What you’re getting into: 900 words, a 3 to 5 minute read.
Framing is one of the most important concepts in public communication. The term can get thrown around loosely, but in my mind, framing comes down to how we define problems and, as a consequence, how we think about potential solutions.
Most scientists and technical experts tend to define problems on a spectrum, whether it’s the risk of ecosystem collapse, temperature ranges for a warming planet, or the potential side effects of medication. When policymakers and members of the public approach these same issues, though, they often think of such risks in binary terms: Can we save these wetlands? Will we blow past the 1.5 to 2 C warming goal? Does this pill need a warning label?
Often, scientists wish they could help people see things their way: with the risks on a nuanced spectrum. In order to do so, they may have to speak binary first.
Is your car broken or outside specified design tolerance?
I recently spoke about framing to a group of AAAS Fellows and shared a Malcolm Gladwell story about auto safety that neatly illustrated this point (h/t to Stephen Young).
In 2009, Gladwell wrote, Toyota engineers were having a lot of frustrating conversations with customers who thought their cars had undergone “sudden acceleration.” In some rare cases, there were problems with people’s accelerators. But most of the time, the problem was human error: people were unconsciously hitting their accelerator, something drivers do with much more regularity than we tend to assume. Normally we just tap the brakes to slow down, get our feet back where they’re supposed to go, and go on driving. But Toyota drivers were worried, likely as a result of extensive media reporting about possible problems with the vehicles.
Gladwell elegantly captured the disconnect:
The public…didn’t think about the necessary compromises inherent in the design process. They didn’t understand that a car was engineered to be tolerant of things like sticky pedals. They looked at the part in isolation, saw that it did not work as they expected it to work—and foresaw the worst. What if an inexperienced driver found his car behaving unexpectedly and panicked? To the engineer, a car sits somewhere on the gradient of acceptability. To the public, a car’s status is binary: it is either broken or working, flawed or functional.
Toyota had to help their employees “reframe” their message. Yes, they could talk to customers about sticky pedals and design tolerance, but they first had to acknowledge that customers simply wanted to feel safe in their cars. Toyota went so far as to offer to replace perfectly fine vehicles if people felt unsafe in them. According to a management expert Gladwell interviewed, it completely turned things around. Instead of feeling ignored, customers started sending “love letters” to the company. (Gladwell doesn’t address this, but I’m assuming Toyota didn’t have to actually replace thousands of cars unnecessarily. As with many other such offers, it’s the thought that counts.)
Binary frames can be abused to ignore science
A former colleague was testifying before Congress about fisheries once. He told a committee that there was a 95 percent chance a certain fishery would collapse over the next several years without intervention. A Congressman responded by asking him to come back when he was 100 percent certain.
If you’re a scientist reading this, I know you’re shaking your head. One of the bedrock truths in science is that nothing is 100% certain. Even if the fishery collapsed, perhaps scientists would cautiously state that there was 99% certainty that all the fish were gone based on available data.
The Congressman was demanding a binary answer: tell me if it will collapse or not, yes or no. But science doesn’t often doesn’t do binary, especially on topics that the public and policymakers see as controversial.
But we can also use binary frames to anchor more complex scientific frames
In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made big news when it announced that scientists were 95 percent certain that industrial carbon burning and other activities were causing global warming.
In attempting to explain where this basic conclusion of climate science sits on the certainty spectrum, the AP’s Seth Borenstein asked researchers what else in science enjoys that same level of certainty. He got some interesting answers, including the link between smoking and lung disease.
Most people, myself included, have not internalized certainty levels and percentages the same ways scientists have. What made Borenstein’s article particularly effective was that it translated a spectrum frame to a binary one:
“What level of statistical certainty do scientists have about industrial carbon burning causing recent global warming?” is a spectrum question. The answer is 95 percent.
“Are scientists as sure about the cause of climate change as they are that smoking causes lung disease?” is a binary question. The answer is yes.
Importantly, both of these questions are useful and both of these answers are accurate. We don’t have to choose between them and, in fact, people might ultimately need both frames to understand scientific evidence about societal risks.
What you’re getting into: about 3500 words, a 12-18 minute read
Scientists often assume that journalists are on their side when it comes to educating the public about scientific topics. That’s true for a lot of basic science, like, say, when journalists write about the discovery of a new exoplanet or explain the work of a scientist who just won a major prize. Those typically aren’t controversial topics, so scientists and journalists alike are simply trying their best to explain some cool science.
The second we start talking about anything perceived as controversial outside the lab, though, the rules of engagement can dramatically shift. It’s incredibly easy for scientists, science communicators and journalists to talk past one other when we’re dealing with topics like climate change, vaccines, evolution and genetic engineering, as well as science funding. And it can happen when journalists hold scientists and scientific institutions accountable, too.
The good news, I think, is that we can do better. And doing so requires being clearer about when we’re talking about science and when we’re talking about competing values and how science fits into societal debates.
Below, I offer a story, some observations and suggestions. I‘d love to hear more.
