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Groping the political economy elephant ... 

I was going to write an indignant post about pollution of the science communication environment by pseudo-scientists who obviously have an unreasoning cultural bias against cats, but then I read a reflective comment on my recent post on “what to advise climate science communicators."

The post comes from a thoughtful guy named Gene, who says: 

Yes, that’s the “political economy” elephant. You are right, Gene, we can't ignore it.

But let me tell you what I feel as I grope it. For sure, it's the same animal, but the texture and shape seem a bit different from what I think you are sensing. I invite others to have a go and describe what the beast feels like to them.

1.  Science communication's "political economy problem": big but how big?  

Basically, even if we had a perfect scientific understanding of how ordinary citizens make sense of scientific information – including the resources in the “science communication environment” that must be protected to assure that people are able reliably to use their rational faculties for discerning what’s known to science—there’d still be various groups and constituencies (of diverse cultural identities, and across a wide range of issues) with a stake in confusing people.

Indeed, they’d certainly know just as much about the science of science communication as those who want to use it to enhance enlightened self-government.  The science of science communication is nonproprietary, a product of the free and open exchange that is the driving engine of scientific discovery. So the bad guys can help themselves to it (they can also try to gain an edge by doing their own research, which they of course won't share, but the proprietary-knowledge producers are so dimwitted compared to the open- that we can safely ignore that detail).

Accordingly, if there is no way to constrain these actors from polluting the science communication environment, then all the knowledge associated with the new science of science of communication would be of “academic interest” only.

This is a big big problem. But I think there are a few mistakes that people tend to make that can exaggerate their perception of its magnitude, and thus risk either paralyzing or simply misdirecting those in a position to try to deal with this difficulty.

2. People overestimate the significance of misinformation.

It’s true that groups seeking deliberately to misrepresent scientific evidence contribute to disputes like the ones over climate change, nuclear power, the HPV vaccine, etc.

But the "science miscommunicators" are actually not the cause of the problem; they are a symptom of it.

The cause is a science communication environment polluted by the entanglement of risks and policy-relevant facts with toxic partisan meanings.

In that environment, ordinary people, through dynamics of cultural cognition, will aggressively misinform themselves. Even when given accurate information, they will construe it in biased ways, and thus become even more polarized.

In that environment, it will indeed be very feasible and very profitable to supply people with misinformation, because people will eagerly seek out and latch onto anything that serves their interest in maintaining identity-protective beliefs.  Satisfying this demand for misinformation will certainly make things even worse.

But the problem started earlier: when the issue in question became charged with antagonistic cultural meanings.

3. People underestimate the contribution that accident and misadventure make to polluting the science communication environment & hence the degree to which it can be avoided by a “scicom environmental protection” policy.

If they know what they are doing, the groups who recognize that they can profit from public conflict and confusion over science are going to see misleading people on facts as secondary in importance to manufacturing and disseminating cues that incline people (unconsciously, in most instances) to see particular issues—like genetically modified foods, say—as ones that pit opposing cultural groups against each other. If they can get that impression to take hold, then they can be sure that the dissemination of valid information will never really be effective in countering misinformation.  

But it is also easy to overestimate the contribution that this sort of strategic behavior makes to polluting the science communication environment.  Other factors that can be very very consequential fall into the categories of accident and misadventure.  There was plenty of accident and misadventure on climate change, including forms of communication by climate change advocates that reinforced the public impression that the issue was a cultural “us vs. them” dispute.

Accident and misadventure both contaminate the science communication environment, and make it easier for strategically minded polluters to succeed thereafter.

But we can avoid accidents and misadventures by becoming smart, and by behaving intelligently. That’s what the science of science communication is all about.

Want an example? Check out the HPV vaccine risk case study from my Science of Science Communication course.

4. Taking the “bad political economy” as given foolishly ignores opportunities to create offsetting “good political economy” forces that can restore the quality of the science communicating environment.

This was a point I made in the original post. It’s hard enough to decontaminate a toxic science communication environment, but the prospects for doing so when one has to compete with polluters is even more bleak.

