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« Check out Jen Briselli's cool pilot study of cultural cognition of vaccine risk perceptions | Main | Six modest points about vaccine-risk communication »

Dear Seth Mnookin & other great science journalists

Dear Seth,

Fighting falsehood and selfishness with facts & public-spirit!I've reflected a bit more on this (& this).  I've pinpointed the source of my frustration: the conflation of the  "anti-vaccine movement" with a "growing crisis of public confidence,” a “growing wave of public resentment and fear,” an “epidemic of fear"  etc. that have pushed us to the “tipping point” at which herd immunity breaks down” – or indeed, over it “causing epidemics” in whooping cough & other diseases because of the “low vaccination rate.

The first is real, is a menace, and warrants being vividly identified and analyzed and also effectively repelled with fact and public spirit.

The second is a phantom. It also warrants being identified & analyzed. How do so many come to be so terrified of something that is genuinely terrifying but that doesn't truly exist?  Psychological dynamics are involved, certainly, but I suspect manipulative forms of self-promotion -- ones that reflect a betrayal of craft  -- are also at work.  

Whatever its cause, though, the propagation of the assertion that there is a "growing crisis of public confidence" in vaccines -- a claim frequently bundled with the empirically unsupported proposition that science is "losing authority" in our society -- deserves being opposed too.  Our science communication environment should not be polluted with misrepresentation.  Fear should not dilute the currency of reason in public discussion. The Liberal Republic of Science shouldn't tolerate partisan resort to "anti-science" red-scare tactics (on left or right).

The moral force of these  principles doesn't depend on proof of the bad consequences that disregarding them produces. But violating them does predictably generate  very bad consequences, including the disablement of our capacity to recognize and be guided by the best available scientific evidence in our personal and collective decisions. 

Be like Ralph! & Danny!Ironically our society, which possess more science intelligence than any in history, lacks an organized science-communication intelligence. But many, in many sectors of society, recognize this deficit and are taking effective steps to remedy it. 

Science journalists are, of course, playing the leading role in this effort. We have always relied on them to make what's known by science known to those whose quality of life science can enhance. They will necessarily  play a key role if our society can succeed in replacing the blundering, unreflective manner in which it now handles transmission of scientific knowledge with a set of scientifically informed practices and institutions consciously geared to performing this critical task. 

So it would be ungrateful and ignorant to be angry at "the media" for being the medium of the  "anti-vaccine = anti-science public" phantom.  If we turn to science journalists for help in counteracting the propagation of this pernicious trope, it's not a call to "clean house."  It's just a request to the thoughtful and public-spirited members of that profession to do exactly what we are relying on them to do and what they have already been doing in modeling for the rest of us what contributing to the public good of maintaining a clean science communication environment looks like.

Your grateful admirer,



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Reader Comments (12)

Dan, you nail one of the problems as did the mom, about unreflective manner. And I would say there does seem to be a dearth of reflective thought before communication. Added in the mix are our busy lives. This poses problems in the market of knowledge that we see today, IMO. In such a vacuum, where we are too busy to learn or get information in detail caused by our busy lives, this is an openeing for the SIF's (single issue fanatics). They can claim to represent the whole and their louder and more often (Tell) paradigm can be a tactical success. But I think we should be going to the "ask" paradigm, especially when policy is involved, or in getting to policy discussions. To me this seems a problem that needs to be addressed to both the public, and communication sectors such as science reporters and politicians. In your SoSC, where and how does this fit in?

The reason I ask is that I read that with the internet and cable, there is a tendency for citizens to go to echo chambers where it is claimed that this is due to comfort zones or cultural re-enforcement. In the iterative process you have propose, how do you acount for the time factor? As in, the tell paradigm may be unburdened with truth can have a quick and large effect. By getting there with the "firstest and the mostest" they can use the tell paradigm and the echo chamber effect to slow down, or even implement bad policy.

February 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F Pittman


I'd like to offer a parallel...

Whatever its cause, though, the propagation of the assertion that there is a "growing crisis of public confidence" in vaccines climate science -- a claim frequently bundled with the empirically unsupported proposition that science is "losing authority" in our society -- deserves being opposed too.

I would imagine we could substitute many other issues as well.

