More on Communicating Science to Skeptics

Photo by George Wesley and Bonita Dannells entitled ‘Maple seeds – the samara’ (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic), link through photo
Photo by DanaK~WaterPenny entitled ‘Science, it works.’ (Attribution 2.0 Generic), link through photo

In June I made a post about ‘mis-trusting science’ in response to an article/commencement speech published in The New Yorker by Atul Gawande; Gawande is a pretty big name in science-writing, having both been published in and been an editor for The Best American Science Writing series (and his work was even picked to be in THE BEST of the best, too!). Given that he’s a pretty preeminent science-communicator, you’d think that he’d have the dirt on how to communicate science… but his speech has been torn apart by other communicators for a wide variety of reasons.

In my post I argued that Gawande was thinking too small, discussing how to change the mindset of a single individual when really it was a radical shift in how we all share information that needs to occur (i.e. checking we have the facts, etc, before making that FB post). Until our culture could learn to respect facts over sensationalism, community consensus over our personal ego, we were wasting our time trying to change one person’s outlook on science; your facts could never persuade in the face of a constant barrage of sensationalist coverage and rampant individualism (read: narcissism).

Each time I would try to convince one particular acquaintance to give evolution or vaccines a serious look (“I was never vaccinated, and I’m fine!”), I would get back “I don’t care enough about these issues to look into them more. But maybe someday I’ll sit down and start to sort through the evidence. Until then, though, I don’t need to know more about these things.” This response has always frustrated me because there’s nothing to debate here, other than the merits of laziness, and also implies that this individual is a better decision maker on vaccinations/evolution than people who have obtained their PhDs and published papers on the matter. We both know this individual is not going to spend the time on evolution to become a real, scientific, expert – he’s not going to put in the time of a PhD candidate or a researcher. He’s going to learn enough to justify one opinion or the other and move on, if he looks into it at all, never taking the words of real experts into account but just satisfying his personal ego.

The internet has created an echo-chamber for ignorance, allowing people to justify their lack of knowledge by pointing to the sensationalist ‘controversy’ surrounding an issue instead of realizing that scientists have reached a pretty definite consensus on certain issues. Amazingly, my own experience working in biology – the fact that I have sorted through more of the evidence and read real, peer-reviewed scientific papers – matters not at all to this individual; to Gawande’s point that we all feel like we’re the only expert on every subject in the world, I heartily agree.

Photo by The Kingsway School entitled ‘open evening (17 of 57)’ (Attribution 2.0 Generic), link through photo

Another critic, Richard Grant, has come up against Gawande’s article saying “People don’t like being told what to do… I don’t think people who object to vaccines or GMOs are at heart anti-science. Some are, for sure, and these are the dangerous ones. But most people simply want to know that someone is listening, that someone is taking their worries seriously; that someone cares for them.” He argues that scientists aren’t successful because they bring facts, graphs, and figures to the debate which feels arrogant and cold. Science-communicators must take the time to listen to our anti-science audience, Grant asserts, if we are to change both the minds and hearts of our anti-science compatriots.

Grant says that charlatans have already recognized the need for belonging and listening, creating these self-affirming anti-science communities that can be difficult to penetrate, and writes, “Tellingly, Gawande refers to the ‘scientific community’; and he’s absolutely right, there. Most science communication isn’t about persuading people; it’s self-affirmation for those already on the inside.” This is something I can, on the whole, agree with (in ever more concentric circles of exclusivity as scientists generally write for others in their discipline) – but I also question the value of Grant’s strategy of appealing to the hearts/emotions of the anti-science crowd.

My acquaintance is not afraid of vaccines and he isn’t troubled or upset by them (though I know some are, and I think those fears are listened to by the medical community); he just feels he shouldn’t have to bother spending the time to learn about something he isn’t interested in, something he never needed and thus can’t see the importance of, something that he won’t trust the medical community on because he is the only expert and he hasn’t checked it out for himself yet. Being anti-science isn’t always about emotion; it’s generally about arrogance. It’s the assumption that you must be able to figure out this puzzle better than a whole community of other people working hard at their jobs; the assertion that you would need to ‘sort through the evidence’ on vaccines implies you would make a better decision than those whose job and lives are to research, test, and create them.

I struggle to believe that every pediatrician is scoffing mightily at every anti-vaxxer mother and presenting her with graphs and tables, but rather that anti-vaxxer mothers don’t trust the pediatricians more than their gut even when the pediatrician understands that they are worried about the health of their child. What’s more, we can’t waste our very precious time and money trying to validate the feelings of each anti-science person in the world just so they might be more susceptible to facts. People who are anti-fact just are – consider this exchange between a news anchor and Newt Gingrich about crime in America, where FBI statistics show that crime is (on the whole) decreasing:

“CAMEROTA: But what you’re saying is, but hold on Mr. Speaker because you’re saying liberals use these numbers, they use this sort of magic math. These are the FBI statistics. They’re not a liberal organization. They’re a crime-fighting organization.

GINGRICH: No, but what I said is equally true. People feel more threatened.

CAMEROTA: Feel it, yes. They feel it, but the facts don’t support it.

GINGRICH: As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel and I’ll let you go with the theoriticians.”

Photo by BRICK 101 entitled ‘Minifig comparison’ (Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic ), link through photo

I feel Grant’s article is, in some ways, valid; the scientific community can get very tribal at times and we do write for each other – but that’s because we’re also the only ones even interested in listening (because Grant, the anti-science crowd doesn’t want to listen to us, either). My acquaintance does not seek out science writing, I (and other science-minded people) do. And trying to reach him by listening to his ego, the underlying issue with many (though not all) people in the anti-science community, will not force him to look up some science-communication and become educated. When it is one individual’s life and health on the line, it matters less to me if they’re ignorant, but anti-vaxxers put all our children at risk and climate change deniers put the future of our species at risk as we are continuously rejecting global solutions to stop this ticking time bomb.

Grant’s article doesn’t actually provide a solution; listening to the ‘feelings’ of most anti-scientists will not move the conversation forward unless science-writers, too, want to start appealing to their ego over the facts. And, in my opinion, that’s a slippery slope down the lane to becoming a science-charlatan because the ego will do whatever is convenient/profitable, not what is right or true. After all, just look at our political landscape where, as Gingrich so delightfully put it, we listen to feelings over facts. Has listening to people’s feelings caused people to see the truth that America is less violent today than before? No, it just strokes their ego and forces them deeper down the anti-truth rabbit hole. I’m going with Gawande that the only real way to win against anti-scientists is to stick to the facts.

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