Big Science Blind to Its Bias
Some scientists, science reporters and journal editors could use a trip to reform school for treatment of delusions of grandeur.
Earlier this month, we showed the editors of Nature awakening from their dogmatic slumbers long enough to consider the possibility they are out of touch with the vast majority of people (12/01/16). It didn’t take them long to roll over and fall back asleep. In their dreams, they have become warriors on white horses, commanding their armies to fight the unwashed masses of sheeple who follow demagogues instead of listening to their godlike pronouncements. There is no debate in their dreamland. They are right, and everyone else is wrong. After all, they are scientists, wielding the power of the gods with their light saber, the Scientific Method.
Actually, they put on their pants like the rest of mortal men. Or pantsuits, if they are women. But flailing about in their dreams, they look in the mirror and see Luke Skywalker fighting an evil empire, unaware that the hands trying to shake them and wake them up see them as Fluke Sleepwalkers with toy lightsabers, posing a danger to themselves and those around them till they come to their senses. The following examples attempt to rationalize this portrayal.
Delusions of Truth
One symptom of delusions of grandeur is to assume, like one conservative commentator likes to quip, “We’re right, they’re wrong; that’s the end of the story.” Debate is superfluous to the delusional, because they already have the truth. So when Adam Kucharski writes a letter to Nature about a need to “study the epidemiology of fake news” in this “post-truth” world, he never considers the possibility he himself could be a source of misinformation. No; he approaches the propagation of falsehoods like a disinterested scientist studying his fellow humans as if they are lab rats. “The propagation of such information through social networks bears many similarities to the evolution and transmission of infectious diseases,” he says Darwinesquely. “Analysis of transmission dynamics could therefore provide insight into how misinformation spreads and competes online.” Would he ever allow someone to analyze his communications with his own peer group in such a fashion? Suppose someone analyzed him in his scientific peer group as an evolving population seeking merely to spread their genes.
With the rise of fake news and hate crimes plus the divisive Brexit and Trump campaigns, it is easy to despair at the political and cultural turmoil that engulfed the West this year.
Understanding it is fiendishly tough. But one factor is clearly discernible amidst the melee: an apparent collapse in trust in elite knowledge and expertise.
More on Trump, Brexit and other conservative politics later; for now, just notice that to Corner, he and the predominantly liberal progressive readers of New Scientist don’t need to debate who’s right or wrong. It’s understood; “we’re right, they’re wrong, that’s the end of the story. Anything I say is truth. Anything you say is fake news. My political action is loving. Your political action is a hate crime.” With such a mindset, the problem is not how to debate one’s position, but how best to foist it on everyone below one’s pedestal.
Rebuilding public trust in 2017, and rescuing the political discourse from the clutches of post-truth charlatans, means getting better at being “right” and persuasive at the same time.
Can you imagine the look on Corner’s face if someone looked him in the eye and said, “You know, Mr. Corner, I think you are a charlatan”? These people can dish it out, but cannot take it.
Michael Brown shows similar presumptive authority and disdain for conservatives in his piece on The Conversation, “Trump has embraced pseudoscience and its deceptive tactics in a post-truth world.” Now, that could be partly true; some of Trump’s positions could be flat wrong. And CEH deplores propaganda tactics as a substitute for reasoned argument (see our Baloney Detector). What we wish to point out, though, is Brown’s delusion of grandeur, making himself immune from the foibles that afflict other human beings. “Who am I?” he asks in his article. “I’m a scientist.” Case closed; Brown uses “evidence,” everybody else is a pseudoscientist, especially all those conservative Trump voters who doubt the scientific consensus. We’d like to ask, What do you say we have a little rational dialogue about the evidence for molecules-to-man evolution? The response would be predictable.
Delusions of Education
To the delusional, all communication must be one-way. Since “We’re right, you’re wrong, that’s the end of the story,” the delusional owe you no hearing except as it feeds into their strategy of convincing you that scientists are always right and you have to bow to the experts. Me teacher; you student. Sometimes they will try to be nice teachers and nod with a smile as if you are not yet smart enough to agree with them. Worse, they see themselves as space aliens dissecting humans they have beamed up to their ship. One-way communication is a common thread in Big Science literature.
