Science needs to do better in Public Relations? Some scientists react badly to the need instead - blog by Gurdur

 




A blog of random jottings on events, science, renfairs, travel, reading, music, humanism, religion, atheism, and even the odd spot of gardening.

Rate this Entry
Science needs to do better in Public Relations? Some scientists react badly to the need instead
Submit "Science needs to do better in Public Relations? Some scientists react badly to the need instead" to Digg Submit "Science needs to do better in Public Relations? Some scientists react badly to the need instead" to del.icio.us Submit "Science needs to do better in Public Relations? Some scientists react badly to the need instead" to StumbleUpon Submit "Science needs to do better in Public Relations? Some scientists react badly to the need instead" to Google
Posted 23-Apr-2010 at 07:36 PM (19:36) by Gurdur
Updated 20-Aug-2010 at 08:00 PM (20:00) by Gurdur

As science advances, it naturally becomes more and more important in political debates and governmental policies. How dangerous is airbourne volcanic ash for jet planes? That is a scientific question, but it becomes a very heated question in a debate where the conflicting interests of the safety of airline passengers, the legal and financial liabilities of airlines and governments, the jobs at stake in the airline industry, and the possible bankruptcy of airlines, all come into play. Likewise, the climate change debate, and possible governmental policy, has also become very heated, as highlighted in the hacked climate-science emails affair. The need for scientists to become better communicators and to become better at influencing public debate and governmental policy is very clear; but when confronted with this need, some scientists behave badly and react angrily instead.

There is a wealth of material out there to help scientists become better communicators and more influential; Cornelia Dean has written an excellent, very practical and highly recommendable book, "Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist's Guide to Talking to the Public". Mark S. Luckie has written, "The Digital Journalist's Handbook", which is a very good practical guide to how to use the web to publicize issues better. Scientists have a big advantage at the start in that, since scientists from early on have to learn how to use the web, how to make visualizations of data, how to present data, and so on, but even so, scientists are still losing out sometimes in the Public Relations (PR) game, and they need to learn why. Chris Mooney wrote a good book on science and politics, "The Republican War on Science", and Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum wrote, "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future", which again explored how scientists could become better communcators.

Yet, despite all that, some react by angrily denying any need to learn or to change techniques. For example, Steve Easterbrook, a professor of computer science, made a guest blog post wherein he said:
Quote:
... Journalists like Monbiot, despite all his brilliant work in keeping up with the science and trying to explain it to the masses, just haven’t ever experienced academic culture from the inside. Hence his call, which he keeps repeating, for Phil Jones to resign, on the basis that Phil reacted unprofessionally to FOI requests. But if you keep provoking a scientist with nonsense, you’ll get a hostile response. Any fool knows you don’t get data from a scientist by using FOI requests, you do it by stroking their ego a little, or by engaging them with a compelling research idea that you need the data to pursue.
.....
No, this is where Steve Easterbrook just doesn't get it. If a Freedom Of Information (FOI) claim is made, that is a legal matter; it is not something on which a scientist can demand that his or her ego be stroked instead. Either the FOI request is:
  • legally invalid, in which case the requester is so notified;
    .
  • or it is legally valid but ethically wrong, in which case the scientist(s) involved need to get to grips with the legal and political scenes to change the parameters of possible FOI inquiries;
    .
  • or the FOI request is legally valid and morally OK, in which case the scientist better comply with it or find him- or herself in a later world of hurt when the public find out the scientist is not complying with the law.

When science becomes an essential part of political/social debates and governmental policy, a scientist cannot demand his or her ego be stroked before complying with the legal obligations. It's getting ridiculous to demand stroking of egos in such circumstances. If the scientific side of the debate is crucial to the debate, as it is for example in the climate science side of life, then the data equally belongs in the public sphere for public scrutiny, not just for the scrutiny of a very few scientists.

Quote:
... The bottom line is that scientists will always tend to be rude to ignorant and lazy people, because we expect to see in one another a driving desire to master complex ideas and to work damn hard at it. Unfortunately the outside world (and many journalists) interpret that rudeness as unprofessional conduct. And because they don’t see it every day (like we do!) they’re horrified. ...
No, the bottom line is that not everyone who is dismissed as "ignorant and lazy" is in fact so, and a scientist cannot evade legal, political and moral obligations simply by decrying the opposition as "ignorant and lazy".

Steve Easterbrook goes on:

Quote:
... Some people have suggested that scientists need to wise up, and learn how to present themselves better on the public stage. Indeed, the Guardian published an editorial calling for the emergence of new leaders from the scientific community who can explain the science. This is naive and irresponsible. It completely ignores the nature of the current wave of attacks on scientists, and what motivates them. ....
No, what is naïve and irresponsible is to try claiming somehow the word of (only selected) scientists should be accepted by the general public without supporting evidence. As Steve Easterbrook already admitted in his guest blog post, scientists can and do often disagree strongly with each other; it's not as if science speaks with a unified voice on many things. And where a strong scientific consensus has inded been built, it needs to be shown how and why to the public. Steve cannot demand that claims without evidence which would not be accepted in science should somehow be accepted without question by the public.

