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Is there diminishing utility in the consumption of the science of science communication?

Apparently not!

Or at least not at Cornell University, where I gave 3 lectures Thurs. & had follow up meetings w/ folks Friday.

This is a university that gets the importance of integrating the practice of science and science-informed policymaking with the science of science communication.  The number of scholars across various departments in both the natural and social sciences who are applying themselves to this objective in their scholarship and pedagogy is pretty amazing.

Brief report:

No. 1 was a tallk for the Gloal Leadership Fellows affiliated with the Cornell Alliance for Science (“a global initiative for science-based communication”).  B/c the Fellows--an amazingly smart & talented group of science communication professionals & students-- were going to tail me for the rest of the day, I thought I should pose a couple of questions that they could think about & that I’d answer in later lectures. Of course, I asked them for their own answers in the meantime. Since theirs answers were, predictably, better than the ones I was going to give, I just substituted theirs for mine later in the day--who would notice, right?

The questions were:

1. Do U.S. farmers believe in climate change? &

2. Do evolution non-believers enjoy watching documentaries on human evolution?

The Fellows were very curious about these issues.

Slides here.

No. 2 was lecture to class “The GMO Debate: Science, Society, and Global Impacts.”  Title of my talk was, “Are GMOs toxic for the science communication environment? Vice versa?”  I think I might have been the first person to break the news to them that there isn’t any public contestation over GM foods in the U.S.

Slides here.

No. 3 was public lecture.  Discussed the “science communication measurement problem,” “the disentanglement principle,” and “cognitive dualism & communicative pluralism.”

Slides here.

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Reader Comments (7)

No. 3 'Slides here.' link: "Page Not Found The page /storage/cornell_10_22_18_ could not be located on this website."


October 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDanilo


Thx! Fixed (I think)

October 24, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

"Since theirs answers were, predictably, better than the ones I was going to give, I just substituted theirs for mine later in the day--who would notice, right?"

So what were their answers?

Slide 6 - "Beliefs on global temperature "Increase in recent decades""

So did they have any interesting theories on why so many on the left got it wrong?

(If they did. I notice your slide labels the data with two entirely different questions with - depending on your definitions - opposite 'right' answers. Confusing!)

October 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV


I feel we've discussed these issues before... No?

October 26, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

What, we've discussed what your audience said at the lecture last Thursday before?!

Yes, we've discussed the difference in meaning between "global warming" and "global temperature rise" before - and I think we may also have discussed the way you carry on doing it, even after having had it pointed out repeatedly. I don't know if we've ever got to the bottom of why you do - whether it's because you don't believe me but don't want an argument, or because you genuinely don't care about accuracy in such matters, or whatever. But I think we can agree we know all that.

But I was intrigued by your suggestion that your audience might have offered other answers that were 'better' than your own, and I was wondering if they had a different perspective. Perhaps they had asked themselves whether it might be the result of conflicting definitions? Assuming they noted that the majority on the left had got it wrong regarding the phenomenon popularly known as the 'hiatus' among climate scientists, did they have the same theory (e.g. motivated reasoning) about why that might be, or a different one? Or - and I hesitate to 'stereotype' them as a bunch of predominantly liberal academics - did they turn out to be similarly affected by the identity-belief correlation under discussion and not recognise the error either?

If your audience is representative of the US as a whole, there ought to have been a few climate sceptics among them who could have pointed it out. It would be a curious observation if there weren't, wouldn't you agree? Assuming we agree that opinions on the question don't depend on how much science you know, but on which cultural group you identify with, and assuming we agree that a significant proportion of the population at large is of that other cultural group, then why would no members of that group put their hands up and ask the question?

Even if - being of the AGW-believer tribe - you believed your audience was correct not to question it, surely you must know that the other tribe disagreed and should have objected. It would be as if you had surveyed a random sample of US citizens and found 100% of them to support evolution of species by natural selection - they might be right, but that fact itself is highly surprising! Did you ever wonder why? Did you perhaps implicitly assume they were all members of your tribe? Or that if they weren't they would be keeping very quiet about it?

There are lots of interesting questions! The science of science communication applies top to bottom - it applies even to the communication of itself! While you were stood there communicating your observations in TSOSC, you was at the same time performing yet another instance of it. Would the science itself not predict that your audience would be interpreting your results in line with their tribal affiliations? Does the failure of your audience to raise the 'hiatus' point (assuming they did) confirm or refute the hypothesis?