The running theme of one-way education shows up in a PNAS paper entitled “Past-focused environmental comparisons promote proenvironmental outcomes for conservatives.” Those stupid conservatives; they don’t buy the consensus on climate change. How can we cure them? One way to be more “effective” is to alter their ideology with creative storytelling. To Baldwin and Lammers, two social scientists from Germany, conservatives are lab rats needing treatment. Let’s be nice to them, they think, as we zap their brains. “This research shows how ideological differences can arise from basic psychological processes, demonstrates how such differences can be overcome by framing a message consistent with these basic processes, and provides a way to market the science behind climate change more effectively.” Who has ideology? Who has psychological processes? Not us, say Baldwin and Lammers. We have the truth. We are scientists. We just want to help those unfortunate lab rats who don’t get it. To market truth to the customers, they imagine teasing the little lab rats with gentle propaganda they can understand.
Need more? Here’s a couple of American experts in communication with the same message. Their piece on The Conversation betrays more of the delusion of grandeur that thinks, “We’re right, you’re wrong; that’s the end of the story.” The only question is how to convince you of their superiority. So in “What does research say about how to effectively communicate about science?” we see more of the blindness of scientists about their own elitism. Admittedly, there is something noble and worthwhile in studying the science of effective communication. The problem we are looking at, though, is that to elitists, the communication must be all one-way: from the experts to the unwashed masses. Other people have beliefs, values, or prejudices; we don’t! Other people live in a post-truth world; we don’t! We’re scientists. We just want to help you.
This will not be easy. But the alternative – slipping further into a post-truth world where disdain for evidence creates risks that could be avoided – gives us little option but to dig deeper into the science of science communication, so that science and evidence are more effectively incorporated into the decisions people make.
Would they sit down for a rational conversation about their own in-group biases? Unlikely. They betray the bias that “people” (other people) make decisions without evidence. We don’t need to make decisions, they assume, because we already have the truth.
For more, see a PNAS paper co-authored by warming spokesman Michael Mann that once again frames the climate change problem with how best to tell the public that they are wrong. The authors wish to understand the “basis for skepticism of climate change” in order to identify “obstacles to communicating ongoing changes in climate to the public and how these communications might be improved.”
Delusions of Holy War
When nudging and persuasion don’t work, the delusional scientists believe it is their right and duty to wage holy war. Once again, the presumption in the Big Science community is that they hold the moral high ground, but conservatives (especially those who voted for Donald Trump) represent forces of evil to fight.
Phil Williamson’s World View piece in Nature calls his fellows to arms. In “Take the time to correct misinformation,” the subtitle reads, “Scientists should challenge online falsehoods and inaccuracies — and harness the collective power of the Internet to fight back, argues Phil Williamson.” Nobody in their rational mind wants falsehoods and inaccuracies to prevail. The problem (again) is that Big Science has the attitude, “we’re right, they’re wrong, that’s the end of the story.” Williamson makes no secret of who’s wrong: Donald Trump, Breitbart News and everyone else in the enemy camp. Notice the elitism:
With the election of Donald Trump, his appointment of advisers who are on record as dismissing scientific evidence, and the emboldening of deniers on everything from climate change to vaccinations, the amount of nonsense written about science on the Internet (and elsewhere) seems set to rise. So what are we, as scientists, to do?
Most researchers who have tried to engage online with ill-informed journalists or pseudoscientists will be familiar with Brandolini’s law (also known as the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle): the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it. Is it really worth taking the time and effort to challenge, correct and clarify articles that claim to be about science but in most cases seem to represent a political ideology?
I think it is. Challenging falsehoods and misrepresentation may not seem to have any immediate effect, but someone, somewhere, will hear or read our response. The target is not the peddler of nonsense, but those readers who have an open mind on scientific problems. A lie may be able to travel around the world before the truth has its shoes on, but an unchallenged untruth will never stop.