Steve Easterbrook's put-down of the public is simply something that won't work at all; any court is going to make short shrift of denial made of a valid FOI request, denial made on the grounds that the scientists' egos in question weren't stroked enough. Too bad; the rest of us must also deal with the political process and the democratic debates, and scientists must do so too where their work becomes central to such debates.

Easterbrook goes on:

Quote:
No scientist can be an effective communicator in a world where those with vested interests will do everything they can to destroy his or her reputation.
Puh-leeze. That aready is the problem faced by others, and scientists will just have to learn that they are not entitled to unique protection on that score.

Certainly, in some cases people really do need protection from harrassment lawsuits (something on which I will be blogging more later, and something which has been shown in the very recent Simon Singh case). But in those cases, people need that protection equally, and that protection needs to be applied equally; it is not a matter of protection only for certain privileged scientists.

Quote:
The scientific community doesn’t have the resources to defend itself in this situation,
To some degree it does (remember what I wrote about scientists having advantages to learning about how to be better digital publicists); there it's a matter of attitude, not resources.

Quote:
... and quite frankly it shouldn’t have to.
No, not true. If you enter into public debates, you enter into public debates. Period. if you don't like the parameters, work together with others to change them, but you cannot demand special protection for any one single group; democracy rules. Scientists, like anyone else with a message to publicize, need to learn how best to work with the mass media and the internet.

Steve again:
Quote:
What we really need is for newspaper editors, politicians, and business leaders to start acting responsibly, make the effort to understand what the science is saying, make the effort to understand what really driving these swiftboat-style attacks on scientists, and then shift the discourse from endless dissection of scientists’ emails onto useful, substantive discussions of the policy choices we’re faced with.
it might be a wonderful world if everyone else did our work for us, including the laundry, but it isn't that way. Instead of arguing from self-pity and a sense of entitlement, recognise that because of the politics, some newspaper editors, politicians and business leaders will be on your side in any question, and others of those groups will always be very much against you. That's how politics works. Additionally, newspapers have their own problems in these times which are economically harsh for good journalism; don't expect others to do your job for you if you can't be bothered doing it yourself, and when those others are under great economic pressure.

Learning to be a better communicator is just that. Attempting to evade the issue by special pleading based on self-pity and a sense of entitlement is bound to fail.




Edited to add:

I now have a second blog post up on this subject:

Shooting the messenger instead of dealing with the problem: more on some scientists behaving badly to the need to become better communicators
Posted in Uncategorized
Views 4171 Comments 17
Total Comments 17

Comments

                   Post a Comment   Post a Comment
  1. Old Comment
    Quote:
    But if you keep provoking a scientist with nonsense, you’ll get a hostile response. Any fool knows you don’t get data from a scientist by using FOI requests, you do it by stroking their ego a little, or by engaging them with a compelling research idea that you need the data to pursue.
    In other words, the average person isn't good enough to speak with him, because, hell, we might say something nonsensical and offend him. His requirements are so special, we need to get Cesar Milan's cousin, the Scientist Whisperer to talk to him for us.

    Good blog post, Gurdur!
    Posted 23-Apr-2010 at 07:55 PM (19:55) by JackBlack3070 JackBlack3070 is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Gurdur's Avatar
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by JackBlack3070 View Comment
    .... His requirements are so special, we need to get Cesar Milan's cousin, the Scientist Whisperer to talk to him for us.
    You write my blog posts better than I do.

    Quote:
    Good blog post, Gurdur!
    Many thanks! One more coming up very soon on the same subject.
    Posted 23-Apr-2010 at 09:04 PM (21:04) by Gurdur Gurdur is offline
  3. Old Comment

    Another perspective

    First, i agree that science should be communicated better to the public, that's just common sense since we live in a democracy. However, i can see problems with some of the points you are making, so in the interest of good debate let me play devil's advocate:

    First i think you are being too demanding. What i understand Steve Easterbrook is saying is that scientists are not the best people to do this communication. Many of them are bad communicators, and really can't be bothered to learn to be better at it - and my question is why demand of them to do so? After all, many of them have chosen science precisely because they don't have to be, because what matters in science is demonstrable truth alone, not how many people believe you. If they were good at communication with public, and if they enjoyed it, they would go into politics, no?
    In essence, you are demanding from them that they be good scientists AND good communicators and often politicians, as if science alone wasn't hard enough. But that isn't all - consider for a while the requirements for a successful politician vs the requirements for a good scientist. For a scientist it is very important to be intelligent, honest, to be able to admit that he was wrong, to search for falsification of his theory. For politician in contrast it is important to look good, to be never caught being wrong or doing something questionable or behaving strangely, to earn trust of as many people as possible, usually without regards to truth. These two simply don't go well together. It's as if someone wanted you to do two jobs with completely opposite principles at the same time - would you be happy about it?