Policy, politics and cultural coverage isn’t pure science coverage
I talked past a reporter pretty badly back in 2011. Members of Congress had invited several scientists to testify about whether or not the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to reduce heat-trapping emissions were justified. One member — a lawyer by training — used his time to pepper scientists with loaded questions while demanding simple yes or no answers, a standard tactic at such hearings. Of course, that’s anathema to any scientist.
Here’s how a major news outlet ended an article about the hearing:
Mr. Griffith also wanted to know why the ice caps on Mars were melting and why he had been taught 40 years ago in middle school that Earth was entering a cooling period.
“What is the optimum temperature for man?” he asked. “Have we looked at that? These are questions that, believe it or not, I lay awake at night trying to figure out.”
The scientists promised to provide written answers.
Like a lot of folks working on climate science communication at the time, I thought this was a problematic ending. To a reader unfamiliar with these issues, it could sound like these were mysterious questions for which science had no good answers. (Briefly, here are answers on Mars, 1970s climate science, and why rates of change are more worrisome than absolute temperature.)
I fired off an email to the reporter, arguing — quite well I thought — that his reporting was unfair to the scientists who testified and detrimental to public understanding of science.
He told me, in so many words, that edifying the public about Martian climate variance wasn’t the point of his article.
First of all, I hadn’t been the first person to contact him, so he felt like he was getting pressured (reporters hate that) and his reporting on the hearing was accurate. That was, in fact, what happened at the hearing and an informed reader, he argued, would know exactly where the politicians and scientists stood in relation to one another. Further, his story also focused on an exchange in which a representative made it clear that climate science — and risks from industrially driven climate change — were well-established in the scientific literature.
I realized that in his mind, my complaint wasn’t really about science; my complaint was that he hadn’t beaten up a member of Congress for giving scientists a hard time.
We also had different audiences in mind. My complaint was based on the assumption that the article’s audience would be otherwise uninformed about climate science or policy. He assumed that readers would be well-armed enough to draw their own conclusions.
Maybe I was right, but that and $3.25 will get you a Chai Latte at Starbucks. The point is that I was telling him to do science communication and he was reminding me that he was doing political reporting. In the ensuing years, I think journalists have done a better job reminding readers where climate science stands when politicians challenge or reject the evidence, but the exchange taught me a broader lesson: just because a story has a lot of science in it doesn’t mean it’s going to get treated like a science story.
Journalists and scientists are both committed to accuracy
Journalists and scientists do both care deeply about accuracy and credibility. It’s tempting to say that it’s because the noble ideals of both professions rest on uncovering the truth and boldly going where the facts lead, regardless of one’s beliefs or biases. And, yeah, okay that’s true, but the day-to-day is a lot more brass tacks: in both professions, credibility is currency and too many errors over time can sink a career.
Real errors are a problem, of course. And scientists and journalists are both sometimes guilty of intransigence when people point out errors in their work. Regardless, both professions benefit from the self-correcting nature of the larger enterprises around them. A bad story will get factchecked by other outlets in ways that are similar to how a bunktastic scientific paper will fail replication by other scientists.
The problem I’m writing about isn’t really about factual errors, though; it’s about what happens when science-related stories move out of the lab, into the world, and yes, into the political arena. We need to be careful about how we think and talk about accuracy in that context, because it’s easy to talk past each other based on assumptions about what audiences know and what role journalism is playing in a given debate.
This is important to get right because science is still the best tool we have for learning about the world and journalism is still the best tool we have for informing the public about what those scientific tools have uncovered.
Journalists and scientists have different audiences and jobs
Scientists care deeply about what policymakers and the public think about their fields, especially on issues that are perceived as controversial. When politicians and interest groups seek to highlight, inflate and manufacture controversies, scientists’ desire for accuracy often puts them in the position of wanting journalists to downplay or actively challenge those outside attempts at influencing the public and focus on what is well-established among scientists.
But when those same outside interests groups focus on controversies, it’s journalists’ job to report on them. Their commitment to fairness means bringing in all the stakeholders in a debate and reporting what they believe and why, even when it cuts against the science.
So sometimes, when scientists are demanding accurate reporting, what they’re really asking is for journalists to critically assess inaccurate views from outside the scientific community. Journalists can’t always do that, especially on deadline when they’re covering noisy policy fights. I‘d argue that this often puts the onus — rightly or wrongly — on scientists to repeatedly make their views clear to journalists and media outlets. That means consistently reminding journalists what scientists have to say about these topics and why prevalent misinformation is wrong.
Of course, journalists have a responsibility, too. They can’t pass on inaccurate information simply because there are quote marks around it. Journalism professor Jay Rosen, for instance, describes several ways reporters can handle political disputes about established climate science ranging from explaining the ideological roots of rejecting climate science to simply noting what the science does say in their own journalistic voice. Additionally, media outlets have a special responsibility to report on industry attempts to influence the public and policymaking, whether on climate change or toxic chemicals.
The bottom line is that scientists and science communicators shouldn’t conflate their disappointment with some media reporting with their deeper disappointment in a society that is often simply out of step with scientists on a host of topics. It’s journalists’ job to report on science-related societal controversies accurately, but it’s not journalists’ job to actively push the public toward established science. That also means that science communicators and scientists need to think more about how they can help journalists do effective, accurate reporting around contentious societal debates.
