November 1, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Spin or Sin

You are bureau chief for a science news organization.  Your job is to convince the public that science is right, and their doubts are wrong.  You believe in reason and evidence, but you are frustrated that large segments of the population doubt the scientific consensus on certain hot-topic issues.  The way to reach them, you say, is by coaxing people they already respect to convey the message, and use graphics to present the evidence.  Sound reasonable?

Peter Aldhous is such a person.  He is the US bureau chief for New Scientist.  In his October 31 article, “Science in America: Selling the truth,” certain phrases betray his position that the scientific consensus is equivalent to truth, and scientists are the guardians of truth:

  • …people trained to treat evidence as the ultimate arbiter of truth.
  • … preach the scientific facts
  • … fundamentally anti-science ideology
  • objective assessment of the evidence
  • … a way to drag debate back towards what the science actually says
  • … to communicate accurately about science…
  • … to allow science to better inform US political debate…

At one point, Aldhous does acknowledge the capacity for truth to be filtered by one’s biases: “People aren’t empty vessels waiting to receive information,” he admits. “Instead, we all filter and interpret knowledge through our cultural perspectives, and these perspectives are often more powerful than the facts.”  Fine and good, but then he says, “That poses a problem for some areas of science, which have come to clash with the values of a sizeable proportion of the US population,” returning once again to his assumption that science is not filtered by cultural bias.  (This position is very close to scientism: a philosophy of science that assumes science is the only path to truth, or that the scientific method is objective and unbiased; see “Objectivity of Science Undermined,” 10/24/2011.  Scientism, though, is consistent with the belief that “hard sciences” like physics or climate change are superior to “soft sciences” like sociology or political science.)

What becomes clear in the article is that Aldhous locates the truth of science for the most part within the Democratic Party, and anti-science bias in the Republican Party.  It’s Republicans who are skeptical of global warming and evolution.  It’s comments by Michelle Bachman and Rick Perry that Aldhous deems “alarming.”  It’s the political right or religious right that has mastered the art of spin.  It’s the Republican congressional leaders who refused to be persuaded by a cadre of scientists who came to educate them on the reality of global warming, choosing instead to become even more hardened in their skepticism.  It’s conservative Christians who preach a literal Genesis and deny the reality of evolution who are anti-science:

Evolution provides the clearest example. Religion is a bigger factor in the lives of Americans than it is for citizens of most other developed countries. Evangelical Christian churches that preach literal interpretations of Genesis are especially influential. No wonder the US comes near the bottom of the pile in international surveys measuring the percentage of people who accept evolution….

Without question, Aldhous implies that evangelical Christians are so biased by their religion, they are incapable of evaluating the evidence for evolution (which being espoused by the scientific consensus, is scientifically true).  By implication, religion-free science has no such bias.  Christians "preach" but scientists teach.  Graciously, Aldhous did provide one example of anti-science beliefs on the political left: “Such biases are not the preserve of the right,” he said (Republicans may breathe a sigh of relief here); “many of those who falsely believe that childhood vaccines cause autism are left-leaning supporters of ‘natural’ medicine who distrust the pharmaceutical industry.” 

Other than that, Aldhous fairly consistently portrayed the anti-science right in opposition to the pro-science left, and no wonder: “US scientists tend to lean heavily towards the Democrats’ camp,” he noted.  Except for a link to Paul Sarewitz’s article on Slate Magazine about this phenomenon, he did not explore why this should be so.  It could mean that scientism necessarily turns one’s politics to the left, but it could also mean that non-scientific factors, such as discriminatory hiring practices, peer pressure, tenure policies or a preference among Republicans for business forestall a more level ratio.  It could be a temporary phenomenon; one could envision Democrats being the scientific minority someday, in the same way political control oscillates from party to party. 

Aldous, though, made it clear where his presidential vote will go next year: “While there’s little evidence the US is in the thrall of a coherent anti-science movement, the penalty for failing to follow this recipe [described below] could be the election of a president who is blind to the true scientific consensus on some of the key issues of our time.”  Within scientific institutions, Obama is widely viewed as pro-science, while the prior Republican president was one of their worst nightmares – not so much for cutting funding, but for his position on embryonic stem cells and other politically sensitive issues (e.g., 12/17/2008, 1/31/2009).

With the fear of an anti-science Republican president looming on the horizon, Aldhous provided his recipe.  The bulk of his article was how to communicate the truth of science to the masses.  For this, he reluctantly had to reach into the “soft sciences” for help: how to “frame” the evidence from the scientific consensus for the anti-science elements in the population (“framing” is roughly equivalent to “spinning,” but with a more dignified touch of classical rhetoric to it).  To set up the argument, Aldhous began his article with the counter-intuitive idea that more information can actually harden people’s biases.  He told how John Holdren thought he would convince congressional Republicans of the truth of global warming by coming to “explain very clearly what we know and how we know it”.  Result: it only inflamed their skepticism.

