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First things first: the science of normal (nonpathological) science communication

From something I'm working on...

The priority of the science of normal science science communication 

The source of nearly every science-communication misadventure can be traced to a single mistake: the confusion of the processes that make science valid  for the ones that vouch for the validity of it.  As Popper (1960) noted, it is naïve, to view the “truth as manifest” even after it has been ascertained by science. The scientific knowledge that individuals rely on in the course of their everyday lives is far too voluminous, far too specialized for any—including a scientist—to comprehend or verify for herself.  So how do people manage to pull it off?  What are social cues they rely on to distinguish the currency of scientific knowledge from the myriad counterfeit alternatives to it? What processes generate those cues? What are the cognitive faculties that determine how proficiently individuals are able to recognize and interpret them? Most importantly of all, how do the answers to these questions vary--as they must in modern democratic societies--across communities of culturally diverse citizens, whose members are immersed in a plurality of parallel systems suited for enabling them to identify who knows what about what? These questions not only admit of scientific inquiry; they demand it.  Unless we understand how ordinary members of the public ordinarily do manage to converge on the best available evidence, we will never fully understand why they occasionally do not, and what can be done to combat these noxious sources of ignorance.



Popper, K.R. On the Sources of Knowledge and of Ignorance. in Conjectures and Refutations 3-40 (Oxford University Press London, 1960).


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Reader Comments (2)

I propose that the story will be more palatable and memorable to the public if we also ask how scientists and specialists ordinarily do manage to converge on the best available evidence.
Which is to ask "what do scientists do when they find themselves in our shoes?".

My theory is that there are a number of parallels.

I recall reading a comment from a sociology of science study which indicated that practicing scientists tend to be most skeptical of "findings", data, and theories from their own field of specialty. One could draw several implications from that --- one being that scientists tend to lose their sense of "health skepticism" the further away they get from their own fields.

April 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCortlandt

I believe looking at scientists, and intra-scientific appraisal, offers a particularly appealing way to start into the general problem of public evidence convergence- in large part because folks like Popper have prescribed criteria for the evaluation of evidence, and because others like Lakatos have articulated how that convergence is affected by social factors.

That said, I think I disagree with you about the specific case. My inclination is to be much more skeptical about the belief formation habits of scientists than you appear to be in this post. My suspicion is that in response to the specialization and fragmentation of scientific knowledge (Popper's Babel of Tongues problem), and other pressures, scientists are reliant on heuristic cues to evidentiary quality that are not/i> valid. This is roughly why we wind up having replication crises in psychology and John Ionnaidis standing on the quad wearing a sandwich board saying "The end is nigh".

Although these sources of appraisal error may not be particularly large, such errors may also not be randomly distributed- and not easily remedied by the procedures of critical self-correction which scientific discourse is meant to foster. Obvious examples would include many of the typical features of the heuristics literature, such as source errors, but also more sophisticated problems of the sort that you've already written about here- widespread misunderstandings of basic statistics and reporting, or field-specific culturally motivated processing of disputes (The behaviorism debate is a fun example in psych for that one, or if you'd prefer a physical cultural locus, debates in economics between different salinities).

April 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Marriott

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