Journalists aren’t here to help anyone’s cause, including scientists’
There’s another type of complaint scientists often have with reporting on and around science: the story is going to be abused by people who want to attack the broader scientific field.
For instance, scientists understandably gripe about the “Darwin was wrong” trope that regularly pops up in biology reporting. In 2009, New Scientist even used it as the title for a cover story. Scientists bemoaned the choice, noting that creationists quickly hopped on the article as “evidence” that mainstream biology was in shambles.
Of course, anyone motivated enough to pick up a copy of New Scientist probably already has their mind made up about the theory of evolution, but scientists rightfully worry about how groups outside the scientific mainstream will use — and more often, abuse — reporting on scientific topics. It can happen with any scientific finding, even seemingly routine ones, on vaccination, industrial agriculture, dietary and nutrition choices, and anything anyone wants to pick a fight about for reasons that usually have nothing at all to do with actual science. Because scientists enjoy so much public trust, advocates always want to have science on their side, so they’ll comb through literature, trade reports, and science-related press releases and media coverage hunting for anything they can use (and dismissing what they can’t).
Ideally, media outlets should anticipate this sort of thing.
Here’s that New Scientist cover.
And here’s how National Geographic arguably handled it better with a clear message for people who bothered to crack the magazine open.
Of course, science communicators and scientists would probably much rather see something like this.
To which a science journalist might say: love the Warhol thing, but where’s the conflict for a good story?
Ice, Ice, Maybe
Scientists and journalists had to artfully deal with a rather odd combination of substance and perception recently when a NASA-sponsored study — by accounts, an outlier — found that Antarctica is gaining ice mass overall even as the West Antarctic ice sheet continues to melt, as sea levels continue to rise, and as global warming goes on broadly in line with what scientists have been saying about it for decades.
At first blush, the study’s findings are a head-turner that runs counter to the simple main message the public has heard from scientists for decades: global warming melts ice and raises sea levels pretty much everywhere. Of course, there are a lot of nuances under that statement, which scientists have talked about repeatedly, especially when it comes to the rate of melting and the geographic differences between places like Greenland and Antarctica, but at the headline level or broad public awareness, this was surprising news.
Predictably, ideological media outlets that routinely criticize mainstream climate science used the study to try to throw cold water on climate science. Here’s an opinion writer taking a fat, sloppy swing at it in the UK’s Express:
Nothing like ALL CAPS to make the CREDIBILITY OF YOUR ARGUMENT clear.
Some mainstream outlets jumped on it as a surprising study. From their perspective, it wasn’t their main job to beat the public over the head with the basic science on global warming and melting ice sheets or to correct what those ideological sources have said: it was their main job to report on a new and interesting “man bites dog” science story.
USA Today, with its incredibly broad audience, probably captured that reaction best:
Other journalists and outlets, notably Chris Mooney at the Washington Postwent out of their way to put the study in deep scientific and policy context. They and their editors even used valuable headline space to address potential misinformation about the study, something that almost never happens when outlier studies get big coverage.
Andrew Freedman at Mashable took a similar approach in his reporting, while the headline took on the inaccurate narrative about the study directly.
Of course, Mooney and Freedman are well-versed beat reporters with arguably more engaged audiences. That’s the exception, not the norm, and the onus is still on scientists and scientific institutions to anticipate inaccurate takes on new research and plan their communications accordingly.
For it’s part, NASA’s social media account tried to squeeze as much nuance as it could into 140 characters:
Still the agency’s press release might have done more to emphasize what is known about long-term ice loss and sea-level rise globally. Interestingly, the study’s lead author was pretty blunt about how people outside the scientific community would misrepresent his research in an interview with Nature.
“I know some of the climate deniers will jump on this, and say this means we don’t have to worry as much as some people have been making out,” he says. “It should not take away from the concern about climate warming.” As global temperatures rise, Antarctica is expected to contribute more to sea-level rise, though when exactly that effect will kick in, and to what extent, remains unclear.
Such awareness is common among scientists working in controversial fields and they should be open about it, just as public health researchers devote plenty of time and thought to how their own studies are received. It’s all about helping audiences — and reporters — enjoy an accurate view of the science.
Journalists also have to hold scientists and institutions accountable
Buzzfeed’s Brooke Borel recently wrote about controversies surrounding biologist Kevin Folta and communications work he did related to GMOs, some of which was done in coordination with biotech companies running anti-labeling campaigns. Naturally, pro-and-anti GMO forces attempted to assign ideological positions to Borel’s article, but there was another thread of more interesting criticism (at least for me). Some scientists complained that the article would 1) provide more ammo for anti-GMO groups attacking Folta and other scientists and 2) discourage other researchers from doing science communication.
Borel’s response was straightforward and sensible. In a series of Twitter messages she wrote: “As science writers/journalists/etc, we hold a strange position sometimes. I love science. I admire scientists. But it’s also my job to think about both critically. My job as a science journalist is not to advocate for science and scientists at all times, no matter what.”
