Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Science, Politics, and Chris Mooney

Chris Mooney once again has some advice for scientists in getting their message across to the public: listen to the concerns of the people you’re talking to.

That’s good enough advice, although hardly revolutionary; it can be found in most self-help books going back to Dale Carnegie and probably ancient Greece. But I think it misses an important point.

Science is based on the idea that some truths about the world are knowable in unambiguous ways, and that methods have been developed for finding those truths. Further, on that assumption that some truths are knowable and using those methods, we have built quite a nice and comfortable world for many of us on this planet. Further, we have expanded our mental horizons and opened the way to further improvements. These successes prove the validity (or at least the usefulness) of that assumption and those methods.

That’s a bit of an unfashionable viewpoint these days, pre-postmodern. But having electricity in your house, along with the appurtenances it runs, like the computer you’re looking at now, are some of its results. Automobiles, the veggies you buy at the farmers’ market, bicycles and running shoes, all are results. So are the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, the leukemia of the downwinders from atmospheric nuclear tests, and the tens of thousands killed in the United States in automobile accidents every year. Some good and some bad, but we know and can understand them through science.

Mooney is working in what physicists might call a different reference frame, though. His main focus is how scientists can sell their message in a world with many different messages.
One the one hand, the nonscientists appear almost entirely impervious to scientific data that undermine their opinions and prone to arguing back with technical claims that are of dubious merit. In response, the scientists shake their heads and lament that if only the public weren't so ignorant, these kinds of misunderstandings wouldn't occur.
As Joe Romm points out, if you’re going to sell a message, it helps if you have as much money as the others who are selling their message.

So one may talk about tactics and money and listening, and all of that makes sense. But if you believe that there are unambiguous truths, and that those truths underlie what we might call the mechanics of the world, how things work, then if you want real solutions to your problems, there is only one way to get to them, and that is to find those truths and work with them.

And it appears that Mooney is willing to conclude more than his data allows. For example,
For one thing, it's political outlook -- not education -- that seems to motivate one's belief on this subject. According to polling performed by the Pew Research Center, Republicans who are college graduates are considerably less likely to accept the scientific consensus on climate change than those who have less education. These better-educated Republicans probably aren't ignorant; a more likely explanation is that they are politically driven consumers of climate science information. Among Democrats and independents, the relationship between education and beliefs about global warming is precisely the opposite -- more education leads to greater acceptance of the consensus climate science.
Let me try to move that back into my reference frame, the one with unambiguous truths. Mooney’s first sentence is his conclusion.
For one thing, it's political outlook -- not education -- that seems to motivate one's belief on this subject.
But wait a minute. For the Republicans, that is true, because their political outlook causes them to take beliefs that contradict those unambiguous truths. Democrats and independents are more likely to align their beliefs with those truths as they have more education, which would be what one might expect. So (my conclusion), for Republicans, ideology overrides demonstrable truth, moreso as their education increases, while Democrats and independents increase their understanding of how the world works with increased education.

This changes the nature of the problem: what is it that is motivating Republicans to reject their education in favor of ideology? Further, they must have totally rejected the methods that have served science and society well. We may also ask how to change their minds, and Mooney is correct: it appears that factual evidence plays no part in their thinking.

But Mooney takes those results to mean that all people are more influenced by politics than they are by fact, and John Horgan echoes him in a collation by Andy Rivkin of various shiny objects from people in his contact list.

I think it is true that people have different agendas and that this needs to be considered in communicating science. Perhaps it is useful to put aside that history of science’s ability to determine some kinds of truth and the methods, however successful, in order to look at those agendas. But I think that the example I’ve given undercuts Mooney’s conclusions and may suggest a different approach: namely, political defeat of a party that prizes ideology over understanding. Such parties have done a great deal of damage in the past. Such a strategy need rely very little on science communication, but rather on the usual tools of politics. Then Romm’s comments about balancing the funding of the two messages become a full explanation of what is needed.

Apparently there is a much longer report of which Mooney’s op-ed is just the executive summary. I’ll read that report tonight and perhaps have more to say tomorrow.


Meredith Angwin said...

Cheryl. I was impressed that you could find so much to say about Mooney's pieces. They seemed to me to miss the point, which is that we technical types seldom feel comfortable making sweeping statements, so we come across as wimpy.

Activist. Nuclear power will KILL you deader than a doornail!

Nuclear proponent: Well, really, probably not. That's awfully far-fetched, you know. Very improbable.

The public hears "deader than a doornail" and "probable"

But the nuclear proponent can't bring herself to say: no it is perfectly safe and can't possibly kill you. First, it wouldn't be true. Breathing isn't perfectly safe, especially when paired with eating. People have choked to death. Of course, not-breathing and not-eating also have their problems.

Second..well, we technical types don't make 100% certainty-type assertions.

So there we are and there we stay.

As Vonnegut said: So it goes.

Anonymous said...

Them: "It'll kill you dead as a doornail!"

Us: "I'm twice as sure that it will save your life!"

Them: "But I'm certain..."

Us: "You shouldn't be. The evidence says you're wrong about it."

Now talk about the evidence, weighing alternatives -- having directly countered certainty without claiming to have it.

Margaret said...

I think Mr. Mooney's piece misses some key cultural aspect working today in America.

Those of us older than 50 remember clearly the idea that we shouldn't trust authority. (Or anyone over 30, but that's another story.) When scientists say something that contradicts our beliefs we want PROOF that they are right. The "trust me, I'm the expert" statement doesn't weigh as heavily as it once did.

We MUST have a conversation with people and understand their concern and points of view, not as a debating platform, but to seek understanding and to find common ground.

I also find it amusing that Mr. Mooney claims REPUBLICANS are swayed by politics, but DEMOCRATS only by science in the climate debate. In the nuclear realm, it seems to be the reverse, but no mention is made of that phenomena. Which party does Mr. Mooney identify with?