    I remember one professor on my university, he was very eccentric and his lessons were hilarious - i never thought math could be so much fun. But if he tried to go public, i doubt he would be able to persuade people that the sky is blue, he simply didn't look very trustworthy and he behaved more than a little bit crazy. He is a brilliant mathematician though and definitely knows what he is talking about. Of course, the person saying something has no effect on whether what he is saying is true. But it has effect on whether people believe him. This is the critical distinction, and it makes science and politics largely incompatible.

    You written "Puh-leeze. That aready is the problem faced by others, and scientists will just have to learn that they are not entitled to unique protection on that score." Then don't be surprised when many scientists don't want engage in public debate in the first place. Why should they willingly act in a way which will personally harm them? Just because you want them to? Their job isn't to make people believe in their results, it is just to discover things and demonstrate the validity of their conclusions. The rest is a work for politicians and PR people, not scientists.

    Also, when scientists oppose calls for "new leaders from the scientific community who can explain the science" they don't oppose explaining science, they oppose intrusion of consideration of public opinion into science. Science is not democratic, and many scientists fear the recent calls by some people to make it so, they fear politicizing science. There definitely should be people able to explain science to the public, but there is a danger in the public starting to perceive them as leading scientists because of this.

    Another objection is that i think you are being too optimistic about the public. A significant portion of the american public believes the world is less than 10000 years old, in spite of many proofs to the contrary. Face it, many people are just stupid. Scientists often work hard at discovering truth, and are accustomed to following the evidence even if it proves them wrong. They expect people who they are dealing with to observe this method too, to be able to follow logic, and i can definitely understand why they are not willing to deal with people who will ignore their proofs anyway.

    If you know anything about politics, you know that truth and logic don't matter that much, but things like rhetoric, perceived character of the speaker, manipulation, demagogy, and often slander and outright lies certainly do. Are you really surprised that people who chose to spend their lifetimes by discovering truth want to stay "clean" of politics and let someone else do it instead? Yes, there are people who aren't stupid or lazy, and i agree it is unfair to them if they are treated as such by some scientists. But you know that most people don't bother to understand scientific theories and proofs in depth, they will instead listen to conclusions of someone else analyzing it for them, often with an agenda to promote. And these people have equal voice in politics with those who really do understand what they are talking about.

    This leads me to another point - i can definitely understand some scientists being reluctant to make the results of their work public in fear of it being misused, or just plainly being taken out of context and misinterpreted to support a view which they know will result in harm. Remember Einstein and other scientists who discovered nuclear power - later in life they regretted making this knowledge public and the deaths this knowledge caused in the hands of irresponsible people not realizing the consequences. Of course, this doesn't mean i condone violating the FOI act, but i certainly can understand why some scientists would be motivated to do so.
    Posted 19-Aug-2010 at 02:29 PM (14:29) by Unregistered1
  4. Old Comment
    Gurdur's Avatar

    Another perspective

    Howdy again, Unregistered1; I already have to do two new blog posts because of your interesting feedback! Just in very short, because I am on the run at the moment, but I will answer more later:

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Unregistered1 View Comment
    ....First i think you are being too demanding. .... and my question is why demand of them to do so? ....
    In essence, you are demanding from them that they be good scientists AND good communicators and often politicians,
    Because otherwise they will have no-one but themselves to blame for their failure to adequately influence policy-making.

    Quote:
    It's as if someone wanted you to do two jobs with completely opposite principles at the same time - would you be happy about it?
    I'm not happy, I do 3 jobs at once. Happens for a lot of people; scientists are not privileged to be above the need to be better communicators -- whether they're happy about it or not.


    Quote:
    Then don't be surprised when many scientists don't want engage in public debate in the first place.
    Oh, I can perfectly understand it. But, basically, so what?

    Quote:
    Why should they willingly act in a way which will personally harm them?
    Might personally harm them, not will.

    Quote:
    Just because you want them to?
    No, not just because I want them to. On the contrary: because otherwise they will have no-one but themselves to blame for their failure to adequately influence policy-making.
    Posted 19-Aug-2010 at 03:33 PM (15:33) by Gurdur Gurdur is offline
  5. Old Comment
    lifelinking's Avatar
    Hey unregistered1.

    That is a great response. If I may just react to a couple of points.

    Quote:
    is demonstrable truth alone
    Well no, not really. It is about whether evidence supports a scientific (falsifiable) hypothesis in a way that can be replicated. You may find demonstrable truths in areas such as mathematics / logic, but not in natural science. In other words, just because findings support a hypothesis, that does not make the hypothesis a truth. This is in fact one of the great strengths of science.

    Quote:
    they oppose intrusion of consideration of public opinion into science.
    Interesting point here, the freedom of scientists against interference and so on. Though the tax revenue paid by that same public pays for a lot of the science that happens. Should their opinion not count for anything in a democracy? Just wondering.

