Posts Tagged ‘pseudo-science’

Dilemmas in science communication

April 17, 2012

Slightly different version has been posted and discussed at Planet3

A few weeks ago I attended a meeting on science communication and the increasing public distrust of science. Climate was not the major theme, though it did come up as an example (not least because I was an invited speaker, as a blogging scientist / scientific blogger).

Cees van Woerkum: Modern vs traditional communication

The first speaker was professor in communication science, Cees van Woerkum. I attended his lectures 19 years ago. He explained how the old model, of a sender and a receiver of communication, was no longer valid (if it ever was). Modern communication is characterized by a much more active role of the audience in selecting what information to take in. Also, the message is not inert, but rather gets meaning in an active and social process.

Drawing on examples from biotechnology, carbon capture and storage, and vaccination he argued that scientists should take the concerns of citizens seriously. Laughing at somebody for calling biotechnology “unnatural” is not going to take their worries away or change their mind. Calling fears of side effects from vaccinations “dangerous nonsense” doesn’t quite work either, especially not if those concerns have already been anchored to a certain extent through social construction. If a scientist calls the chance of CO2 leakage from a storage facility vanishingly small, the response is “so it’s not impossible?!” A potential way out according to van Woerkum is to ask what’s behind their concerns: What do you mean by unnatural?” Then you can at least start to have a conversation.

Jona Lendering: A different field of scientific inquiry facing large scale disinformation

This was followed by a presentation by author and historian Jona Lendering. Although the topic of his talk was something entirely different (about ancientPersia) the similarities with the climate debate were striking. He explained how this field of academic enquiry (about the origin of Western civilization) was being “attacked by anti-scientific tendencies” (aiming to glorify one culture’s role). The scientific establishment hardly participated in the public debate on the internet. As a consequence, the anti-scientific views got more traction and mainstream science failed in (what should be) one its core missions: Informing the public. He repeatedly stated the mechanism: “Bad information drives out good information”. He also mentioned the “intense hate” with which the “attack-machines” approach science. It was as if I was listening to Kevin Trenberth; the dynamic between a skeptical-cynical part of the audience and mainstream science was just too similar.

Me: Dilemmas in science communication

I talked about the dynamics of blog discussions and about the dilemmas that one encounters in trying to communicate scientific insights to a broad audience, mainly in the sphere of understandability vs completeness:

I mentioned that imho mainstream media suffers from too much emphasis on news (as opposed to robust knowledge) and on mere facts (to the detriment of explaining the scientific process of getting to understand those facts). In the blogosphere I see too much emphasis on details (to the detriment of the big picture) and on uncertainties (to the detriment of robust knowledge).

The last one on the list I actually added based on the dilemma that van Woerkum alerted the audience to: As a scientist (or science journalist), you can no longer easily claim “listen to me, I’ll tell you how it is”. You have to take the concerns of citizens seriously.

But what to do if those concerns are not openly expressed, but rather disguised in scientific sounding (but incorrect or sometimes even plain silly) arguments? “Climate change is due to the sun” or “Iranis the origin of Western civilization” or “vaccination causes autism”? The underlying reason for skepticism often remains hidden. As a scientist, you’re sucked into a quasi-scientific argument. How else can you react, than by saying: “no, that’s not the way it is. It’s this and this way, for such and such reasons”? But such a reaction is being characterized by skeptics ((mis-)using van Woerkum’s words) as “unjustified superiority of science”. Is explaining how science sees it a hopeless strategy?

In line with van Woerkum I think it’s important to focus on the underlying reasons for distrusting science. We should really discuss why we disagree so strongly about climate change (e.g. due to differences in worldviews and in risk perception). Keith Kloor cites Scott Denning (who spent a lot of time talking with contrarians, e.g. at two consecutive Heartland meetings):

Almost everyone that dismisses climate change as a problem does it for ideological or political reasons, not for scientific reasons.

