September 18, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

NAS Social Scientists Campaign for Consensus Indoctrination

Some social scientists in the National Academy of Sciences consider it their duty to persuade the public that science is always right.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) published a special section this week on “The Science of Science Communication II“.   The fundamental tone is that scientists agree about what is true, and the public needs to submit to their knowledge.  The following selections from the abstracts give a flavor of the attitude among the social scientists who participated.

On the other hand, worrying minorities of the general public reject conclusions that are widely accepted in the scientific community, such as the advisability of childhood immunization, the foundational role of evolution in biology, and the reality of anthropogenic climate change.

There is a substantial body of work showing that cultural differences in values and epistemological frameworks are paralleled with cultural differences reflected in artifacts and public representations. One dimension of cultural difference is the psychological distance between humans and the rest of nature. Another is perspective taking and attention to context and relationships. As an example of distance, most (Western) images of ecosystems do not include human beings, and European American discourse tends to position human beings as being apart from nature. Native American discourse, in contrast, tends to describe humans beings as a part of nature.

Why do members of the public share some scientific findings and not others? What can scientists do to increase the chances that their findings will be shared widely among nonscientists? … The results described here, combined with a review of recent research on interpersonal communication, suggest how scientists can frame their work to increase its dissemination. They also provide insights about which audiences may be the best targets for the diffusion of scientific content.

For many domains of basic and applied science, a key set of scientific facts is well established and there is a need for public action in light of those facts. However, individual citizens do not consistently follow science-based recommendations, even when they accept the veracity of the advice.

This work argues that, in a polarized environment, scientists can minimize the likelihood that the audience’s biased processing will lead to rejection of their message if they not only eschew advocacy but also, convey that they are sharers of knowledge faithful to science’s way of knowing and respectful of the audience’s intelligence; the sources on which they rely are well-regarded by both conservatives and liberals; and the message explains how the scientist arrived at the offered conclusion, is conveyed in a visual form that involves the audience in drawing its own conclusions, and capsulizes key inferences in an illustrative analogy.

In this paper I describe how a narrative approach to science communication may help audiences to more fully understand how science is relevant to their own lives and behaviors. The use of prescriptive scientific narrative can help to overcome challenges specific to scientific concepts, especially the need to reconsider long-held beliefs in the face of new empirical findings. Narrative can captivate the audience, driving anticipation for plot resolution, thus becoming a self-motivating vehicle for information delivery.

Although storytelling often has negative connotations within science, narrative formats of communication should not be disregarded when communicating science to nonexpert audiences. Narratives offer increased comprehension, interest, and engagement. Nonexperts get most of their science information from mass media content, which is itself already biased toward narrative formats. Narratives are also intrinsically persuasive, which offers science communicators tactics for persuading otherwise resistant audiences, although such use also raises ethical considerations.

None of these papers suggest that scientists might be terribly wrong in their consensus views.  None of them leave room for maverick scientists to buck the consensus.  The “information delivery” is always assumed to be necessarily one-way: from scientist to “nonexpert.”  The focus is on how to nudge the public toward the scientists’ view, even if it “raises ethical considerations.”  It may be necessary, for instance, to dumb down the message in storybook format with lots of pictures.  Prime examples of subjects needing effective information delivery to a resistant public are (1) the teaching of evolution and (2) gaining political support for action on climate change.

A similar attitude was expressed in Nature in a book review of Naomi Klein’s new book with the chilling title, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate.  Reviewer Nico Stehr thinks Klein overstated her case a bit, but agrees substantially: “The special appeal of Klein’s position is her insight that any successful effort to curb emissions or adapt to climate change demands popular, pragmatic and sensible transformative goals that go well beyond mere fencing in” (i.e., well beyond merely blocking capitalist attempts to increase energy production or continue “business as usual”). Klein and Stehr are looking at bigger goals: “the potential catalyst that will bring about an alternative future”.

Big Science has become a Special Interest Group (SIG) relying on taxpayer funds, making it a Political Interest Group (PIG) as well.  Nothing is stated in these abstracts about the enormous conflict of interest here. Many of these scientists have a vested interest in promoting their views in order to keep the funding flowing and in order to maintain standing with their colleagues.

While everyone who has what he or she feels is a worthwhile message to share (e.g., pastor, teacher, lawyer) should take due consideration on how to make it understandable and persuasive, there is something pernicious in the tone of these abstracts.  There is no humility.  There is no consideration that science can be dreadfully wrong in its current consensus beliefs (as science has been many times throughout history).  Instead, there is a constant drumbeat of “How can we get these nonexpert morons to agree with us?”  Downs and Dahlstrom pipe in, “We’ve got the solution!  Flood the airwaves with just-so stories!”

We would hasten to add that there are situations where scientists should dumb down a message and consider effective ways to get the information through thickets of cultural obstacles.  Much of the current Ebola epidemic raging among the poor in west Africa, for instance, is being worsened by superstitious people who know nothing of viruses, and whose traditions involve a lot of touching of the sick and dead.  But that is unusual.  Most in America and Europe have a good deal of education and a basic respect for evidence.  Like Jamieson and Hardy said, scientific communication can be “respectful of the audience’s intelligence.”  The keys are love (truly caring for people), humility (realizing one could be wrong) and respect (the Golden Rule).

It’s not respectful to manipulate an audience.  Nor is it respectful to talk over them.  Just give them the facts, at a level they can understand (i.e., without specialized jargon), and let them make up their own minds.  A scientist has one vote; a citizen has one vote.  We do not have a scientific oligarchy in this free society (at least, we shouldn’t).  Scientists need to realize that, just like other politically-biased persons, they could be wrong, and there is usually another side (often, an alternative scientific side) to each politically-radioactive question.  Wasn’t it Charlie himself who said this?  “A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.”

Watch out for the SIGs and PIGs who, speaking in Cass Sunstein “Nudge” lingo, think they need to manipulate the “nonexperts” out of their unalienable rights.  This would be a good time to review our entry from 12/21/05, “How to overcome students’ objections to evolution”—a classic example of unethical manipulation.  Nudge not, lest thou be nudged.


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