Indeed, scientists are often public figures who can and should face public criticism from time to time: many enjoy taxpayer support and they are often trusted, powerful figures in society. So even while scientists and science communicators rightfully condemn politicized attacks on researchers, they should also expect and even welcome journalistic scrutiny. Another journalist, Rose Eveleth, put it well, too:
Journalists don’t work for some vast “Science Is Awesome” campaign. Our job is to report, the good and the bad. To hold folks accountable. — Rose Eveleth (@roseveleth) October 21, 2015
When scientists get involved — or unwillingly find themselves involved — in public communication on controversial science-related issues, we’re not in the world of pure science reporting any more. In these debates, scientists are just one of many actors pushing for their voices to be heard above the democratic din.
Science gets inserted into these debates in perfectly accurate as well as questionable ways all the time. It can be tough for journalists and scientists to figure out how to best respond. But I think we can all do better.
A series of hopefully helpful, but not exhaustive suggestions
Far be it from me to pontificate about a host of complex problems without at least suggesting some solutions. Here are a few ideas for how scientists, journalists and media outlets, as well as press officers at scientific institutions can help address these issues. (I’d love to hear feedback and talk about additional ideas.)
Anticipate misunderstanding of your work — both intentional and not — and insist that public information officers and reporters anticipate it, too.
Demand accuracy, but understand when journalists aren’t just reporting on the science.
If you have a problem with a story, be direct, clear and forthright about it. Journalists are used to criticism and it’s easy for them to write you off as a hater if you come across as griping. (With exceptions for hacks and fabulists, of course.)
If you think a piece was missing context, but wasn’t expressly inaccurate, ask for an update, a chance to do a guest post (if possible, depending on the outlet), or just blog about it on your own.
If a reporter won’t correct a real error and you think it’s important enough, you can go over their heads to an editor or, if that doesn’t work, call them out online, but before you do that, ask someone with an outside perspective, preferably a press officer at your institution or a fellow scientist with lots of media experience, how strong your case really is. Ask them to think about it purely on the merits — as if they were reading about it online instead of chatting with someone they known and respect.
For journalists (and media outlets)
Build and link to explainers on controversial topics so audiences who are new to an issue or need a refresher can go back to that content when something new breaks. You have no idea how much scientists would love to see this and well-done explainers are often evergreen traffic sources. It’s also a great way to not have to reinvent the wheel when a new controversy erupts.
Understand the prevalent misinformation around a scientific topic and anticipate how scientists will see work as feeding into or pushing back against it. If you’re relatively new to a topic, ask scientists you’re interviewing what sort of inaccuracies they would want you to avoid in reporting. They’ll have plenty to share, believe me.
If you a know a piece will be received as controversial, take a look at how Brooke Borel quickly, openly and non-defensively responded to such criticism. Do that. Your storytelling is incomplete without responding to your audience.
Be open with scientists about what you’re looking for and where their work fits in, especially if it’s a controversial topic. Scientists worry a lot about their media coverage and much of that anxiety can come from unnecessarily fearing the worst.
If a scientist perceives missing context outside of pure scientific facts as a type of error, explain the distinctions as you see them and consider offering to update the story with more commentary from the scientist or about the science. It’s painless and can enhance the story.
You can and will tick off scientists even if your work is accurate. The mere act of not using jargon and keeping things short can create explanatory gaps from a scientist’s perspective. Give them a break. If you get a critical email from a scientist, use it as an excuse to help them understand your work. If they’re still grumpy, offer to buy them a coffee or beer.
Similarly, if an editor tells you to oversimplify some cool, complex topic you discussed with a scientist, stand up to that editor and stand up for your audience. I’m a big believer that people who are wiling to read entire stories are also wiling to understand and think about them, too. (Yeah, I know, I’m an optimist.)
For institutions and press officers
Don’t over-hype outlier findings, especially on controversial topics. Yeah, I know, this is tough one, but that’s why it’s important to give scientists the last-right-of-review on press materials. A university press officer looking to get attention for a study will often present it as “overturning” mainstream findings, for instance, and everyone involved should know that that usually leads to inaccurate reporting.
If a scientist seems worried about how some of their work will be received, listen. Pause. Tell your boss that the story is complex and needs to be handled carefully. Meet with the researchers and talk through some if-then scenarios you might run into when you release their new study.
If a scientist produces an outlier finding, point back to the mainstream science in the headline, subheadline and first paragraph of a press release. It’s hard to mistakenly overemphasize what is well-established. Figure out the 140-character version of the accurate takeaway for social media, too.
Non-jerkishly, but aggressively follow up on scientists’ behalf to correct inaccuracies. You’re allowed to be the bad cop sometimes. As Randy Olson has argued, if science communicators were 10 percent as aggressive as Hollywood publicists, mainstream reporting on scientific topics would be a lot more accurate.
A few additional thoughts based on some feedback from Lexi Shultz, director of public affairs at the American Geophysical Union (and a former colleague):
For scientists: Don’t disengage and don’t let the fear of being misunderstood prevent you from trying to communicate. The long-term benefits of working with the media outweigh any drawbacks you might see over the course of your career. I’d add that it’s up to scientists to tell their own stories, otherwise other people will tell those stories without them.
