Friday, August 30, 2013

Science Denial, the U.S. and Us

This article also appears in

Before a Call to Action, We Need Insights and a Plan
Professor Adam Frank at the University of Rochester rang a warning bell about the dangers of science denial in an important op-ed (Welcome to the Age of Denial) in The New York Times last week. He stated the sad fact that, “it is politically effective, and socially acceptable, to deny scientific fact.” Science denial is becoming more entrenched and culturally correct.

This juggernaut of illogic is like a cancer that has metastasized. He noted that, “climate deniers, taking pages from the creationists’ PR playbook, have manufactured doubt about fundamental issues in climate science that were decided scientifically decades ago. And anti-vaccine campaigners brandish a few long-discredited studies to make unproven claims about links between autism and vaccination.”

How do we fight this? Dr. Frank called on the scientific community to channel Carl Sagan, the late astronomer, author and science personality, and do more communicating (and for the general public to be more active, too). The Equation blog from the Union of Concerned Scientists echoed this “call to action.”

Yes, scientists must learn how to engage and how to communicate. I know there are some efforts underway at institutions such as the National Academy of Sciences and Stony Brook University’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science but, no matter what, there are critical steps that must come first. We need to ask questions and use the resulting information to generate the insights necessary to develop and implement a plan.

So, a “call to action” directed where, with what information, in what form? Before anything is done, we must understand the causes, motivations and forces at work. What are the religious, political and corporate interests, and what are their strategies and tactics? And, we must know our target audiences, and their issues and concerns. What’s the right language, the most compelling examples, what will it take to be persuasive? We know it’s not just about the facts – otherwise, everyone would accept global warming and evolution, no one would smoke, kids would get vaccinated and all motorcyclists would wear helmets. Scientists (and marketing and communications professionals) need to marry specific, emotionally-based messages with the factual.

The news media, of course, have a huge role to play. In misguided attempts to achieve fair balance (or, cynically, sometimes achieve the outcomes they wish), the media feeds into false equivalency – providing equal coverage to opposing views when, in reality, one side dramatically outweighs the other. An example was brought into the sunshine on the pages of The Wall Street Journal. It published a letter last year, “No Need to Panic About Global Warming (January 27, 2012), that said, “There's no compelling scientific argument for drastic action to 'decarbonize' the world's economy.” The editor noted the letter “has been signed by the 16 scientists listed at the end of the article.” I checked those names. Of the 16, there was only one climate researcher and one atmospheric scientist. 

Indeed, a few days later, another letter was published entitled, “Check With Climate Scientists for Views on Climate.” The 38 climate, environmental and atmospherics experts who signed the letter admonished, “Do you consult your dentist about your heart condition?” They went on: “While accomplished in their own fields, most of these authors have no expertise in climate science. Research shows that more than 97% of scientists actively publishing in the field agree that climate change is real and human caused. It would be an act of recklessness for any political leader to disregard the weight of evidence and ignore the enormous risks that climate change clearly poses.”

This isn’t just about promoting the truth or science getting its fair share. Professor Jon D. Miller, now at the University of Michigan, told The New York Times in 2005 that “People’s inability to understand basic scientific concepts undermines their ability to take part in the democratic process.” The Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy points out that “Many of the nation’s founding fathers were citizen scientists,” including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison and George Washington. “John Adams, for instance, spoke of the “science of government.” In a debate with Benjamin Franklin in 1776, Adams invoked the principle of mechanical equilibrium to argue on behalf of his conception for our government’s system of checks and balances—designed, at least in part, to ensure policies based on verified, trustworthy evidence."

We've had one ”wake-up call" after another on the issue of science denial. But it's complex -- there isn't just one thing we should do. To start, though, we must review and revere our history, and use those founding principles again. The nation began with questioning dogma, exploring options, celebrating invention and spreading information. That brought us a long way and it can bring us further still.

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