    Quote:
    Another objection is that i think you are being too optimistic about the public. A significant portion of the american public believes the world is less than 10000 years old, in spite of many proofs to the contrary. Face it, many people are just stupid. Scientists often work hard at discovering truth, and are accustomed to following the evidence even if it proves them wrong. They expect people who they are dealing with to observe this method too, to be able to follow logic, and i can definitely understand why they are not willing to deal with people who will ignore their proofs anyway.
    If we take this stupidity argument you write about as a given (which is a stretch but for the sake of discussion we will), the choice would appear to be to try and do something about that stupidity (back to communicating science well) or retreating into a ghetto mentality. The latter option sort of leaves the door open to the creationists, biased media et al does it not?

    Quote:
    If you know anything about politics, you know that truth and logic don't matter that much, but things like rhetoric, perceived character of the speaker, manipulation, demagogy, and often slander and outright lies certainly do. Are you really surprised that people who chose to spend their lifetimes by discovering truth want to stay "clean" of politics and let someone else do it instead?
    There is truth in this, and also in the much clichéd aphorism that we get the politicians we deserve.

    Quote:
    Yes, there are people who aren't stupid or lazy, and i agree it is unfair to them if they are treated as such by some scientists. But you know that most people don't bother to understand scientific theories and proofs in depth, they will instead listen to conclusions of someone else analyzing it for them, often with an agenda to promote. And these people have equal voice in politics with those who really do understand what they are talking about.
    Well of course these well informed intelligent people are often working to pay the rent or mortgage, putting the children through school, and so on. To ask them to understand a range of scientific proofs in depth, particularly as scientific disciplines continue to become more and more specialised, is unrealistic. But a wider appreciation and understanding of science and important issues raised by science is eminently achievable. This is why we need good communicators (people like you - I dare say).

    Quote:
    This leads me to another point - i can definitely understand some scientists being reluctant to make the results of their work public in fear of it being misused, or just plainly being taken out of context and misinterpreted to support a view which they know will result in harm. Remember Einstein and other scientists who discovered nuclear power - later in life they regretted making this knowledge public and the deaths this knowledge caused in the hands of irresponsible people not realizing the consequences. Of course, this doesn't mean i condone violating the FOI act, but i certainly can understand why some scientists would be motivated to do so.
    Yes, I remember hearing the famous Oppenheimer interview for the first time and being chilled by his words, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”.

    And this is a crux point; science does not happen in a social vacuum. If we ask ourselves why we are doing science at all, and what it is for, we realise that it is never entirely value free. Politics, public opinion, economics and other factors will always be in there, somewhere. Scientists can choose to stick their heads in the sand, or to understand and engage with this in an open way

    Kindest regards.
    Posted 19-Aug-2010 at 04:20 PM (16:20) by lifelinking lifelinking is offline
  6. Old Comment

    Another perspective

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Gurdur
    Because otherwise they will have no-one but themselves to blame for their failure to adequately influence policy-making.
    ...
    I'm not happy, I do 3 jobs at once. Happens for a lot of people; scientists are not privileged to be above the need to be better communicators -- whether they're happy about it or not.
    Hmm ... First, scientists are not the only ones not very good at communicating to the public, there are other professions where public communication is not important (for example mine - programming, maybe that is why i understand them so well).

    But i wanted to make a different point. It is very hard for a scientist to communicate (because of the conflicting requirements i written about), and even then it won't go without alienating part of the public - Richard Dawkins is a nice example . This is the attitude you will get if you combine scientist with public communication. This is because scientists have certain habits, for example the unyielding use of logic, which frankly won't convince that many people ... It is much easier for a good communicator to learn the results of science - the theory and evidence, because they don't have to actually DO science. In other words, the point i wanted to make is pragmatic - you will get better results if you use "spokespersons for science" than if you try to force a bunch of geeks to become good at PR.

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by lifelinking
    Well no, not really. It is about whether evidence supports a scientific (falsifiable) hypothesis in a way that can be replicated...
    And this is a nice example of the conflicting requirements - yes, i understand scientific method, but describing it in a debate was not the best way to communicate my point ...

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by lifelinking
    Interesting point here, the freedom of scientists against interference and so on. Though the tax revenue paid by that same public pays for a lot of the science that happens. Should their opinion not count for anything in a democracy? Just wondering.
    Good point. I think this dilemma arises from the fact that science is not democratic. So, i think taxpayers should have their say, but they should decide based on results, not based on the methodology used. In other words, i think it is a package deal so to speak - either you let scientists do their thing according to their rules, and then get the very good results that we have, or you start interfering, and then ... it won't end well, because it will no longer be science.

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by lifelinking
    If we take this stupidity argument you write about as a given (which is a stretch but for the sake of discussion we will), the choice would appear to be to try and do something about that stupidity (back to communicating science well) or retreating into a ghetto mentality. The latter option sort of leaves the door open to the creationists, biased media et al does it not?
    Why do you think it is a stretch? Mind you, by stupidity i don't mean low intelligence (even not very bright people can be wise in realizing it and working around their limitations), but refusing to change your opinion in the face of evidence to the contrary.

    I don't think the choice you presented is accurate - of course we have to do something about the stupidity (sadly, evolution won't help here ...). But to do something about it you have to first recognize the cause, and in this case (creationism) i don't think the cause is lack of communication from scientists. I think this is what Steve Easterbrook meant by "It completely ignores the nature of the current wave of attacks on scientists, and what motivates them. .... ". How can you communicate science better to people who choose to ignore evidence?