February 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua: I don't think the public's uncertainly about climate science is evidence of a crisis of confidence in science. But the public is genuinely divided, polarized on climate change. It manifestly is not on childhood vaccatinations. It is on HPV vaccine. But that also doesn't mean it is divided on the authority of science; it is culturally polarized over what the science means -- on HPV & Climate. There isn't a general public debate on vaccines; there's a debate between a fringe & everyone else, and the fringe should be opposed. But suggesting that "democrati, progressive" people are to vaccines what "repubilican, conservatives" are to climate is just plain wrong.

February 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

FYI: Another potential to add to the mix with two sources of concern:

where concerns of water use and fracking meet headlong in a show of potential motivated reasoning and innumeracy, if the numbers here are correct.

February 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F Pittman

@John: I was prepared to say something along the lines of the 1st sentence of the post you linked & then looked at the post & so will say only I agree with the first sentence of it: Fracking has a rendezvous w/ cultural polarization destiny & there's no force on heaven or earth or the science of science communication that is going to change that. Or so it seems. Reality is filled w/ surprise that is easily missed if one is overconfident

February 27, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@John: on your other post.
1. On the advocacy groups: Yes, that's really bad news, the political economy elephant or 900 lb gorilla or whatever in the room. It's an agency problem, really. Like you say, we don't have time to keep track of all the things we care about -- the environment, say, or guns -- so we contract w/ an agent to keep tabs & let us know if there's something to worry about & pretty soon the agent recognizes that if we run out of things to worry about the agent will be out of a job & so then decides to create things to worry about or just to try to generate as much polzarization as possible so that we'll always believe that the the other side is plotting to destroy us & our way of life etc. So we can know everything there is about the psychology of science communbication & how to avoid polluting the science communication environment but since there will be those who get a benefit from polluting & who know just as much, we get nowhere. We're screwed. What's the point? I just don't think about it -- except that I did write th post on it linkied to above.

2. Surely internet & cable are part of the tsystem by which meanings are fixed & transmitted. I don't think that the only thing that is being transmitted, though, is scicom environment pollution. It's also the case that really only really really strange people watch cable news & visit internet political sights. Those things bore the hell out of most people. So the internet & cable news shows must be only the echo antechamber. What's the chamber, actually? It's a bit mysterious.

February 27, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Speaking of scientific/technical issues over which there is some controversy, here's another one: "A Golden Rice Opportunity" (and note the claim that "about eight million children worldwide died from vitamin A deficiency" in the 12 years delay in growing "golden rice" as a result of opposition by global, well-funded environmentalist advocates). Would you say such advocates are a fringe, as in the anti-childhood vaccination groups, or evidence of a "genuinely divided, polarized" public, as in "democratic, progressive" people?

February 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

@Larry: These are empirical issues, right? The GM Food issue does generate strong public division that has the trappings of culturallly motivated cognition *in Euorope*, but does not *so far* in US. Clearly the issue provokes intense reactions in US but I think among people whose engagement w/ issue is not at all representative--yet--of public generally. Indeed, I think intensity might reflect desire of GM one side to generate polarization (for mix of ideological & economic reasons), and other to prevent.
The Golden Rice e.g. is like claims of epidemic -- at least in sense of being presented as super powerful datum intended to connect opponents to immense human suffering. I have myself referred to--used-- the example that way. It's contested, of course. What do you think the truth is?

February 28, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Thanks, for those links, Dan -- once again I see you're ahead of me on the issue. It seems from your data that, though particular ideological groups aligned with the general cultural/political quadrant you refer to as "egalitarian/communitarian" have displayed interest in trying to foment polarization over GM foods, they haven't yet been very successful at it, at least, as you say, in the US. I too was glad to see your examples of professional science communicators -- i.e., various science journalists -- resist the efforts of the ideologically driven polarizers. You attribute this to the superior claims of professional norms, and I don't doubt that's a factor, and a welcome one. But another factor that distinguishes this issue from climate change especially is that this one is much simpler and hence more difficult to associate with vague "scary scenarios". Climate change, on the other hand, involves not just century-long time frames and endlessly modifiable models, both of which resist the sort of falsifiability that Popperian science relies upon to distinguish science from ideology, but it's been extended into all kinds of side issues, involving things like speciation/extinction, all kinds of cataclysmic maybes, and the inherently ambiguous, controversial projections of economists concerning modern industrial civilization as a whole. Given that, as you've noted, the great majority of contemporary scientists (and science journalists I'm sure) are in the egalitarian/communitarian cultrual grouping (for a variety of historical and sociological reasons), it shouldn't be surprising to find that professional norms have a much harder time prevailing over group coherence in this latter issue than in the case of GM foods.