For researchers who study how people form their opinions, and how we are influenced by the messages we receive, it was all too predictable. Holdren’s prescription was a classic example of the “deficit model” of science communication, which assumes that mistrust of unwelcome scientific findings stems from a lack of knowledge. Ergo, if you provide more facts, scepticism should melt away. This approach appeals to people trained to treat evidence as the ultimate arbiter of truth. The problem is that in many cases, it just doesn’t work.

Consistent with his scientism, Aldhous did not consider the possibility that the scientific consensus is wrong, and failed to reaffirm skepticism as a good thing in science.  Instead, he turned reluctantly to the “dark art of spin”: how to “frame” the truth of science (particularly, climate change and evolution) to the doubters, both in Congress and in segments of the public that are not yet “pro-science.”  Not that he believes that the “US is in the thrall of a coherent anti-science movement” – he quotes a Yale professor who praises America’s scientific record, “You can’t find a society that’s more pro-science” – but unless influential segments of the population come around, they might elect a Republican president.

For a “recipe” to frame science for the masses, Aldhous looked to both “soft science” and his anti-science bogeymen, the creationists.  The “soft science” artisans introduce him to their occult ways:

For many scientists, talk of “framing” and “selling” ideas to the public sounds uncomfortably like misinformation through the dark art of spin. This misses the point, argue advocates of framing. It’s possible to communicate accurately about science in the context of an engaging frame, they say.

The dark artisans of spin, as angels of light, taught him you can get people the Republicans admire to do the convincing.  Or you can show pictures.  Experiments on Republicans showed that when text or a graph was used in the framing exercise, “the graph made the strong Republicans more likely to acknowledge that global warming is both real and a consequence of human activities.”  (This was presented at a recent meeting of the American Political Science Association, he said.)

Aldhous even recommended learning some lessons from the anti-science people themselves.  The reason creationists are so influential, he said, is that they are already better than scientists at framing.

The appeal of this story to those on the political right illustrates another key finding: how a message is framed in relation to the cultural biases of the intended recipients is crucial to its persuasiveness. The Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a conservative think-tank that seeks to undermine the teaching of evolution in US schools, has learned this lesson well. After failing to get biblical creationism taught in science classes, the institute came back with the “scientific” concept of intelligent design, and two carefully researched talking points: “evolution is just a theory” and “teach the controversy”.

Not only were these frames attractive to the religious right, they were also difficult for scientists to counter without seeming to endorse censorship. Especially clever was the use of the term “theory”. To many people the word is roughly synonymous with “hunch”, so the frame did its intended job of questioning Darwinism’s credibility.

Here, Aldhous either inadvertently or purposely did some framing himself (in the “dark art” sense of the word) by invoking some half-truths and generalities.  While the Discovery Institute does advocate “teach the controversy,” it does not advocate calling evolution “just a theory” (nor do many Biblical creationists, for that matter; see CMI).  Nor did the Discovery Institute ever advocate getting intelligent design taught in science classes, to say nothing of “biblical creationism,” from which they distinguish intelligent design in no uncertain terms ( and response on Evolution News & Views).  And since the design argument goes back to ancient Greece if not earlier, it would be impossible for them to have “come back with” intelligent design as a new idea for getting creationism taught, even if that was their aim.

In short, Aldhous ended up advocating anti-science methods (such as big lies, half-truths, the either-or fallacy, generalities, visualization, statistical manipulation, and loaded words) to promote what he sees as a worthwhile goal: a pro-science population.  This, for sure, begs many additional questions.

You think we are going to just pounce on Peter Aldhous right now and read him the Philosophy of Science Riot Act.  Not yet.  He makes some good points, and to his credit, he did make a passing effort to acknowledge his own fallibility; for instance, he recognized that cultural biases affect us all.  His article was more thoughtful than John Blumenthal’s screed on the Huffington Post that Uncommon Descent dubbed the “stupidest anti-ID article ever written.”  But not by much.  Scientism is unforgiveable for a science magazine bureau chief, who ought to know better after the collapse of logical positivism, scientism’s last gasp, half a century ago.  After Kuhn and the Science Wars that followed, he should know better than to equate “scientific consensus” with truth.

Let’s agree on some points.  There are times when framing is important.  Let’s say you are a medical missionary bringing cholera vaccine to a tribe that, frightened by superstition, runs away from it.  Let’s say their witch doctor warns them that the medicine will put evil spirits into them.  What are you going to do?  It’s doubtful that scientific evidence will convince them.  You might try some of the methods suggested by Aldhous: get someone they trust to make the case, or use visuals to make the message more appealing.  Use words and concepts they are familiar with.  Isn’t that all that Aldhous is advocating?

