by Michael Specter — tossing words like “terrorism” around, lumping together critics and skeptics and devout anti-science believers and professional operatives, and delivering rousing speeches like a call to Holy War — is not likely to be effective in most cases. (The anti-vax issue may be a rare exception.) From a purely pragmatic standpoint it looks kind of ugly to people not already firmly in the TED camp. It gives off a distinct taint of moral superiority and intellectual smugness.

    Moreover — and of concern, I should think, to scientists — this way of framing the problem is inaccurate. People who believe eating certain kinds of healthy food can be effective in fighting cancer do NOT often believe this practice alone is sufficient. And the tiny minority who hold this extreme view are NOT often the same folks who believe climate change is a hoax, or the world is 7,000 years old. Who in turn are NOT the people campaigning for GMO food-labeling laws.

    In most cases (and there are exceptions) you are not dealing with true enemies of science, let alone with terrorists. You are dealing with distinct groups, some of them quite large, whose ways of understanding the world are shaped by a weird mix of factors. It’s complicated, but not really so hard to understand if you look at the issues one at a time. In the case of climate change (and evolution, which is not on the list) there’s been some recent work in social science that goes a long way toward untangling the roots from which denialist thinking sprouts.

    But to take such a fine-grained, sensitive and differentiated approach, you first have to throw off a few decades, at least, of precedent in the pro-science community. There is an ingrained habit of lumping disparate issues together and declaring war upon the lot of them, and the horse they rode in on, and people who think horses are cooler than flying cars. This dates at least from the founding of CSICOP (one of whose leading lights was not even a scientist but a professional stage musician) but whose membership extended, if I’m not mistaken, to people as eminent as Carl Sagan. It’s a self-defeating approach. It alienates and offends people who are not deniers but honest skeptics (like most of the serious anti-GMO crowd), or who represent views that lie somewhere outside the contemporary mainstream, yet are respectful of the methods and traditions of science (like people who, however much it may infuriate you, are committed to seriously investigating “paranormal” phenomena). I suspect that some practitioners of homeopathy may fall into this last bunch, though I don’t know enough to be sure.

    Anyway, agree with them or not, there’s no need to declare war on everybody. Pick a target, or a couple of similar targets, and devise an approach that fits the nature of the challenge. Or take a strictly positive approach and find ways of presenting science to the public as an exciting quest for truth — a process, a way of thinking and living actively in the world, not a set of rigid laws. That’s enough of a challenge to be getting on with.

    • comment-avatar
      AniaJune 17, 2014 - 1:40 pm

      Thank you for your advice! It was not my intention to start a war with anybody! I was being a tad bit sensationalist at the beginning to get attention, but perhaps a little too much? I agree that all the different skeptics are in different camps and for different reasons, but I think they may have a shared characteristic, and that is a lack of understanding of the scientific process.
      I am very mindful to not alienate people or appear elitist as I absolutely know that it will turn people off and not get the message I intend across. I was just citing Spector for his strong opinion, and agree that science deniers are dangerous, in ways they do not appear to realise, but I don’t think they are terrorists personally (I think it’s a horrible term), perhaps I didn’t make that apparent?
      Obviously I have a way to go to structuring and writing in a way that is more clear and transparent, so thank you for letting me know. This definitely is a learning curve for me and I have much to learn.

      • comment-avatar
        Richard GrantJune 17, 2014 - 2:01 pm

        Ania, I didn’t mean to be coming down hard on your post, which is clear and articulate, especially for the science-friendly audience that (I think) you’re addressing.

        I’m happy to see that other commenters have made the point, better than I, that the PROCESS of science deserves more prominence in the classroom. I taught English for a few years at a small progressive high school in New England where the science curriculum was strongly focused on observation, investigation, and hands-on experimentation, and the students (who tended to be more “artsy” types, on the whole) responded with remarkable enthusiasm — quite different from the way I remember things from my own high school days.

        How to make this happen in the Bible Belt, though? Some of these problems are so deeply embedded in our culture that it’s hard to see a way through them.

        • comment-avatar
          AniaJune 17, 2014 - 2:39 pm

          I didn’t take it as attacking. Constructive criticism. As a scientist, one of the hardest things I had to get used to was getting critiqued so it’s a little easier for me to hear hard truths about my work.

          I think my next post might be about your point – the teaching of science and how that impacts science literacy in adults. Although I fear I am not an expert in these areas and don’t want to screw it up!

          • comment-avatar
            Christopher_NWJune 25, 2014 - 12:02 am

            You’re spot on when you mention that scientists need to better engage with the public (however it is also a two-way street, and the public needs to be open to learning more about science, especially if they want to comment on it meaningfully). On a technical note I would use the word “denialist” rather than skeptic. Skepticism forms part of the scientific method and is crucial for a higher understanding of the world around us. What you refer to in this article is indeed denialism or pseudoskepticism. As Prof. Peter Doherty said, the difference between a skeptic and a denialist is that the skeptic is willing to change their opinions and beliefs when confronted with the evidence. (Aside from that technical point, great article).

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