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by lifelinking
    To ask them to understand a range of scientific proofs in depth, particularly as scientific disciplines continue to become more and more specialised, is unrealistic. But a wider appreciation and understanding of science and important issues raised by science is eminently achievable. This is why we need good communicators (people like you - I dare say).
    Thanks for the compliment lifelinking. But the need for better communicators wasn't what i was disputing. I just disagreed with the suggestion that it should be scientists themselves who should be these communicators - see my mention of Richard Dawkins above.
    I looked at his lectures and debates on youtube, and i think he is most often correct, but that won't change the fact that he won't convince the public at large, and will instead alienate many people. I think this problem is caused by the fact that in the absence of knowledge, people make decisions based on trust. And since scientists like Richard rely on knowledge in their arguments, their effort won't be very successful. What is needed is to restore the public trust in science, and i think scientists are not the right people for this task.

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by lifelinking
    And this is a crux point; science does not happen in a social vacuum. If we ask ourselves why we are doing science at all, and what it is for, we realise that it is never entirely value free. Politics, public opinion, economics and other factors will always be in there, somewhere. Scientists can choose to stick their heads in the sand, or to understand and engage with this in an open way
    The thing is, WE aren't doing science (unless you are scientist). We, that is the public may have an interest that science is done, but we aren't doing it ourselves. We rely on the work of relatively few who are able and willing to do it.

    I don't know if you are aware of this, but among scientists (and not only scientists but scholars in general), the result utility often isn't the reason why they do it. They often do it for the knowledge itself, for curiosity in how the universe works, for the pure joy in understanding. (Gurdur, if you are reading this, remember Leonard of Quirm from Terry Pratchett's books?) And this is also why they sometimes don't take political consequences into consideration.

    But my question is this - is it good to require of them to "pull their heads from the sand" as you put it? Look at it from the perspective of a scientist - won't it slow them down if they have to censor themselves so that the stupid masses don't misuse their discoveries again? Isn't this a sad picture of humanity? And we don't even know if it will work in the long term, with more and more new technologies being invented with the potential to destroy us. Isn't this the reason for the arrogance of some scientists? In their view, they already do what they can to improve humanity. Is it fair to them that they have hold back because other people are unwilling to learn, or to at least have the sense to trust them if they don't or can't?

    Just some food for thought.
    Posted 20-Aug-2010 at 11:53 AM (11:53) by Unregistered1
  7. Old Comment
    Gurdur's Avatar

    Another perspective

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Unregistered1 View Comment
    .... (Gurdur, if you are reading this, remember Leonard of Quirm from Terry Pratchett's books?) ...
    Indeedy. BTW, sorry for the 4-hour delay in approving this comment for publication, but delay will be worse for around 10 days or so, since I am travelling to Britain. I will check in when I can and approve comments when I can, but please have understanding for any long delays.

    Will answer your comments in full, later.
    Posted 20-Aug-2010 at 03:36 PM (15:36) by Gurdur Gurdur is offline
  8. Old Comment
    lifelinking's Avatar
    Quote:
    the fact that he won't convince the public at large, and will instead alienate many people.
    I broadly agree with this point.

    Quote:
    don't know if you are aware of this, but among scientists (and not only scientists but scholars in general), the result utility often isn't the reason why they do it. They often do it for the knowledge itself, for curiosity in how the universe works, for the pure joy in understanding.
    And I think there is an element of truth here too. Even if only as an idealised situation that a lucky few are able to achieve. But I suspect that scientists and scholars can be just as venal and self serving as anyone else, and just as prone to hubris. Further, scientists and scholars will often find themselves in a working environment where they will not have this kind of intellectual freedom. Where for example a scientist’s employers are motivated by maximising profits, they might not have the luxury of following where curiosity leads.

    Quote:
    But my question is this - is it good to require of them to "pull their heads from the sand" as you put it? Look at it from the perspective of a scientist - won't it slow them down if they have to censor themselves so that the stupid masses don't misuse their discoveries again?
    Sorry, I have missed where anyone called for censorship. As to stupid masses misusing discoveries, I rather think that history shows science being misused by power elites rather than the 'stupid masses'. This is another good argument for science and scientists to communicate more and better, to help prevent such misuse. This can take immense courage. Andrei Sakharov comes to mind as one example of a scientist that engaged with the world beyond his laboratory, at no small risk to himself.

    Quote:
    Isn't this a sad picture of humanity? And we don't even know if it will work in the long term, with more and more new technologies being invented with the potential to destroy us.
    Yes, our propensity for aggression and capability for self annihilation are causes for sadness. This makes the need for good scientists to be effective communicators and influencers even more urgent, does it not?

    Quote:
    Isn't this the reason for the arrogance of some scientists? In their view, they already do what they can to improve humanity.
    This is a sort of part explanation at the level of the individual. But I think there are some very interesting social and cultural things happening too.

