Science: Golden Age or Age of Denial?

Posted by Michael on April 23, 2013

By Sarah Estes

The To Think, To Write, To Publish Fellows wrapped up the drafts of our essays last week and will now move into the final phase of revisions preceding publication. A process thus far contained  between the scientist/communicator pair and their mentors will venture out into the broader world; a world that many of us sense, or know from experience, can be skeptical if not downright hostile toward science and science communication. What can we keep in mind to help make our stories relevant in an age that has been called both, "The Golden Age of Science" and "The Age of Denial?"

It could be argued that "The Golden Age" part of the equation takes care of itself, so why address it. But it's worth reminding ourselves that there has (arguably) never been a greater need or more voracious appetite for stories that engage the explosion of data and scientific discovery in ways that speak to regular people.  A quick look at the New York Times nonfiction best sellers (on any given week it seems!) reveals a bevy of books with quick, pithy titles (Gulp; Clean; Salt, Sugar, Fat) explaining how recent advances in the social and hard sciences can shed light on our lives. The social sciences in particular have made tremendous gains in terms of acceptance as "legitimate" science in recent years. The very existence of To Think, To Write, To Publish is an indication of the importance the National Science Foundation grants to education, communication and outreach in the sciences. And yet, with this explosion of interest and enthusiasm in the public embrace of scientific research comes a backlash.

Last month the United States Senate passed an amendment proposed by Tom Coburn (R-OK) limiting political science funding at the National Science Foundation. Political science takes up only a sliver of the NSF budget (about $10 million out of a $7 billion budget) but it's been on the Republican "hit-list" for years. (Other common targets include climate research and evolutionary biology). Last May, Jeffrey Flake (R-AZ) attempted to gut NSF funding by $1 billion. When that failed, he settled for a more surgical strike on political science funding within the NSF. Despite having an MA in political science himself, he had a list of grievances, topped by the $700,000 allotted to develop a new model for international climate change. He got his amendment through the House, only to have it struck down by the Democratically-controlled Senate; but last month collaborators Coburn, Flake and Darrell Issa (R-CA) took advantage of the looming government shutdown to push their funding ban through the Senate. It came as a shock to social scientists (who have previously relied on Democrats to block attempts to cut their funding) and should serve as a wake-up call  to anyone concerned about the future of science and science writing. While the immediate fiscal impact is to political science (which gets 60% of its research funding from the NSF), having politically-motivated congress members set the scientific agenda for the NSF is a dangerous precedent.

Ensconced as we are in our predominantly liberal(ish) academic, literary and medical milieus, it's easy to forget about the challenges we fellows face in engaging the larger public and defending science and science communication from the Tom Coburns of the world. If nothing else, the passage of the Coburn Amendment should serve as a reminder/wake-up call about the importance of keeping less amicable audiences and their critiques in mind. Last April, the University of Wisconsin-Madison held a conference on Science Writing in the Age of Denial to address some of the issues facing science writers hoping to reach beyond the choir to persuade a larger audience. I learned about the conference after-the-fact in the Summer 2012 issue of the National Association for Science Writers Magazine, and found the follow-up coverage to be thought provoking and helpful. I thought I would summarize a few of the findings most relevant to the next stage of TTTWTP editing here.

 A quick perusal of conference session summaries reveals some interesting strategies and insights into the process of writing persuasively for a general audience. Arthur Lupia speaks to the need to recognize (and refute) the knowledge-deficit model of communication.  I recall quite vividly watching a video in third grade on starving children in drought-stricken Ethiopia and the food distribution issues in developing countries. I was shocked and dumbfounded. Maybe the president hadn't seen the video? Surely, we could write him a letter and remedy this problem! I imagine every school child has a similar experience--is this for real? We have enough nuclear bombs to blow up the world umpteen times and we're producing more? Do people know about this? Why isn't anyone doing anything? It's the assumption (in its most naive form) that if people only knew what we knew that they would change their behavior/priorities/beliefs. 

According to Lupia, this knowledge-deficit model assumes that, “If we tell them what we know, they will change how they think and what they do" -- and it doesn't work.  It ignores our audience’s starting point, and ignores our tendencies toward motivated cognition. All of us have biases which motivate us to seek out information that confirms a pre-existing worldview. (We also tend to assume that people think/act/reason in ways that are more similar to us than they really are.) It takes an enormous amount of time, energy and strategic thinking to reach out to someone different and change or at least ‘add to’ the way a person thinks.

One of the more well-known gulfs in world view is between believers and skeptics of evolution. University of Wisconsin geneticist Sean Carroll  mapped out the 'anatomy of denial' in six steps in a session on the denial of evolution (the arguments will look familiar to writers who've tried to tackle anything from autism and immunizations to gun control):

1      Doubt, directed at the actual science related to the issue.

2      Doubt, directed at the personal motives and integrity of scientists. In this case, it’s not the data that is dubious (as it is in argument #1), it’s the people behind the data.

3      Magnified disagreements among scientists, often credentialed but non-expert people holding a minority opinion fuel unfounded debate.

4      Exaggeration of potential harm of the science in question, this is an unreasonable perception of the risk involved.

5      Personal freedom, an issue that is framed as an infringement on personal freedom (e.g. a child should have the choice of whether or not to learn about evolution)

6      Acceptance of the science in question would repudiate a key philosophical belief.

While most speakers were reluctant to suggest that there were hard and fast ways to 'win' the war on science, a few key strategies suggested by writers like Chris Mooney, Christie Aschwanden  and Steve Silberman were using humor, analogies and storytelling to help people connect the science to information they already knew.

Others highlighted the importance of knowing your own biases. Liberal-leaning writers might jump to conclusions about the importance or impact of a study, or be too quick and eager to embrace the novelty and excitement of new findings. Often, those findings need to be replicated and applied over time to gauge the true impact. This isn't to say we shouldn't cover new discoveries, only that the newer-is-better approach to science can be misleading. Overall, the conference proceedings emphasized the strategies of enhanced knowledge of self and audience, making use of humor and story and being ever vigilant about who our target audience is and where we hope to take them. There are always going to be a certain percentage of hard-core deniers who won't be persuaded, but present political/funding hurdles aside, it seems that the embrace of science and science writing will only continue to grow.