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"So what?" vs. "You tell me!"

A thoughtful persons writes,

Thanks for this study [on "Motivated Numeracy & Enlightened Self-Government.

So, what?  As a consumer of your work (rather than as a fellow academic and/or peer reviewer), I need to know how to use it. I'm a journalist and world citizen. The insights you provide join others that say that people, no matter how ignorant or how lackadaisical toward subjects of common interest, would rather fight than switch, that American political party affiliation is bound so closely to our self-identification that we will assert it and defend it irrationally. Stuff like that.

Please don't tell me it's not your job to write a "therefore" codicil. I know that, but outside the boundaries of academia there's a natural impulse when confronting potentially useful information to wonder how best to use it. I'm among those guys.

My answer:

Dear X:

Thanks for the note. 

2 answers: 

1. Long, less interesting: I and my collaborators have done studies & written papers that try to address the "what is to be done?" question once one accepts (if one does; the matter certainly remains open, and in need of more investigation) that the source of the "science communication problem" isn't any defect in the public's knowledge or reasoning ability but rather the contamination of the science communication environment with toxic partisan meanings that disable their normally reliable ability to figure out what's known by science.  Some conjecture on possible strategies for decontaminating the science communication enviornment; others test one or another of these; and still others say how to go about identifying possible #scicomm environment protection strategies (by evidence-based means, of course).  A sampling...

2. Shorter, more urgent.  You tell me 

Seriously. You are a professional communicator with a wealth of experienced-informed knowledge about how to communication what to whom. I'm clueless. don't do science communication; I study it. But b/c I study it -- empirically -- I think I can supply you with information of genuine consequence.  A study like this tries to identify which of the many many  plausible accounts of what is going on is truly the source of the problem & which not; it does that by creating a model from which the cacophony of influences that exist in any particular setting are more-or-less stripped away so that we can reliably observe & manipulate cognitive mechanisms of interest. Well, here you go then.  Here's what I see; it's this ("of coruse; obviously!") & not that (something that appeared just as obvious; this is the nub of the problem, of course).  Now that you have more reason to believe that this is what's going on, surely you, as someone with a wealth of experienced-informed knowledge who understands all the things I stripped out of my model, can identify somewhere between 50 & 10,000 things that might engage this genuinely consequential mechanism that the study identified!  Realize, however, that although they are all "obvious" only some will genuinely reproduce in the field things that I (or others doing what I do) can manage to do in the lab.  However, that I can help you with. Pick 1 or 2 or 3 of the things you think will engage the mechanisms I've identified in a constructive way, and I'll measure what happens & give you more information ....  

But you tell me; it's your move.  

Your fellow citizen (of the Liberal Republic of Science),


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Reader Comments (6)

Dear X:

One of the issues I see is that communication all to often is using the "Tell" paradigm. Even worse what they are "telling" those they differ with is that they are inferior, corrupt, ignorant, etc. Dan's and others' works indicate the opposite. Where I differ, but is more perception than substance, is that I think the risk and leadership functions are a complex matrix where using the "Tell" paradigm results in a negative re-enforcement of cultural poisoning that is an X^2 rather than a linear function. I don't think people would rather fight than switch, but instead they find themselves immediately in a cultural battle that is a lose-lose scenario in terms of going outside of their cultural identity. I would not blame the sheep that the fox stole a hen.

As a professional communicator think of how often the same cultural identification may be reflected in your work. Unless all you do is communicate facts, it is almost impossible not to skew a controversial subject. I will watch Fox news and then NBC. Both will have facts, yet both add more. That more is cultural. Viewers expect it. People would rather fight, or rather see a good fight, than be bored. I would find that a more likely proposition than the concept of irrationality.

After all, though communication is nice, a large fraction of communication requires people to be willing to pay for it. This presents its own criteria and bias. As a scientific professional who has to deal with the media, I can say from experience that unbiased reporting in my area does not occur. This is not to say bias does occur everywhere. It is to say that I would be irrational if I did not note that unbiased reporting in my area of expertise and my area of dealing with the local press was to date always biased.