    Quote:
    Is it fair to them that they have hold back because other people are unwilling to learn, or to at least have the sense to trust them if they don't or can't?
    Don't know about fair. I don't think there is a 'fairness clause' in life. We all just have to muddle through as best we can.

    I understand that the situation changes from place to place. I think scientific literacy is better in the UK than the USA (although not as good as some other places such as Japan). So I understand that we may be, literally and figuratively, arguing from different places.

    Good discussion, thank you.
    Posted 20-Aug-2010 at 06:11 PM (18:11) by lifelinking lifelinking is offline
  9. Old Comment
    Gurdur's Avatar
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by lifelinking View Comment
    .... I think scientific literacy is better in the UK than the USA (although not as good as some other places such as Japan). So I understand that we may be, literally and figuratively, arguing from different places. ...
    This is a point much exercising my mind at the moment. I tend to assume a certain amount of science literacy on the part of those who read my blog; I post mainly aimed at those who like science, but lack much knowledge over psychology, neuroscience and philosophy of mind. But it may well be a mistake on my part to assume too much; I'm thinking over how I write for the future.
    Posted 20-Aug-2010 at 06:14 PM (18:14) by Gurdur Gurdur is offline
    Updated 20-Aug-2010 at 07:59 PM (19:59) by Gurdur
  10. Old Comment
    Makbawehuh's Avatar
    Unregistered:

    Quote:
    Another objection is that i think you are being too optimistic about the public. A significant portion of the american public believes the world is less than 10000 years old, in spite of many proofs to the contrary. Face it, many people are just stupid. Scientists often work hard at discovering truth, and are accustomed to following the evidence even if it proves them wrong. They expect people who they are dealing with to observe this method too, to be able to follow logic, and i can definitely understand why they are not willing to deal with people who will ignore their proofs anyway.
    Lifelinking:

    Quote:
    If we take this stupidity argument you write about as a given (which is a stretch but for the sake of discussion we will), the choice would appear to be to try and do something about that stupidity (back to communicating science well) or retreating into a ghetto mentality. The latter option sort of leaves the door open to the creationists, biased media et al does it not?
    Unregistered:

    Quote:
    Mind you, by stupidity i don't mean low intelligence (even not very bright people can be wise in realizing it and working around their limitations), but refusing to change your opinion in the face of evidence to the contrary.

    I don't think the choice you presented is accurate - of course we have to do something about the stupidity (sadly, evolution won't help here ...). But to do something about it you have to first recognize the cause, and in this case (creationism) i don't think the cause is lack of communication from scientists. I think this is what Steve Easterbrook meant by "It completely ignores the nature of the current wave of attacks on scientists, and what motivates them. .... ". How can you communicate science better to people who choose to ignore evidence?
    I think there's a distinction here between "stupidity" and "willful ignorance" that needs to be made. I can (and have) taught mentally challenged people how to work with the internet successfuly and made sure that they had a basic understanding of what they're dealing with, when the people of "average" or "above average" intelligence in the home wanted nothing to do with the troubleshooting that needed to be done.

    The first is not a crime, and isn't what you're describing. The second one is.

    /rant about a pet peeve
    Posted 20-Aug-2010 at 07:57 PM (19:57) by Makbawehuh Makbawehuh is offline
    Updated 20-Aug-2010 at 08:06 PM (20:06) by Makbawehuh
  11. Old Comment
    lifelinking's Avatar
    Thank you Makbawehuh, you reminded me that I had not addressed these points.


    Quote:
    Why do you think it is a stretch?
    Well for a start and not just a little ironically, this whole 'they don't get it cos their stupid' argument is often thrown about, but I have never seen it backed up by any detailed, quality, peer reviewed research. In other words, it is an argument from belief. But then, before we could do such research, we would have to agree on what exactly we mean by stupidity.

    Somebody might not have a clue about quantum mechanics, and might believe in Adam and Eve and transubstantiation. Does that give us the right to say they are stupid? Still, it is a lot easier than actually striving to understand the complex social phenomena surrounding how people come to form and hold on to those beliefs.

    We need a deeper understanding here than this over simplified view. And as for clinging to an opinion in the face of evidence to the contrary, I think this is something we are all capable of, and that of course, includes scientists.

    Importantly, and linked to what Phil Plait said in the Tam 8 talk that Gurdur highlighted recently, how many people are we going to influence in a positive way about scientific ideas, if all we do is call them stupid?

    Just as importantly, referring to the points made by Jonathan Haidt in the TED talk that was linked to here, we may also usefully introduce what Haidt refers to as the 'psychology of teams'. If we use an explanatory framework which says that people who refuse to see things the way we do are 'stupid', we are stuck in a 'matrix' that prevents us from seeing that there are actually more complex, and more interesting things going on. Note that the 'they are stupid' view limits us, and prevents us from seeking greater understanding.

