02 December 2016

Post fact politics catches up to science communication

There was been much hand-wringing in political discussion the last few weeks about how we are living in a “post fact” world dominated by “fake news.”

Well, hi-di-ho, people, welcome to science education and science communication of the last few decades.

Fake news? Evolutionary biologists have been putting up with people saying things like, “There are no transitional fossils” for-frickin’-ever. Even when you show them Archaeopteryx. We’ve been putting up with the Discovery Institute and Answers in Genesis who attack established science and chug along regardless of scientific facts and countless debunkings.

We’ve been through the argument that, “If only people knew the facts, people would act different. The facts speak for themselves,” and seen how that has failed, and failed, and failed to budge public opinion on some of the best understood science out there. Unfortunately, even among scientists, this attitude of “The facts speak for themselves” is still common. People who say otherwise, like Randy Olson and Matthew C. Nisbet, have received way more criticism for pointing this out than they deserve.

Now the same strategies are not just confined to being deployed in a few hot button scientific topics, they’ve metastasized over the whole body politic in multiple countries.

It’s to our shame that we science educators and science communicators didn’t figure out effective ways to deal with those kinds of issues.

Additional, 5 December 2016: A new piece in the Guardian about how algorithms are delivering news on the Internet convinces me that, in some ways, what we’re seeing in qualitatively different from the misinformation that scientists have faced for the past decade. It’s deeper and more organized.

I think there are still powerful lessons from science communication, though: when trying to persuade, facts alone are not very persuasive.

I worry that policy wonks will go through the same long battles over “facts” and “evidence” that scientists have, and just believe that the facts will speak for themselves. They won’t. Facts need fierce advocates.

External links

Google, democracy and the truth about internet search

Picture from here.

1 comment:

practiCal fMRI said...

This is facetious - for now - but I wondered today whether it might not be time to fight fire with fire. I first note that those who are against some areas of science have no problem using several modern medicines, or GPS-enabled navigation, or vast computing power squeezed into a tiny volume, or materials with structural and other properties that amaze, or... I don't remember an outcry about conspiracies or inaccuracies when geostationary satellites were being established. That alone would have been heresy before (and for quite a while after) Galileo's time. So it is quite clear to me there is hypocrisy in a lot of the anti-science lobby. Fair enough. You want us to provide incontrovertible proof of, say, global warming when you're not worried about a satellite falling on your house? Perhaps we should show you "the evidence" that pill you're taking will work, or the MRI I'm about to use on you for important diagnostic information is as safe as I claim it is. You can't be too careful! You think you're scared now? Ha! I can make it much, much worse for you, anti-science person. Just try to cherry-pick the science you don't like when I've finished with you!