Scientific societies are also a great resource for members interested in sharing their work. For it’s part, AGU has launched a whole new “Sharing Science” initiative well worth checking out, especially if you’re into the geosciences.
Is that really a melting Martian ice cap? And, seriously, can I still eat bacon? Societies are also a solid resource for journalists who want to connect with independent scientific experts on literally every scientific topic.
On climate specifically, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research curated a lot of great resources as part of their Climate Voices initiative. If you’re interested in helping audiences sort through how their values relate to scientific findings, I strongly recommend this presentation by Jeff Kiehl, who not only has degrees in natural science, but who is also a licensed analyst. (Pretty cool, huh!)
Earlier this week, I guest-hosted a Halloween-themed Nerd Nite here in DC. I’m not big on the supernatural or spiritual, but I had some thoughts to share about sleep paralysis, a phenomenon I started experiencing – and was lucky enough to learn about – at a pretty young age.
What the heck is sleep paralysis?
Sleep paralysis can occur for a variety of reasons. I think mine is related to my sleep apnea. Occasionally, while I’m sleeping, I’ll shift around in such a way that my airway gets cut off. This results in snoring and a bunch of loud snoring-like sounds. It also results in my body waking me up so I can start breathing again.
If my body wakes me up during so-called “REM” sleep, that can result in a sleep paralysis episode. During REM sleep, our bodies shut down our muscles. When we experience sleep paralysis, we are conscious or semi-conscious while our muscles are shut down. We can’t move. And often, we can’t breathe either.
My sleep paralysis
I first experienced this around 11 or 12. I remember waking up, seeing my bedroom and not being able to move a muscle. When I tried to move, it felt like I was caught in molasses. I couldn’t breathe. As I ran out of air, my body finally snapped awake and I could breathe again. I remember trying to call out for my mother during an episode, too, and all that came out was a weak groan.
I’m lucky. My sleep paralysis is pretty mild and at the time, I just dismissed these episodes as bad dreams. A few years later, I learned what was actually happening to me when I picked up a copy of The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan, which remains my favorite book. In his guide to science-based skepticism, Sagan touches on how sleep paralysis can result in people seeing shadowy figures in the room with them and other dream-like hallucinations. Indeed, some people’s personal recollections of sleep paralysis sound quite terrifying.
Sleep paralysis in folklore and history
Sagan and other skeptical thinkers, including Susan Blackmore, have detailed how sleep paralysis crops up in folklore all around the world. There’s the “Old Hag” of Newfoundland, who sits on your chest, there are demons and incubi, jinns, and other supernatural figures, including ones that tie you down with iron chains.
Bernard Peach, gave ‘evidence’, testifying that “he heard a scrabbling at the window, whereat he then saw Susanna Martin come in, and jump down upon the floor. She took hold of this deponent’s feet, and drawing his body up into an heap, she lay upon him near two hours; in all which time he could neither speak nor stir.” When the paralysis began to wear off he bit Martin’s fingers and she “went from the chamber, down the stairs, out at the door.”
That certainly sounds like sleep paralysis. And it’s easy to imagine someone really believing that Susanna Martin did this to him. It’s a scary experience and if you’re living in colonial society during a witch craze, that may seem like a totally plausible explanation.
Similarly, Susan Blackmore argues that sleep-paralysis-like symptoms crop up in modern-day alien abduction stories. Indeed, she writes, one study found that nighttime abduction stories were more likely to include paralysis than daytime ones.
Snapping out of it and not getting freaked out
Speaking for myself, learning more about sleep paralysis made these experiences so much less distressing or freaky. I remember having a few episodes – again, as a kid – and just concentrating on what it felt like to very slowly move my fingers or to concentrate on how much breath I had left as I counted down to snapping awake. This was by no means pleasant, of course, but it became more of an interesting experience than a scary one.
I was also interested to learn that in Latvian folklore, sleep paralysis sufferers are similarly advised to wiggle their toes to ward off the supernatural forces that are pestering them.
Still, this can be scary stuff
A new documentary is making the rounds in the United Kingdom called The Nightmare, which focuses on sleep paralysis and folks who have suffered mightily from it. Their experiences really do sound terrible and the psychological distress people can experience as a result of sleep paralysis is quite real.
Indeed, some doctors think that Hmong people who came to the United States as refugees from Laos during the Vietnam War suffered mightily from sleep paralysis. According to Alexis Madrigal, writing in The Atlantic, the Hmong believed that properly honoring one’s ancestors could ward off the supernatural forces that caused sleep paralysis. But after being displaced, many felt they were unable to do so. Shockingly, more than 100 otherwise healthy Hmong men died in their sleep following their displacement from Laos, perhaps as a result, Madrigal writes, of genetic heart problems combined with feeling helplessly attacked by supernatural forces during the night.
I don’t believe in human-induced climate change. I accept it. I’m not a scientist, but I have a deep appreciation for the knowledge the scientific process – and the scientists who use it – collectively produce. I also accept evolution by natural selection, the health benefits of vaccines, and the link between smoking and lung disease.