Of course, there are also other potential reasons, but this one is surely a biggie.

Discussions about hockeysticks and feedbacks are all very interesting, but they are not the crux of why there is a such a heated and politicized debate about climate change. We don’t have a similar public debate about the mating behavior of fruitflies after all.


Climate skepticism comes in many shades of grey

June 26, 2010

It has long puzzled me why so many people don’t accept the science. There is a tremendous difference in opinion about climate change amongst the lay public as compared to in the scientific community. I’m hardly alone in pondering the question of why (see e.g. this insightful post). It’s clearly an important issue if we are to increase the public’s understanding of climate change. Of course it is only to be expected that some people are skeptical: Naturally there is a spectrum of opinions. But that does not explain why that spectrum is so dramatically different between different groups of people (the lay public and the professional scientists in this case). To name a few plausible reasons:

  • Ideology can be a strong driver of how people view the science: Mitigation of climate change is seen as threatening by many libertarians, because they associate mitigation with government intervention, which they oppose.
  • Psychology can also be very powerful: To some it feels good to be the underdog and get celebrated by anonymous fans on the internet and phoned up routinely by newspapers, TV and other media (that counts for the ‘spokespeople’ only). Many people have a psychological predisposition to side with the underdog (that counts for their fans). The mitigation challenge is very great indeed, which means that it is psychologically favorable to downplay the problem (so as not to get depressed or feeling guilty about everything you do and don’t do). Recently I hear more often that people side with skeptics because they are ‘nicer’. A little odd, but if that plays a major role with presidential elections, than it’s only to be expected that it also plays a role in trusting scientists (or not).
  • Still others suffer from what I call professional deformation: Some well educated people from other disciplines view the science through the lenses of their own specialty, which, if they’re unable to take a bit of a helicopter-view of the situation, could skew their vision.
  • And of course some are just confused. With not a little help from the media, who, in an effort to provide ‘balance’, bias the coverage towards the “skeptical” compared to the mainstream view.
  • Then there are organized efforts at muddying the waters, which bear a resemblance to tactics used by e.g. the tobacco lobby. It is based on manufacturing doubt amongst the public regarding science that produces “inconvenient” results. This mainly applies to certain thinktanks and a few handfuls of individuals, but they exert a disproportionate influence on the media and public perception of the issues. The ‘tactics’ used are in more widespread use, whether consciously or not.

“Old skepticism”

This last category, organized denial and anti-science, could perhaps be seen as the “old skepticism”. It has its roots in history, notably the tobacco wars. It then spilled over to denying environmental issues, such as problems associated with DDT, asbestos, CFC’s, and now CO2. Fred Singer is one of the godfathers of this movement. Recognizing this historical context is important in understanding the nature and tactics of the resistance against science. But it also bears a risk.

Too often, anyone who disagrees with the scientific consensus is called an oil shill, or compared with the tobacco apologists. In most cases, these comparisons are totally off base (at least on the individual level) and counterproductive. Even though it is an important context, overusing this categorization for individuals can easily be dismissed as a conspiracy theory. Not everyone who is skeptical of AGW is in the pay of big oil or is consciously mimicking the tobacco strategies. If someone says that I’ve overused it in the past as well: Guilty as charged.

“New skepticism”

In the previous post I discussed a potential new form of skepticism, which according to some resemble “citizen scientists”. They are usually well educated and skilled people, who investigate specific issues of climate science (hockeysticks, anyone?) in more detail, and find them wanting. Nothing wrong with that of course, but it’s getting problematic if they conflate these details with what is known about the bigger picture, or if they started out with a deep suspicion that the science as a whole is faulty (e.g. for reasons such as stated above).

The more contempt they show for science, the more they argue the big picture of what’s known, the more they rage against emission reductions and talk about ‘world communist governments’ and other paranoid ideas like that, the less serious I take their criticism. Because to me, these are not characteristics of sincere skepticism; to the contrary.


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