February 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

P.S. The links to your previous posts on GM food issues were sufficiently interesting that I neglected to respond to the question at the end of your comment above -- which I understood to be asking whether the claim of "immense human suffering" attributable to GM food opponents, like similar attribution to opponents of childhood vaccination, wasn't itself an alarmist myth. But that too is an empirical question -- has the introduction of golden rice, in the Philippines or elsewhere, really been delayed 12 years beyond the period of scientifically justifiable testing? Or, to take another example, has the abandonment of DDT in Africa and other tropical areas, and the consequent immense toll in lives lost to malaria, really been based on science or on alarmism? Similarly re: the long neglect and irrational fears over nuclear power.

All of these examples -- and there are many others -- point to a problem that's different than either a merely irrational fringe (like alien abductees, e.g.) or a culturally polarized public. This is that, even without polarization, a public can become irrationally alarmed over an issue, e.g., GM foods, when that alarm is hyped by ideologically-driven activists. This is perhaps the same point made by John above, but it's more than just single issue fanatics, and the people amplifying the alarm aren't necessarily just motivated by wanting to keep their jobs.

February 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

Dan, you asked 2 questions that I have been thinking about. 1. What's the point? I just don't think about it -- except that I did write th post on it linkied to above. 2. What's the chamber, actually? It's a bit mysterious.

For the second question, I agree with Larry that there is more that SIF's involved. Joshua, IIRC, linked to an article that diagnosed how a core group could become a majority. I wouldn't argue the actual numeracy of that statement, though, because my answer to your 2nd question is that the chamber is a mental construct or agent we use to establish our conclusion of a majority that was established per the article's diagnosis.

For the first question, the point is that I think that the SoSC not only can but must answer the problem of the 800 pound gorilla. For consideration I offer 3 items.

First,, the SoSC will need to be proactive. Secondly, the proactive part will have to be along the lines of crisis management Third item, what we need to avoid .

Along these lines, I think the first point is that scientists cannot be policy advocates and claim to be scientists. They have to as Johnson and Johnson did, close that avenue. If they want to be activists, they still can, but must not claim the mantle of science. Whether they are victims of the press, eco activists, or just tend to SIW (self inflicted wounds), the Schneider vs Schneider syndrome is just too much ammunition to opponents, and is NOT good communication.

Another point is that in SoSC a determination of whether the solution of the crisis is measurable in a concrete way will be used to choose the implementation of the OODA loop. A highly uncertain counterfactual solution needs to be communicated differently from a concrete measurable crisis. In this case, a comparison of the Tylenol crisis and the asssumed climate change crisis should provide some do's and don't's of communication. In that respect, the "Tell" paradigm is used to tell what is needed to start the conversation. The "Ask" paradigm is used to determine useful or acceptable information. The information can be about policy, or it could be about what is neeed to reduce uncertainty to an acceptable level.

But that means listening. I think that is the part that scientists as activists is such a failure. IMO, they veiw the required listening of questions as an attack on the science. They HAVE the answers. This POV is indicated as a problem in the risk management work of S&F. I think the temperature meme, from the 1970's to the present, indicate how advocacy combined with a poor metric leads to comatose civics.

I realize that some readers will not like the motivated reasoning in the comments of the WUWT link. But an important concept is evident, IMO, in them. That concept is sales fatigue. In particular the eco activists meme that we need a good disaster is a losing strategy, and mostly serves to give effective ammunition to the opposition, besides doing its part to destroy civil and good civic conversation.

YMMV. But I did like the questions you asked Dan because it helped me formulate how I veiw different aspects of cultural conflict and how my/our mental constructs shape thoughts.

March 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F Pittman

But that means listening. I think that is the part that scientists as activists is such a failure. IMO, they veiw the required listening of questions as an attack on the science. They HAVE the answers.

I agree, John. Along those lines, I made some comments in the thread upstairs - discussing the ineffectiveness of communication (or persuasion) where listening skills are lacking, and were perceptions of the audience (e.g., w/r/t climate change, the views of "skeptics" about a power imbalance) are not understood and accounted for.

March 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

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