    Haidt's position does not explain everything, but it does point to the fact that there are deeper explanations to seek, than just pronouncing that masses of ordinary people as stupid.
    Posted 20-Aug-2010 at 09:02 PM (21:02) by lifelinking lifelinking is offline
  12. Old Comment
    Makbawehuh's Avatar
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by lifelinking View Comment
    Thank you Makbawehuh, you reminded me that I had not addressed these points.
    No problem. It's a common issue I run into. Not just in this instance, but with co-workers and with friends and family as well. Hell, -I- use to do it before I realized I was insulting people who were genuinely stupid.

    Once I realized it was an attitude I was having trouble with, not an inherent (dis)ability, it was a whole different ball game. It also started really irking the shit out of me when people weren't recognizing the problem for what it really was: The attitudes of people who should know better, but refuse to for whatever reason.

    Generally speaking, most truely stupid people I've run into have been very nice. Easily confused, sometimes easily frustrated (and who can blame them?) but nice. Truely stupid people also (sadly) usually are aware that they're slow. I've found that if you're patient with them, they'll usually make up in willingness and dedication to learning what they lack in innate ability.

    Personally, I'd rather have a genuinely stupid person around to talk about issues with than a smart person with a prejudice. Stupid people usually -listen- and take what you're saying into account.

    Gods... I went off again. I'm so sorry. >.< *shuts up now, for reals*
    Posted 20-Aug-2010 at 09:55 PM (21:55) by Makbawehuh Makbawehuh is offline
  13. Old Comment
    Gurdur's Avatar
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Makbawehuh View Comment
    .... Gods... I went off again. I'm so sorry. >.< *shuts up now, for reals*
    Hey, please don't shut up, please feel very free to comment and to continue on these tangents -- they're important.
    Posted 21-Aug-2010 at 12:18 AM (00:18) by Gurdur Gurdur is offline
  14. Old Comment
    Makbawehuh's Avatar
    Yes, but I'm off topic. :P
    Posted 21-Aug-2010 at 01:10 AM (01:10) by Makbawehuh Makbawehuh is offline
  15. Old Comment
    Gurdur's Avatar
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Makbawehuh View Comment
    Yes, but I'm off topic. :P
    And? So what?
    Posted 21-Aug-2010 at 01:11 AM (01:11) by Gurdur Gurdur is offline
  16. Old Comment
    Makbawehuh's Avatar
    I'm beating a dead horse? My point was made and I went off again anyways. I hate it when I do that... Although it is a bit of a bleedover from RL. I had a bitchout session with a co-worker (mostly consisting of me bitching him out) for this very thing, minutes before I actually read the comments. I was like

    GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH! NOT AGAIN!

    lol.

    Same co-worker conversation has spurred me to start collecting my thoughts on what I term the entitlement complex though, and it's ties to narcissism. I has mental notes for a future blog post started.
    Posted 21-Aug-2010 at 05:52 AM (05:52) by Makbawehuh Makbawehuh is offline
  17. Old Comment
    Hi all,

    I see that i have to clear a few things up. First, about stupidity:
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Makbawehuh
    I think there's a distinction here between "stupidity" and "willful ignorance" that needs to be made. I can (and have) taught mentally challenged people how to work with the internet successfuly and made sure that they had a basic understanding of what they're dealing with, when the people of "average" or "above average" intelligence in the home wanted nothing to do with the troubleshooting that needed to be done. The first is not a crime, and isn't what you're describing. The second one is.
    ...
    Generally speaking, most truely stupid people I've run into have been very nice. Easily confused, sometimes easily frustrated (and who can blame them?) but nice. Truely stupid people also (sadly) usually are aware that they're slow. I've found that if you're patient with them, they'll usually make up in willingness and dedication to learning what they lack in innate ability.

    Personally, I'd rather have a genuinely stupid person around to talk about issues with than a smart person with a prejudice. Stupid people usually -listen- and take what you're saying into account.
    Yes, that is precisely why i clarified that i am NOT talking about people with low intelligence (nor any more specific mental defect for that matter). I am not native english speaker, so maybe my choice of word "stupid" was not the best one if this is the meaning it commonly has (cultural aspects again - in my native language the word most often translated as stupid is not used mainly/only in that sense, it has more to do with lack of reason, common sense and/or wisdom than with intelligence). In my arguments when i use stupid i mean this: http://wwwcsif.cs.ucdavis.edu/~leeey...dity/basic.htm . You may get a good laugh out of that article, but the definition mentioned in law 3 is surprisingly good.

    However, i think calling it willful ignorance is not accurate enough. Willfully ignorant people are often aware of their ignorance, and are still able to learn. But the people i am talking about often actively oppose certain ideas, regardless of evidence to the contrary presented to them. Maybe i should call it willful stupidity then, or self inflicted stupidity, or dimply delusion (except i feel that one is too broad)?

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by lifelinking
    Well for a start and not just a little ironically, this whole 'they don't get it cos their stupid' argument is often thrown about, but I have never seen it backed up by any detailed, quality, peer reviewed research. In other words, it is an argument from belief. But then, before we could do such research, we would have to agree on what exactly we mean by stupidity.
    I am not using that argument, and i don't imply that their opinion is caused by some inherent trait they can't change. I am calling them stupid because they don't get it, no matter how many people explain it, or more precisely they don't WANT to get it. I explained what i meant by stupid, but we can use different word for the sake of clarity if you want.