So in short - I already knew your view, but I was interested to hear whether your audience's answers were any 'better'. :-)

October 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Dan, I hope that your answer here, to the GMO debate class, regarding actual public attitudes towards GMOs was also relayed to the people at the Cornell Alliance for Science. I think that confusion as to who science communicators are addressing, as members of the public, is behind much of our difficulties in science communication generally. This is frequently true online, where only the extremes tend to be interested enough in a topic to keep up the jousting. And it seemed to me to be very true of the cornell Allance for Science, based on my experience below:

As I related to you by e-mail, I "front-ran" your Cornell visit by several weeks. Cornell itself is an interesting hybrid academic institution, part Ivy League private University, part public Land Grant University. In my experience, land grant institutions, in particular, their agricultural extension agencies, have fantastic depth of expertise in talking about new science based methods to their often reluctant to change audience of farmers. At least in my experience, Agricultural Extension services frequently deal with controversial issues and hostile receptions and do know how to approach things respectfully, and with a real appreciation for the point of view of those they deal with who may be less than receptive to their advice. This is exemplified by what I believe to be an excellent Cornell publication which covers "GMOs" but is titled in non polarizing fashion as: "Agricultural Biotechnology: Informing the Dialog". What is great is that this publication is a vehicle for a dialog. It does not talk down to it's potential readers and it recognizes that they might have thoughts of their own and it respects that.

While I was in Ithaca, controversy erupted over a planned public outreach GMO event by the Cornell Alliance for Science. This had been scheduled for the local Co-op market, Green Star. In my opinion, this choice of venue betrayed a serious misunderstanding of the potential public to be reached among the citizens of Ithaca. Green Star is quite small relative to the well stocked and huge Wegman's supermarket in town. The whole point of being an active member of Green Star is to identify as not in favor of corporate agriculture or conventional processed foods. With some knowledge of such co-ops, it is not surprising to me that the membership rose up in opposition to the co-op board's decision to allow this meeting in their venue and it was then moved to the Ithaca Unitarian Church. Which is still not a neutral venue. The creation of this controversy energized the anti-GMO activists in the Green Star Co-op and they very cleverly exploited this opportunity by leafleting the Saturday Ithaca's Farmers Market, where I encountered them. The Ithaca Farmers Market is a very popular thing to do whereby locals stroll through the stands, purchasing much less of the produce than the farmers had hoped, and then maybe enjoy a breakfast burrito from one of the stands while sitting and admiring the views of the lake. It is a once a week, probably isolated for most participants, celebration of pretending to belong to the tribe of local agriculture supporters. Before they actually head on over to Wegman's. Thus, the farmers market is a perfect opportunity for the activists to approach people with a message in opposition to GMOs and Monsanto, using the the proposed Cornell Alliance for Science event as a vehicle. Especially when one of the proposed speakers is the controversial Kevin Folta:

Thus, I am not very sympathetic to the statements of the moderator for the event: "How has biotechnology become so emotionally charged that it's uncomfortable, even potentially dangerous, to discuss it in a public forum, especially in a generally progressive and collegiate environment like Ithaca?" IMHO, this event was planned as if they were asking for such a confrontation by attempting to schedule it in the one place in town which was controlled by people opposed to GMOs from the get go. If one wants to hold an event for the actual public, venue choice is extremely important. It needs to be a place that is seen as neutral, and easy for people in general to agree to come to. Once you have a genuinely diverse audience, it is easier to control those who want to steal the stage for their own message, because then the audience is on your side regarding the need to move on and to allow everyone an opportunity to speak.

November 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

Here's an opportunity that could keep Dan on the road, delivering informative talks, forever: It turns out that if Nielson asks 30,000 online respondents a question apparently to the effect of: "Would you like it if your food was not natural and it contained genetically modified organisms?" the answer is no, they would not like that.

"Some 43% of Americans said natural ingredients and an absence of genetically modified organisms were important to them, according to a 2015 Nielsen survey of 30,000 online respondents in 60 countries; Campbell is now responding to that shift, to which other legacy food brands have already responded."

This apparently is a good reason to change the formula for Campbell's chicken noodle soup, a foodstuff I, at least, haven't eaten in at least 25 years. I assume that loyal Campbell's chicken noodle soup consumers are dying off rapidly. Salt consumption and lack of vegetables may be a contributing factor, (along with old age), but I doubt GMOs are involved. Since the noodles are wheat, not corn, it is not even clear to me that GMOs are in the soup to any significant degree. Maybe consumers would like the soup better if it were just plain salt, and did not have any "organisms" in it, genetically modified or otherwise.

November 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

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