This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind

20Jun/11

How to argue with a fence post

Here's a recent post that I wrote for the Berkeley Science Review.  Looks like I'm finally going to have time to start writing again!


I don't often go off on rants about the importance of science communication (well, not in blog form anyway), but a recent article in Mother Jones magazine got me thinking about how important it is for the scientific community to know how to speak to the public.

The article by Chris Mooney isn't about communicating science per se; it is about making arguments in general. You might think that convincing someone you're right in an argument is dramatically different from telling someone about the awesomeness of the natural world, but (sadly) many public voices in science are faced with just such an antagonistic situation. People don't just believe facts; they believe a selective group of facts that coincide with their particular worldview or belief system. Mooney describes a number of belief "experiments" that shed some insight into the ways that people incorporate information into their beliefs. Perhaps most interesting is the extent to which vastly different groups are guilty of the same practices.

Take for example the Seekers, a small cult based in Chicago in the 1950s. They were thoroughly convinced of their ability to communicate with ethereal aliens, one of whom was believed to be some sort of cosmological version of Jesus Christ (adding weight to my own theory that old JC was, in fact, a Time Lord). Like so many cults before (and after) them, the Seekers saw their day of reckoning come and go with nary a revelation nor apocalypse. Reason might suggest that these misled folks would end it there, that they'd pack up their bags, return to their lives (what was remaining of them, since many had sold their possessions and quit their jobs in anticipation of the big day), and agree not to speak of their monumental goof ever again.

But you probably know that's not what they did. Instead, they began to rationalize for what had occurred, suggesting that they had actually diverted an apocalypse from happening. An announcement was made to the world, lauding the Seekers for their devotion and suggesting that "the little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction." Sounds familiar, no?

These guys believed something that was obviously, painfully false. They were cult members... inherently irrational, right? Unfortunately, Mooney also points to a number of studies addressing how unwilling most people are to change their minds in the face of evidence that runs counter to their beliefs. In one study, liberals and conservatives were presented with an article about the 9/11 commission's findings on the lack of WMDs in Iraq. Many of the conservative participants were more likely to believe that WMDs had been hidden than before they read the article.  (Liberals shouldn't feel too high-and-mighty either. Similar effects have been found on both sides of the political spectrum.)

So why is this important in the world of science? An unfortunate thing about reality is that it often presents itself to us in unintuitive or confusing ways.  As scientists, our job is to wade through all that ambiguity and make sense of the tiny bits of truth that can be found in any set of data. Thus, we are often faced with the difficult challenge of making a case for a concept or theory that runs counter to what most people already believe. Ideally, the facts we have gleaned from our research would be enough to convince the public. In reality, we know that rarely happens.

This (finally) brings me to the topic of science communication. In a world full of individuals and organizations who would spread information designed to further their own interests, scientists have the daunting task of speaking for reality itself, for the world that exists apart from any subjective opinion or personal interest. Obviously, we're not perfect at this task. Selfishness and deceit are not unknown to the scientific community—all the more reason to think very carefully about how we communicate our findings.

Scientists have the ability to mine the universe of its secrets, to discover wonderful things about the world that can both advance and enrich society. For too many years discovery has been our only goal. The most fantastic discoveries in the world mean nothing if those ideas aren't shared within the scientific community and the world at large. Scientific findings have no voice; data makes no impassioned argument.  It is up to us, as scientists and discoverers, to speak for them.