So, what I would say is that we need leadership not of the re-enforcing cultural bias biased leadership, but towards agreement, towards a degree of civility. This leadership would be of those who wish the LRoS to succeed. It requires, IMO, a commodity that is scare. A realistic evaluation of where a person as an individual with their bias and comfort zone, sets those aside, and works towards the goal of civility and inclusion.

September 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

Like you I am a communicator (as well as an experimental scientist). I take the lessons from this blog and apply them, person by person, in communicating. I also challenge Dan and co. to show me whether their results are done from well chosen sampling, have clear unambiguous questions, and have supportable inferences.
If you want details of how I use what is here, contact me.
As for telling Dan, we trade information back and forth as appropriate. I tend to tell him of successes and failures when I apply his insights to communication in small groups. So far, the results have been really good, mostly in understanding the world views of the people that I talk to. I had five successes this week. Two of them were completely unexpected. One was ridiculously pressured and high speed. I got through it, in part, by applying insights from here.

September 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

Eric, your comment is tantalising. Whose minds did you change, and about what, from what to what, if I may ask?

September 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrad Keyes

I do this influencing and mind changing all the time. I am not trying to manipulate anyone but am trying to get them to look more clearly at the existing evidence.
Here are a couple of examples from last week.
One set of people believes that the town that I live in will go forward and prosper without any active work on their part. Another set, of which I am part, believes that without active work the town will die in the next five to ten years. The cognition dilemma is first to figure out who is right or partially right and then what to do. It seems that the 'we have to do something' faction is right and this faction needs the talent, money, and resources of the 'no need to do anything' faction.
At this point, things get complicated because, for me to be effective, I have to understand the driving forces of the 'do nothing' group and present information to them that directly speaks to these driving forces and, more importantly, presents a new force that will move the people in a direction that may save the town. For example, a significant part of the older residents believe that they are a privileged set of workers whom the government will protect and coddle as long as they are alive. This belief system has been built and nurtured for more than 50 years and has been mostly true for that amount of time. Because many of these people are scientists, I have to present information that says that their 'the government will protect me' meme is not true, but I have to present it as evidence that they can take home and evaluate on their own. After they evaluate it, then we can move in a new direction.
For a different example, a friend has a view of male female interactions that was characterized as being state of the art for the late 18th century. In talking to him, I first had to get him to realize that there may be other ways to view male female relationships, for instance that in many fields men and women are strong colleagues without being romantically involved, and then I had to get him to realize that these different ways of interacting can be as honorable as the way that he is used to and has been taught is correct.
There are a lot more details to get right in order to have the discussion be productive, but my fingers are tired and the readers of this blog may not want more length in this comment so I will quit here.
Does the above help your understanding of what I am doing a bit?

September 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

An addendum
Even when I am at my most persuasive, the discussion may not work. For instance, a few hours ago, I had a discussion about building a business in my hometown. My friend said that he would stay here and try to build a business here until the town collapses even though he knows that, rationally, this decision makes little sense. He will stay and try to accomplish something because this is his home and has been his home for 40 years.

September 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

Hey Dan. Have you been keeping up with the SPM of AR5 and all the cognitive bias? I know you have been busy, but it is an interesting play on role reversal.

The biggest play to date, IMO, is that the IPCC supporters are having to include the uncertainty that was always there and now has worsened. The IPCC dropped its likely range to include 1.7C for ECS. A step up from 1.7C being in the very likely ECS range, as in Dana Nuccitelli and Michael E Mann's How The Economist got it wrong ( So the Globe really is warming?) but was always there. Though, no one will have the real science, just general speculation, until the AR5 WG1 comes out. But it is fair game, IMO, since the SPM is political output. The SPM did not include a basis for increased uncertainty range, but increased confidence in attribution. I think this was both a tactical and strategic mistake, YMMV.

Still seeing both sides looking at a dynamic system with static approaches. And staking out their comfort zones. I wonder what the skeptics will say, if according to typical cycles, in about 10 years we have an accelleration of temperature rise. Just as I wonder, what the proponents will be saying if the psudeo cycle goes for 15 more years as is possible, before temperatures accellerate. That is the problemof choosing a 30 year basis. It can cut both sides equally, if its science.

September 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

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