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Using our reason to rehabilitate our reason: reflections on visit to HHMI, plus lecture slides

Gave a talk last night at annual meeting of Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professors

I was deeply honored, of course, but also grateful for the invitation.  I was grateful b/c seeing the passion that so many brilliant scientists have for improving science communication subdues the sense of futility and depression that I admit I sometimes experience in and about my own work. 

There is nothing broken in our system of science communication, I believe, that can’t be fixed—with more science.  We just need the thirst for more knowledge, and the will to put it to use. 

Both were abundantly on display in the audience last night.

(Slides here. I’m sure you’ll catch the drift.)

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Reader Comments (9)

>'One good explanation: Cultural Cognition Thesis (CCT)' [slides].

Indeed it has good explanatory power. One 'just' has to recognize which cultures are in play, writ small, writ large, and on more axes than political left-right, and with alliances as well as oppositions. Also recalling that, as Lewandowsky reminds us: "Nonetheless, being human, scientists’ operate with the same cognitive apparatus and limitations as every other person” ('Seepage' paper, 2015). Which means that not just the science communication environment is impacted by cultural bias, but the science environment too.

>'By crafting messages to evoke narrative templates that are culturally congenial to target audiences, risk communicators can help to assure that the content of the information they are im-parting receives considered attention across diverse cultural groups' [Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus].

Yet the danger of stepping further from perceived objectivity to this end is significant. That choice is to gamble on cultural plays within a hugely complex game necessarily to the rules dictated by this game's deep embedding in all of us, in all society. Those rules have been developing for a hundred millennia and more; our understanding of them is poor and our prediction of outcomes probably far worse. The choice may not always be wise even when the communicators happen to be absolutely right. If they turn out not to be right, their choice resulted in another stage of amplification for cultural bias propagation. Nor can framings invoking fear memes or backfiring framings based upon poor cultural interpretation, turning out to do more harm than good, be called back once unleashed. They tend to persist with a life of their own once out in the wild. The communication chain may also be long and diverse; which communicators not in the targeted culture may nevertheless end up thinking in terms of the framing and not the original facts, so introducing iterative error.

July 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West


So if Burke or Oakeshott had been a social psychologist, would he make exactly these arguments? Isn't yours the "precautionary principle" of science communication?

July 13, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I’m not arguing either for or against radical change in society, so I don’t think the opinions of those guys as hypothetically applied to this issue are relevant. Nor do I even know whether they were right or wrong to favour gradualist change regarding the events they did pronounce on. Nor am I arguing principally about where the burden of proof lies regarding potential harms to society, per the precautionary principle (I note above, even when the communicators are ‘absolutely right’). I point out that if one’s choice of communication regarding science issues is to fight fire with fire on an age-old cultural battlefield we barely understand, this is frequently high risk unless the scenario is a narrow / very well understood / well-bounded / short-term one. In addition, by adopting cultural plays one is to some extent adopting sides; framing for one culture typically antagonizes others. So in addition to the risk of unintended consequences, perceived objectivity is traded; actual objectivity if folks in the science or SC chain eventually start believing their own framings (some issues last decades, and the newbies may not even know how the frames arose). And the truth may also be compromised, for in casting around for appropriate frames compromises may be made regarding the efficacy of the science in typically less researched overlap areas – in a drive for action the temptation of leveraging perceived useful frames without full knowledge can be very high. In view of this cultural framing should probably be sparing and light and better for short-term bounded issues (where visible results would quickly reinforce the messaging). There may be better ways to communicate than attempting to play culture at its own game.

July 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West


July 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan


Cool! My immediate reaction is to ask the person complaining about Flat Earthers to explain succinctly the evidence available to the ordinary man on the street demonstrating that a flat Earth is impossible and the Earth must be round. It's by no means impossible to do, but I've never yet met anyone who has managed it.

For example: "Meanwhile, the flat-Earth idea struggles to explain basic topics like why the sun comes up in the morning, let alone why it happens at different times in different places." That's easy! Refraction! Variations in atmospheric density bend the path of the light so that as the disc of the Earth spins, the view of the sun and stars are rotated by different angles when seen from different sectors of the disc. Can you prove that this is impossible?

The movement described by the journalist sounds a little odd - it may be something new. The only flat-Earther's I've come across before were people who had a strong understanding of and respect for science who didn't take their own flat Earth claims seriously - they were making a point about scientific evidence and its presentation to the public. Their point was that the sort of evidence provided to most ordinary people was totally inadequate to prove the case, and most people actually accepted the claims on the basis of blind faith instead. Therefore, they made a ridiculous claim (the more ridiculous the better) and the challenge was to prove them wrong. If you can't even prove something as simple and well-established as the roundness of the Earth in a simple way ordinary people can understand, how well-founded are your more abstruse theories?

The third article obviously has an agenda. It suggest that climate sceptics think "Widespread evidence supporting man-made global warming is the result of a politically leftist conspiracy, possibly with Greenpeace." Problem is, there is no "widespread evidence". Everyone knows that "Everyone knows that...", but nobody knows what the evidence for it is. It's taken on the basis of blind faith and trust in authority. When you point to some of the things those authorities have said and done, it's dismissed. Believers in global warming use the same techniques as Flat Earthers to maintain their beliefs, citing distortion by a conspiracy of oil-industry-funded propagandists, political operators, and similar wealthy/powerful Illuminati protecting their own economic interests.