But one response is to find science communication environments that aren’t already filled with pollution—and not only concentrate efforts to communicate there, but also figure out & then do what’s necessary to keep them that way.  I’ve written already about why I believe political activity at the local-level focusing on adaptation makes sense for these reasons.

But another reason it makes sense for science communicators to try to play a constructive role in local adaptation is that the deliberations going on in states like Florida, Arizona, West Virginia, Louisiana, N. & S. Carolina et al. involve a completely different alignment of interests than the national debate over reducing CO2 emissions.  Utility companies, local businesses, ordinary homeowners, municipal actors—all know they have a common stake in making their communities as resilient as they can be.  

What to do—that’s not something they will all agree on, of course. There are different possibilities, all of which with their own constellation of costs and benefits, the distribution of which also vary.

But all of these actors do want the scientific facts and do want their representatives—including their municipal leaders, their state government officials, and their congressional delegations to get them the resources they need to take smart, cost-effective action based on that scientific evidence.  

This conversation is super important. 

It’s super important not only because it affects the well-being of these communities (which climate scientists believe are likely to face significant climate-impact risks for decades to come no matter what the U.S. or any other nation does to reduce CO2 emissions).

It's also super important because the organized political activity that it involves has the potential to produce new, highly influential, intenesly interested and well-organized political constituencies whose stake in sober, informed engagement with evidence can help to counteract the influence of other constituencies (whatever side of the debate they might be on) who have a stake in confusing and distracting reflective citizens.

5. In the Liberal Republic of Science, science journalists will also contribute to containing the elephant through perfection of craft norms that censure members of their profession who aid and abet scicom environment polluters.

Check out what they did on GM Foods during the California Prop. 37 debate.  They are modeling what many other actors—from universities to foundations to scientific associations to government institutions—need to do to organize themselves in a way that takes seriously the obligation they have to protect the quality of science communication environment.

6. But all the same, the political economy problem is a huge one for the quality of the science communication environment; the “New Political Science” for the Liberal Republic of Science desperately needs some intelligence here.

But look, notwithstanding all of this, the elephant really is there, and Gene is right that we can’t ignore it.  That elephant, again, is the constraint that political economy forces will always exert on the enlightened use of the knowledge associated with the science of science communication.

The only way to tame that elephant . . . actually, this has become a bad metaphor; elephants are really nice animals. Let’s try again:

The only way to inoculate the body politic of the Liberal Republic of Science against the virus that these foreseeable political economy dynamics represent is with applied intelligence. 

The science of science communication is the new political science for an age in which democracy faces a challenge that is itself quite new: to protect at one and the same time the interest their citizens have in using the best available scientific knowledge to advance their common good and the right they are guaranteed to meaningfully govern themselves.

That science is going to require perfection of our understanding of how the political economy of democratic states influences science communication every bit as much as it will require us to perfect our understanding of the social psychology of transmitting scientific knowledge.

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Reader Comments (4)

I agree with much of what you say, but once again I think it misses an important element. You seem to divide the problem into two parts -- the bad guys (polluters of the information environment for personal gain) and the confused. But there's a third factor -- the true believers -- who, consciously or otherwise, seek to cloak their belief/value systems in the guise of science in order to appropriate its cultural authority. Examples on the political right would include the creationists, and on the left the environmentalists or self-styled eco-activists (environmentalism being an ideology or belief/value system distinct from simple issues of the environment per se). These people are distinct from the general public and constitute a "vested interest" in their own right, where the "interest" isn't financial but the even more powerful force of (quasi-)religious belief. And it's very typical of such groups to foster theories of conspiracies amongst powerful antithetical forces as a way of explaining (to themselves perhaps more than to others) why their own values and beliefs aren't simply accepted.

Gene, for example, conjures up "enormously powerful, often wealthy interests" who he feels are poisoning the information environment around climate change. Here, on the other side, is a list of just the non-governmental organizations involved in general environmental advocacy and lobbying. No doubt Gene would feel that these are all guided by science, but that in itself just illustrates the problem.

Your comments about the different reactions to related but more immediate concerns in local situations are also interesting, and raise issues that relate to the ideological motivations I've mentioned, but perhaps that's for another post.