In addition, rhetoric has a long, distinguished history.  It was one of the classical arts dating back to Rome.  Lawyers use it; teachers use it.  Everyone should learn something about the art of persuasion, taking an argument and making it convincing.  But rhetoric is a means to an end.  It presupposes a good end: a point worth making.  Where will you root the good ends other than in something eternal and unchanging?  If good ends evolve, what is good today could be evil tomorrow.  It's not that humans are always capable of conceiving the good ends accurately and in balance, but an eternal standard of immutable truth provides the pole star by which we can set our sails. No one should desire to be like the Greek sophists – the rhetoricians for hire – who denied truth and prided themselves on the ability to make both sides of an argument equally convincing.

The fallacy in Aldhous’s article is here: he plagiarizes Christian assumptions about truth to argue that science is truth, and then reasons (using reason, another concept indebted to eternal truth) that Christians stand in opposition to truth which, in his thinking, is illustrated by the scientific consensus on evolution and global warming.  But Aldhous could not argue the first word of a proposition, let alone frame it, without being indebted to the Biblical world view.  Yea, forthwith and anon, even science itself is indebted to Christianity, as many scholars have pointed out (recent example: Spengler's article on Asia Times).  Yet Aldhous has the gall to steal from the Christian’s smorgasbord of values without paying the price or acknowledging his debt.

From that overarching fallacy follow a multitude of sins and spins in his article.  It’s really pathetic for a science magazine bureau chief to betray such an ignorance of philosophy of science, sociology of science, psychology of science, history of science, and logic.  He shows himself to be more of a Democratic Party operative and left-wing cheerleader than a consistent thinker or scientist.  Reading our Baloney Detector would be a good laxative.  It should be followed up by a healthy diet of reading outside the consensus box. 

Suggestion.  For those not willing to look at intelligent design, creationist or Christian material at all, the Teaching Company has secular, non-partisan courses in Philosophy of Science (Kasser) and Science Wars (Goldman) that describe in some detail the problems with logical positivism and other issues in assuming "science" equates with "truth" (or even "knowledge").  These courses, taught by pro-science academic professors who have no axe to grind, provide valuable education about epistemology (how we know what we know) and the development of science and thought about its capabilities (and pretensions).

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  • Rkyway says:

    “a way to drag debate back towards what the science actually says…”

    – I get tired of the persistent personification of science by people like Aldhous. Science isn’t a person and can’t say anything; only scientists (fallen, finite creatures) say things. He wants to put his own (fallible) words into the mouth of some infallible, god-like creature called Science. This way he can pretend ‘science’ only has one view on any particular subject.

    Is it scientific to personify science, or is it myth making?

  • johnnyb says:

    Great article.  One other thing which needs to be noted is that these people are not about good science.  They are about beliefs and adherences.  For instance, you would be classified as “pro-science” if you knew nothing about evolution but agree with it, or even if you had a horrendously bad understanding of it and agree with your own bad understanding.  You are anti-science if you know everything about evolution, yet still disagree with it.  The same for global warming.  None of the people who are labeling themselves “pro-science” ever give tests about evolution and global warming to the “pro-science” people.  How much does Obama actually know about evolution?  Global warming?  It is only those who disagree with them that get questioned.  Therefore, we can see that it isn’t about the science – they couldn’t care less if you know anything about the science behind global warming or evolution – they only care if you agree with them.

  • sheldonr says:

    Very nice.
    I’d just like to point out that if science uses sociology to frame science, then there is an unavoidable feedback with sociology deciding what is good and what is bad science. This is like NASA funding education in space science that turns out to support their political objectives. All such feedback runs amok unless there is an external criterion to keep it in check.
    For Christians, this is the concept of truth. But there is nothing for an atheist to check his sociology. Ultimately he will be funding and promoting crackpot science (e.g. global warming) because some powerful political contingent gets power from it. This meltdown is the inevitable result of post-modern approaches to truth and science. Our only escape is if we can resurrect an external, theistic understanding of science and truth. Nothing else will work. And you thought science was value-neutral?

  • alice says:

    I am sixty-seven years young.  In my lifetime I have seen scientists discover and un-discover many things.  I have seen theories proved and dis-proved.  Scientists see and try to interpret.  Once a scientist takes a position it is very difficult to get facts past the wall.  Often, monetary support depends on the scientist pushing his point of view instead of considering facts contrary to his position.  The Global Warming theory shows how much money can be made on a theory.  I have found every discovery or new archeological evidence supports Scripture and creation.  Careful perusal of scientific testing often shows skewed logic.  I recently learned that the test on how humans process salt was conducted on an Indian tribe in South America who never intereacted with other civilization and who had never used salt except as it occurs naturally in foods.  A few thousand people who were not accustomed to salt were given too much salt and the results were trumpeted to the world as a viable conclusion of the effects of salt on the body.  Some scientists are honest and some are ambitious for money or fame.  This is true of people who teach and preach the Scriptures.  It usually comes down to “follow the money.”

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