But when we talk about evolution, climate change, vaccines or other “controversial” issues – as the smoking link used to be — we often talk about them as matters of “belief.” This is misleading, especially on basic, settled, scientific questions. As Neil Degrasse Tyson put it, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
All too often, in news articles, Congressional floor speeches, opinion pieces and even in public polling, we express belief or disbelief in science rather than acceptance or rejection of the overwhelming scientific evidence.
Here’s why that’s wrong:
Beliefs are for politics, not for science.
Some people believe the Affordable Care Act will save millions of lives. Others believe it is cripplingly expensive. Rarely, will any one person express both these beliefs simultaneously. There’s another phrase for beliefs in this context: political opinions. More aptly, they are political talking points.
Science is not an opinion or a set of talking points. It’s evidence carefully culled over time. When we talk about science as if it’s another thing we can choose to believe in or not, we frame it as a political issue rather than a reality issue.
Our beliefs lead us to accept and reject science
There’s a wealth of evidence from social science that our ideology and political beliefs affect how we view scientific evidence on “controversial” issues. Dan Kahan’s experiment-based research remains my favorite: If you favor individual freedom more than community responsibility, you’re probably going to be more skeptical about the scientific evidence showing that mandatory vaccinations are effective. If you’re happy with the distribution of wealth and power in society, you’re more likely to be skeptical about the scientific conclusion that large fossil fuel companies – and the successful people who run them – are warming our climate.
In sum, our beliefs can determine whether or not we accept or reject science, but our acceptance or rejection of science is not a belief in and of itself.
Science journalist Chris Mooney, in particular, recommends, that reporters become more conversant in the forces that lead political actors to accept and reject science.
Established science doesn’t change, beliefs do
At the most basic level, beliefs can be ephemeral and temporary. Scientific conclusions – the rock solid, replicated, triple-checked kind – are not. Our individual and collective beliefs about whether or not or how to deal with climate change will surely change over time. The fact that it’s happening and is largely due to human activities will not.
Let’s drop this “belief” business
More politicians should espouse their “acceptance” of science and their trust in the scientific method. Fewer politicians should affirm their “belief” in science in the same way they talk about their “belief” in a strong middle class or the genius of the Founding Fathers.
Journalists should write about politicians and ideologues who “reject” scientific conclusions rather than strike a note of false equivalence between competing camps of “belief” when it comes to science.
Finally, it would be interesting to see social scientists test this out a bit when they do polling. What happens when they ask people if they “accept” or “reject” scientific evidence rather than query them about their “beliefs” when it comes to these issues? Granted, it might be unfair to do this regularly, but I bet you’d find that more people would align themselves with reality when the question is posed this way.
On Saturday morning, I learned that Dr. Neil Armstrong had passed away. I half-remembered a history I never lived through. I felt a sense of loss for the man. His quiet dedication and humble shunning of the limelight spoke more powerfully to his character than his footsteps on the Moon.
“We choose to go to the Moon,” John F. Kennedy told an audience at Rice University. “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
It is a wonder to go back to his speech. Kennedy traces the grand scope of history, condenses it into a decade, and places the Moon shot on the next calendar page.
No man can fully grasp how far and how fast we have come, but condense, if you will, the 50,000 years of man’s recorded history in a time span of but a half-century. Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them advanced man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them. Then about 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only five years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than two months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power.
Newton explored the meaning of gravity. Last month electric lights and telephones and automobiles and airplanes became available. Only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power, and now if America’s new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.
This is a breathtaking pace, and such a pace cannot help but create new ills as it dispels old, new ignorance, new problems, new dangers. Surely the opening vistas of space promise high costs and hardships, as well as high reward.
Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson revved the engine of American ingenuity. And they greased the wheels of production. Our best and brightest stepped forward to touch the stars. The ones who made it had the “right stuff.” They were daredevil geniuses and fighter jock book worms with enough tempered steel in their guts to act as if it was just another job.
And despite all the technological progress, the seductive wonder of the Space Age and the automated, systemized protocols of check, check and go, no-go, the computers on the Apollo 11 landing craft didn’t respond as expected. Armstrong landed on the Moon through the power of his own mind and his own hands.
I used to work at the National Air and Space Museum. I had a work study job in the children’s gallery in college. I remember walking past the Apollo 11 capsule before clocking in. I also remember when Columbia disintegrated. The museum staff created a memorial space for visitors to leave notes and flowers and to reflect.
So I bought a bouquet of flowers and headed to the museum.
There are amazing artifacts from the Apollo era. A piece of the Moon, the capsule, the spacesuits, food and tools the astronauts brought. Everything packed tight on top of tons or propellant, ready for a trip of uncertain success but certain purpose.
The Lunar Module exhibit on the first floor seemed the most appropriate place to lay the flowers. The module is a wonder to behold and a testament to the careful redundancy that was built into the Apollo program.
A crowd, bigger than usual, gathered around a tour guide. I noticed a man being interviewed by a news crew. I listened and learned he curated the Apollo artifacts in the museum. I spoke to him when he was done with his interview. His name is Allan Needell. I told him what I wanted to do and he agreed the Lunar Module exhibit made sense. To my astonishment and admiration, he took the flowers from me, climbed over the small railing between the visitors and exhibit and placed the flowers at the base of one of the lander’s footpads.