Let’s interpret. Who has truth? We do. Who has misinformation? They do. Who has evidence? We do. Who denies evidence? They do. Who has sense? We do. Who has nonsense? They do. Who owns science? We do. Who propagates pseudoscience? They do. Who has reliable information? We do. Who has bullshit? They do. Who does fact-checking? We do. Who tells lies? They do. Who has open minds? We do. Who is incorrigible? They are.
Further down we see the culprits of lies: Steve Bannon, advisor to Donald Trump; the “populist” surge (the unwashed masses), climate change deniers, etc. Nobody would question the existence of fake-news websites and charlatans. The problem is that to the delusional elitists, all the sin is outside their castle.
In her piece in Nature, “So you want to change the world?” Nancy Baron shows the kinder, gentler touch of a woman. She actually advocates listening to the public and their concerns. A closer look, however reveals the inherent elitist bias so pervasive in Big Science. The goal of listening is not for the scientists to learn anything or change their minds. It’s only to “build public trust in research” (i.e., Big Science). “Yet research shows that people’s willingness to listen is linked to how likeable, warm and authentic they find the speaker,” she says. “Building trust requires a human touch.” The undertone is clear; we’re right, they’re wrong, that’s the end of the story. Now be nice as you shove it down their throats. Here’s how you say that like a diplomat:
In these uncertain times, the voices of scientists are more important than ever. Efforts should not only target political leaders, but also aim to create a groundswell of public support. Ultimately, leaders must listen to their constituents. This is a time for scientists to double down and launch a ground campaign for the hearts and minds of the public.
Society needs to hear from those who can explain empirical evidence in a way that resonates with people’s values, whatever they may be. We all need to be more open-minded and inclusive — and we need to muster the courage to speak from the heart and learn to listen with empathy.
My experience is that scientists can emerge as powerful agents of change. By building capacity, collaboration and confidence among researchers, we can bolster public engagement, inform decision-making and inspire society to forge a better future.
In short: Barow’s campaign is to get the voices of “scientists” heard (because they have empirical evidence). To overcome “people’s values, whatever they may be” (after all, scientists are not driven by values but by facts), we need to appear open-minded enough to listen – so that we don’t look like ogres, but can build public support for us. Have courage! Don’t appear so elitist; that’s how we will rule the world (“forge a better future”).
—to be continued
We want to stress again that the issue of this article is not in any way to excuse those on either side (conservative or liberal) who use propaganda, fake news, post-truth or other deceptive means to propagate ideas that are clearly false. There’s enough of that to go around regardless of political identity. The issue here is to document delusions of grandeur among the elitists in Big Science. They are blind to their biases. Where is anyone in the Big Science community willing to really listen to someone outside their ivory tower with a mind open enough to even consider the possibility that they might be in the wrong on some issues? After all, we at CEH do that every day. Every scientific paper we report is read with an open mind, looking at the evidence presented to see if it makes a good case.
The elitists, by contrast, live in a delusional dream world of right-and-wrong camps, where they are always right. The Big Science camp usually requires members to accept all the liberal, progressive, leftist agenda that comes with it: Hillary Clinton, abortion, big government, atheism, scientism, the IPCC, Darwinian evolution and “climate change” (formerly “global warming”). The other camp is everyone outside the Ivory Tower. By default, with no need for investigation, Donald Trump represents evil because he is willing to doubt the authority of the elitist magisterium (making him “anti-science”). He must be stopped. It doesn’t matter that the vast majority of communities in America voted for him (excluding a few populous cities like Los Angeles and New York, where all of Clinton’s popular-vote majority came from; see New York Times maps of counties and change from 2012). In the elitist either-or world, you are either for Big Science or for ignorance, superstition and denialism. The only issue for them is how most effectively to fight the outsiders. If it takes a little honey, so be it, as long as they take the poison with it.
Show us one member of Big Science who is really open to the possibility they could be wrong on any of the issues of the leftist agenda stated above (abortion, evolution, etc.). We’re listening. If they aren’t, they are not scientists in the pure sense of the word. They are ideologues. The respectable word “science” becomes to them a tool of ideological propaganda. Don’t be snookered by their posturing any more than you would blindly take the word of George Soros on how to interpret the Constitution or Richard Trumpka on how to run a business.