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by lifelinking
    And as for clinging to an opinion in the face of evidence to the contrary, I think this is something we are all capable of, and that of course, includes scientists.
    Yes, we can all be stupid at times. This is not all or nothing thing - being stupid about some inconsequential things is different than being stupid about nuclear weapons for example.

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by lifelinking
    ...how many people are we going to influence in a positive way about scientific ideas, if all we do is call them stupid?
    First, i am not necessarily suggesting to tell them they are stupid, that is just a label i used for this debate.
    Second, how many of them are you going to influence otherwise? We are not talking about rational people who just aren't aware of some argument or fact here.
    And third, calling them stupid may actually help - by motivating some of them to actually learn the topic they are talking about, and by creating social pressure against ideas they hold.

    Now, regarding other points lifelinking made:
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by lifelinking
    And I think there is an element of truth here too. Even if only as an idealised situation that a lucky few are able to achieve. But I suspect that scientists and scholars can be just as venal and self serving as anyone else, and just as prone to hubris. Further, scientists and scholars will often find themselves in a working environment where they will not have this kind of intellectual freedom.
    I think it is more widespread than you suggest, at lest here. First, there are universities. Then, even when we are talking about business, there are many opportunities in different branches of science, and creative people tend to pursue fields which interest them. And last, this is not a dichotomy - curiosity and love of knowledge on one side, vs pragmatic self interest on the other side. The same work can often satisfy both, and even when it can't they still can pursue their interests in their free time (and many do). Then, maybe i am wrong on this one, i have no statistics to support this claim, it is just based on my experience.

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by lifelinking
    Sorry, I have missed where anyone called for censorship.
    I was talking about self-censorship. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-censorship#Science

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by lifelinking
    As to stupid masses misusing discoveries, I rather think that history shows science being misused by power elites rather than the 'stupid masses'. This is another good argument for science and scientists to communicate more and better, to help prevent such misuse.
    I think you are contradicting yourself here. Better communication of science won't persuade power elites - they usually know what they want all too well. For example, in the tobacco scandal, the corporations spread disinformation, and paid for a dissenting "scientific" opinion even when their own scientists confirmed the findings of cancer risk.

    And don't forget that the biggest power - government - is often supported by public opinion, and sometimes lobbied by citizens' organizations (relevant in this case are right wing evangelicals). It sometimes goes as far as this:
    http://www.commondreams.org/headlines05/0210-12.htm
    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/...n1415985.shtml
    http://www.examiner.com/civil-libert...elf-censorship
    http://www.ipce.info/ipceweb/Library...al_censure.htm

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by lifelinking
    Don't know about fair. I don't think there is a 'fairness clause' in life. We all just have to muddle through as best we can.
    Of course there is no fairness clause - this is about perception. My argument here is pragmatic - scientists are people with free will too, and if you don't take their possible viewpoint into account, any policy you adopt will have unintended consequences. If you try solve problems simply by heaping additional requirements of PR skills on them, and they perceive it as unfair, many of them will simply avoid doing any research which might result in controversy, which would require them to publicly defend it in the first place. It is already happening (see the links above), and the result is less research being done on many important topics.

    You make a lot of good points for the need to better communicate science, even though not necessarily by scientists themselves. Also, could you please elaborate on the interesting social and cultural things happening you mentioned?
    Posted 23-Aug-2010 at 01:10 PM (13:10) by Unregistered1
Post a Comment Post a Comment
Total Trackbacks 0

Trackbacks


All times are GMT +2. The time now is 08:33 PM (20:33).

       

Credits and thanks:
Basic Style design: Design By: Miner Skinz.com
(much altered by Gurdur)

For smilies:

Koloboks, including Aiwan, ViShenk, Just Cuz, Laie, Connie, snoozer, Viannen,
and especially Mother Goose too.
KitKatty. and PederDingo, and phantompanther.

For help, coding, and/or modifications:

Different people at vBulletin.com, and a whole lot of people -- too many to be individually named, sorry -- at vBulletin.org

For artwork, avatars, backgrounds and so on:

KitKatty, and verte, and britpoplass


Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.8.2
Copyright ©2000 - 2014, Jelsoft Enterprises Ltd.
Copyright is asserted for the Heathen Hub itself and for its owner by its owner, from 2008 onwards. Copyright of individual posts remains the property of the original poster, however by posting on the Hub the poster grants the Hub the rights to host and present the posted messages for perpetuity. The Hub is in no way responsible for opinions or messages posted in any way on the Hub by its members. Please also see this here. Copyright of individual icons and other graphics, as for individual vBulletin styles, remains the property of the original owner/creator. Copyright for the vBulletin software itself, and the vBulletin Blogs software, remains with Jelsoft Enterprises Ltd, as in the copyright notice above.
Welcome to a place to talk about atheism, religion, science, humanism, evolution, politics, Creationism, literature, reason, rational inquiry, logic, cooking, reading, and travel - the Hub: a community for everyone.