He told those paying attention that he had placed the flowers about where Armstrong would have taken his first step.
I’m so grateful to have been able to honor Dr. Armstrong in this way. I spent some time discussing his legacy with Dr. Needell and other staff and patrons.
Armstrong was certainly not the most boisterous astronaut. And others surpassed him in articulating the wonder, horror and joys of space travel.
But he represented the best of us.
I can’t find the original source for this, but it’s my favorite Armstrong quote. Remembering his view of the Earth from the Moon, he expressed incredible humility and humbleness:
“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”
The weight of the evidence Mooney presents for the simple idea that liberals and conservatives process information differently is incontrovertible. And in the current political context, those differences are ever more apparent.
Partisan labels are so loaded that it’s easy for liberals and conservatives alike to mistake Mooney’s nuanced overview of psychological research for a jeremiad about “stupid conservatives.”
And, in fact, that reaction has typified many conservative and some liberal responses to the book.
Which sort of proves Mooney’s point.
Thinking is more important than information
Decades ago, social scientists started tearing down the Enlightenment view that human beings rationally and methodically process information. In the old view, our brains were like filing cabinets into which we inserted new information to synthesize. In reality, we are motivated reasoners: we use facts and information to justify what we want to believe.
In many cases, the more educated or “smarter” someone is, the more able they are to seek out information that justifies their views. There’s a fundamental difference, one of the researchers in Mooney’s book points out, between being stupid and being misinformed.
And Mooney’s book is all about misinformation, the brains it lands in, and how it gets there.
What’s the difference between dominant liberalism and dominant conservatism?
One of the chief values that underpins liberalism, Mooney argues, is “Openness.” Liberals are more likely to be open to new experiences, new cultures, and new ideas. They embrace uncertainty, ambiguity and messiness. Conservatives are more likely to exhibit Conscientiousness: a need for order, stability, clarity and cleanliness. As he puts it, people who rate high on conscientiousness are, “highly goal oriented, competent, and organized—and, on average, politically conservative.”
But the other side of the Conscientious coin is a need for “closure” and definitive answers. Often, science doesn’t provide them. And whenever science appears to conflict with the values of someone with a strong need for closure, they’re more likely to reject the science.
We are all liberals, we are all conservatives
At various points in the book, Mooney weaves in a more nuanced view of the liberal-conservative divide. Many social scientists rely on four variables, not two, to describe how people view society: a predilection toward hierarchical structures that justify those who succeed vs. an egalitarian view that emphasizes fairness to all and a view of the world that emphasizes individual rights vs. one that tends toward community needs. Ultimately, American political movements have aligned along these four variables in different combinations over the years, but today extreme conservatives happen to be hierarchical individualists while extreme liberals tends to be communitarian egalitarians. While cumbersome, these terms get to deeper truths about how people think about the world.
There are several points in the book where Mooney compliments conservatives for their decisiveness and ability to bring order to the world. For instance, conservatives are more likely to work in hierarchical organizations like police forces and the military. And thank goodness for that. A country full of anti-authoritarians would probably be pretty ripe for invasion. And he suggests that societies are “balanced” by cooperation among conservatives and liberals.
A personal detour
Reading the opening chapters, I found I identified with both Openness and Conscientiousness. I took an OCEAN test online, which measures Openness, Conscientiousness and three other “Big Five” personality measurements. And, indeed, I rated high on both openness and conscientiousness. Certainly, I’m open to new ideas. And the uncertainties and probabilities inherent in life are something I’m happy to take as a given. I assume everyone I meet has a unique and valid life perspective worth learning about. But a look at my office or home will reveal my high levels of Conscientiousness. I like things clean, simple and organized. And if anyone I know ever does anything I consider unethical, they’re kind of dead to me.
Maybe that’s why I like playing poker. I’m happy to operate in a world of probability and uncertainty, but at the end of each hand, there is closure. And over time, you are either a winner or loser.
How these personality traits play out in the real world
Mooney’s psychological primer — which is full of fascinating summaries of clever, thought-provoking studies — provides a base layer of understanding as he moves into the changes in American politics and media that have made it easier for misinformation to find a willing home in many Americans’ brains, particularly the most extreme hierarchical individualists that have aligned into the conservative movement.
He covers the assimilation of Southern Democrats into the Republican Party and the resulting polarization in American politics as the country sorted itself along party lines. And he talks about the fascinating political journey Phyllis Schlafley took to illustrate how the conservative movement has changed over her lifetime. He chronicles the rise of the intellectual right and the expanded universe of think tanks that sprang up in the 1970s to provide analysis that justifies conservative ideology and policy.
He also covers the dominance of Fox News, talk radio and partisan blogs as information sources for conservatives. Their combined power and links to think tanks and the Republican Party can create an information bubble that can easily turn into a misinformation bubble.
From death panels to revisionist histories of America’s founding, the misinformation machine is an equal-opportunity weapon against reality. As Shawn Lawrence Otto ably demonstrates in Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, we happen to be living in a time when scientists have discovered problems such as climate change that can hit a lot of ideological buttons and become ready targets for hierarchical / individualist oriented think tanks that feed misinformation into the bubble.