January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

In any case, I will write a post on this soon -- it is exactly the topic the Science of Communication course discussed in Session 3.
(Hey, did you decide never to raise again the issues you raised here? As hard as any of the questions you put might be, I'm always relieved that you seem to have forgotten that I never addressed that argument).

January 31, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Nice that you remembered that argument, Dan. I hadn't forgotten it, and in fact I think it is implicit in a number of other comments I've made, but I understood you have a lot of arguments to be addressed and can't take time over all of them. But I've been waiting for the right opportunity to develop the argument a little more fully, so let me make one preliminary stab at it now:

As I understand it, you appear to be working with what I would call an "absolute" (for want of a better term) model of science and its relationship to society. That is, you see science itself in a kind of ideal state, uncontaminated by moral, cultural, political values and beliefs, but you see that there's a problem in the way in which that pure knowledge is mediated to the society at large -- a problem with the "science communication" environment, i.e. Given that, you naturally focus your attention on a "science of science communication", in the hope that the pure knowledge that science can bring to an area will be able to clear up the problem of the inability of groups to agree on what even constitutes legitimate scientific knowledge.

As distinct from that, I'd suggest the possibility of a kind of "relativist" model of science and society. This would put aside the idea of science as a body of knowledge uncontaminated by values, except possibly as a never-reachable ideal. I certainly don't mean to suggest we return to the rather silly "post-modern" relativism of the science wars of the '90's, since clearly there is hard scientific empirical knowledge as well, that, as you've often said, we all depend upon for our daily bread, among many other things. But I do mean that science is an inescapably human enterprise, and as such will always be affected to one degree or another by human judgments of value, and of systems of value. In the empirical areas most removed from immediate human concerns, naturally, such as physics, astronomy, geology, and the like this isn't so apparent, but I thought that the enduring value of Kuhn was to show that even there systems in the form of paradigms can exert a distorting effect on pure and simple models and Bayesian correction. But as the issues approach moral and political values, all the more likely is it that the science itself will be "contaminated" by those values, and this becomes especially evident when we look at the whole social edifice of supports for science, such as the institutions that hire the scientists, the agencies that fund them, and the media that publish them. In this sense, then, the problem lies deeper than science communication, but is inextricably embedded in science itself.

So what's to be done? I would say the only help is to seek to foster the sort of critical intelligence that is of value in understanding all forms of communication, and more particularly the sort of alertness for evidence that can signal when the scientific ideal is possibly being contaminated by prior cultural/political values -- e.g., emotive rhetoric, special pleading, pure arguments from authority, etc. Out of all that unavoidably messy process, I think history has shown that facts and workable, generally agreed-upon models do emerge, and we do make progress, albeit not as rapidly or clearly as would be nice.

January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

Dan, I see that Larry and you have already pointed to the advocacy intrinsic to the POV that Gene has presented. Perhaps in Session 3, you will also discuss a fundmantal problem as Larry and I, and even you have posited. On your part, you note that science is iterative and gets better as one goes forward. But this also means as one goes backward, the science is less and less true. Thus, the best your ideal citizen could be in general is to fit the weak implicit model due to a citizen typically will have a simplied, less "real" understanding than the science . Yet, you present the model citizen as being in the semi-strong implcit, at a minimum. The reason that it can only be semi-strong with such an understanding is that minor differences in science means different policies and different physical or regulatory implementations at my level. So that you won't think that I have forgotten about CC, my general profession is one of the stakeholders that has been left out, not only in the CC structure, but others as well recently. Since I am sure you know the answer, it is straight from S&F, do you include in Session 3 or another, opening the pathways of communication and understanding? The understanding that the research scientists has is not the understanding that an engineer has, but your ideal citizen, and their society depends on both parties and both understandings. In fact, there are many groups and understandings needed to make either a regulation or a piece of equipment work properly. I would say our gun control is a good example of one that works improperly, and would be a better failure example than CC. However, there are some real doozies in CC that illustrate the problem and how it adds to the poisonous atmosphere.

February 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

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