On human-caused global warming, most educated sceptics would accept that the 40% 20th century CO2 rise will contribute about 0.5 C to a temperature that varies by two or three times that amount naturally, and more than ten times that locally, on a planet that can vary more that 30 C from equator to poles, day to night, summer to winter, city to country, sunny-to-cloudy, etc. and that climate sensitivity is about 1 C/doubling of CO2. They don't believe claims that feedbacks more than triple that to 3.5 C/doubling, and that other temporary effects have somehow hidden the far-more-than-observed predicted rise that would lead to.

Even to characterise it as "climate change denial" when nobody denies that climate changes (we *have* heard of ice ages!) betrays an ignorance of the debate or even basic scientific accuracy/precision that doesn't bode well for being able to actually produce this "widespread evidence". For the vast majority of people - including a lot of scientists who haven't studied the climate science themselves - it is as much a faith movement as the Flat Earth society being described in the articles.

The Flat Earth society is pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes by telling you of all the other invisible objects to be admired. You can laugh (or sigh) all you like at them pointing to the invisible second sun, or the invisible unicorns hanging out on street corners. But when you believe yourself in the Emperor's smart new suit, because *government* scientists all support it, you're totally missing the joke.

July 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV


Try as one might, they are immune to explanations:

July 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

The most commonly accepted explanation of this is that the space agencies of the world are involved in a conspiracy faking space travel and exploration.


Since the end of the Cold War, however, the conspiracy is most likely motivated by greed rather than political gains, and using only some of their funding to continue to fake space travel saves a lot of money to embezzle for themselves.

Hmmm. I feel like I may have read similar ideas recently in some other context.... but I just can't see to place it....


July 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"Try as one might, they are immune to explanations:"

The linked article gives no evidence of that. But it doesn't matter if they are - that's completely missing the point.

The greatest orator, save one, of antiquity, has left it on record that he always studied his adversary's case with as great, if not with still greater, intensity than even his own. What Cicero practised as the means of forensic success, requires to be imitated by all who study any subject in order to arrive at the truth. He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. The rational position for him would be suspension of judgment, and unless he contents himself with that, he is either led by authority, or adopts, like the generality of the world, the side to which he feels most inclination. Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. That is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of; else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty. Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in this condition; even of those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know: they have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and considered what such persons may have to say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess. They do not know those parts of it which explain and justify the remainder; the considerations which show that a fact which seemingly conflicts with another is reconcilable with it, or that, of two apparently strong reasons, one and not the other ought to be preferred. All that part of the truth which turns the scale, and decides the judgment of a completely informed mind, they are strangers to; nor is it ever really known, but to those who have attended equally and impartially to both sides, and endeavoured to see the reasons of both in the strongest light. So essential is this discipline to a real understanding of moral and human subjects, that if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil's advocate can conjure up.

...and a little later...

The cessation, on one question after another, of serious controversy, is one of the necessary incidents of the consolidation of opinion; a consolidation as salutary in the case of true opinions, as it is dangerous and noxious when the opinions are erroneous. But though this gradual narrowing of the bounds of diversity of opinion is necessary in both senses of the term, being at once inevitable and indispensable, we are not therefore obliged to conclude that all its consequences must be beneficial. The loss of so important an aid to the intelligent and living apprehension of a truth, as is afforded by the necessity of explaining it to, or defending it against, opponents, though not sufficient to outweigh, is no trifling drawback from, the benefit of its universal recognition. Where this advantage can no longer be had, I confess I should like to see the teachers of mankind endeavouring to provide a substitute for it; some contrivance for making the difficulties of the question as present to the learner's consciousness, as if they were pressed upon him by a dissentient champion, eager for his conversion.

But instead of seeking contrivances for this purpose, they have lost those they formerly had.

Mill's entire essay is so relevant to this debate that I'm really struggling to limit myself to just a couple of quotes. Go read the whole thing!

Science *relies* on opposition, because it consists of those hypotheses that survived every attempt to knock them down. Without opposition, science turns first into dogma, and then error; it dies. It's always a good exercise for a scientist to try to construct arguments for/against even 'obvious' truths, and nobody ever really understands a bit of science until they have done so. Scientists used to understand this, and encouraged argument and debate even against their own positions, because they knew that surviving such criticism was what won them scientific credibility. But today instead of seeking contrivances for this purpose, they seem intent on losing those they formerly had.

You really have to wonder at the motives of "scientists" who want to outlaw opposition to their beliefs - especially in a politically contentious part of science. (Everyone has to solve Schneider's dilemma their own way...) Recent history shows that we can argue about the philosophy of science all we like - they are completely immune to explanations. But that doesn't mean we should stop arguing. Without people like them to oppose scientific scepticism, and people like me to argue for it, human understanding of why scepticism is important dies too. The same argument applies at the meta-level.

"Hmmm. I feel like I may have read similar ideas recently in some other context.... but I just can't see to place it....

Those darn oil companies, eh? :-)

July 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Excellent narrative arc from the polarizing issues of 5 years ago and "Failure of Communication" article in Nature (so widely read by my media colleagues) to the present research into science curiosity and political processing. It brings us so close to real insights and actionable solutions -- beyond "you tell me" even. If you'd like US to tell YOU, let's do some more testing on media (video and print) on the polarizing issues 5 years later, now. How about immigration policy, health care funding, and whether or not to maintain Clean Water regulations in the face of pushback from Big Ag, Big Chem and local governments in debt. Climate change and gun control level 2.0, of course. You tell us, we're in!

July 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterKatie Carpenter

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