But aren’t liberals guilty of the same biases?
Not really, Mooney argues. And certainly, I laugh whenever anyone equates Fox to MSNBC or NPR. Fox is so much more entertaining and delivers a coherent narrative to its viewers. MSNBC and NPR simply have different missions.
Mooney argues that liberals can certainly slip into anti-science and assimilate misinformation. But those anti-scientific views aren’t allowed to dominate the liberal extremes or cross over into the mainstream.
Take the vaccine-autism “debate” for instance. It’s a natural for extreme liberals who fear any possibility of environmental harm to believe misinformation linking vaccine use to autism, Mooney says. But leaders of that movement, including celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, have found their claims rejected by opinion elites on the left. So anti-vaccination attitudes have only gained a tenuous foothold in communities Mooney calls “granola” like Ashland, Oregon and Boulder, Colorado.
Mooney credits liberals’ Openness with their faculty for criticizing one another and reining in their extremists. And he points to other examples from nuclear power to natural gas fracking to prove his point. The bad claims and the extremists’ craziest arguments get weeded out of the system. There is, he says, “a psychology of disobedience and anti-authoritarianism on the left that ensures that those making these claims will be challenged, sometimes quite vigorously or even viciously.”
Put another way, when Ann Coulter says something provocative, conservatives share it on Facebook and say “Right on!” When Michael Moore says something provocative, his fellow liberals pounce on him for not being nuanced or accurate enough. If pressed, they will say they pretty much agree with what he says, but they don’t like how he says it.
Mooney puts a finer point on it by telling stories about David Frum and other conservatives who were booted from their movement by being “too open” to new ideas and too willing to criticize their brethren. Meanwhile, Democrats rarely boot apostates from their ranks.
Ultimately, I found the shifting power dynamics of political movements and the media environments in which they operate a stronger explanation for where we stand today than the psychological research. And Mooney acknowledges that some of the most interesting and startling findings from social science research come with a healthy dose of uncertainty themselves.
So what do we do about it?
Mooney’s closing chapter contains some concrete suggestions for how to address anti-science. This is a step up from Unscientific America, which he coauthored with Sheril Kirshenbaum. Like many readers, I enjoyed the book, but wanted a lot more discussion about what to do about the sorry state of our public discourse around scientific topics.
First, Mooney argues, we need to come to grips with the fact that more facts won’t win the day if people are predisposed to rejecting or ignoring them. Mooney argues that listening to people and helping them see how their worldview is affirmed – not threatened – by scientific findings is one way to overcome these challenges.
He also encourages journalists to become more conversant in how liberals and conservatives view the world and to communicate that to their audiences. So don’t just tell us there’s a budget disagreement tell us why liberals’ egalitarian values and conservatives’ personal responsibility values are in conflict over spending and debt. In other words, stop letting politicians simply talk past each other.
He says liberals should learn to be more decisive and cites the Occupy Wall Street movement and the ongoing European debt crisis as typical liberal discussion-fests lacking clear leadership, focus or a willingness to make decisions. Heck, the occupiers designed their movement to avoid classic leadership. Sometimes one plan, any plan, is much better than endless debate.
Mooney’s book offers a combination of detail, breeziness and narrative that should satisfy anyone who is frustrated by the prevalence of misinformation in America’s political debates, particularly scientific misinformation.
And he offers some tantalizing suggestions for how this might be effectively addressed.
But more importantly, like any good science fan, he calls for more research. And he acknowledges his own uncertainty about his conclusions.
But, overall, the weight of the evidence Mooney presents for the simple idea that liberals and conservatives process information differently is incontrovertible. And in the current political context, those differences are ever more apparent.
And that’s a fact we should all accept if we’re interested in making our democracy stronger.
I really liked the new Iron Man movie. Unlike other superheroes, Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man is arrogant, quirky and unapologetic. Like Batman, he derives his power from his own ingenuity, using applied engineering and science to fight the bad guys. His lab, his robots and his problem-solving abilities are all testaments to the power of science and human knowledge.
But I did have one huge gripe with the science in the film and I think it goes beyond normal sci-fi nitpicking.
In the film, Stark has to invent something to replace his artificial glowing heart. Early in the film, he says he has already tried ‘every known compound and every possible combination of compounds.’ (I’ll charitably chalk that up to overstatement.) Finally, after unlocking some secret code his father leaves him embedded in a diorama, Stark invents a new element. And he does so by erecting some sort of pipe-like particle accelerator — humorously propped up by Captain America’s shield — and shooting some lasers at a triangle.
The idea of inventing a new element is just too over-the-top. Obviously, the writers wanted something that sounded incredibly hard for their hero to accomplish. But did they really need to stretch the laws of physics?
I think the writers could have come up with an equally compelling achievement that didn’t go beyond basic science. What if Stark had invented a new way to combine known elements? What if he heated something up to a previously unachievable temperature with a fusion reaction? What if he found some breakthrough in real, but sci-fi-sounding technology like carbon nanotubes? What if he invented a symbiotic organism that was part animal, part machine that would live inside him ?
Some scenarios like that still would have worked for audiences. And they wouldn’t have been completely implausible.