Thursday, January 3, 2013

Scientagonism: The problem of antagonistic science communication

A recent column by Daniel Sarewitz in Nature on bridging the "partisan divide" with respect to public perception of science inspired some spirited debate over on my twitter feed yesterday. The short version goes something like this: scientists are often perceived as being in the thrall of Democrats, exposing the greater scientific enterprise to being undermined as simply another partisan front (or, alternatively factionalizing, wherein partisan camps each bring in their own "experts" an accuse the other side of "junk science). None of this is helped by scientists who go out of their way to bring on their antagonism - see, for example, the letter signed by 68 Nobel laureates endorsing President Obama over Mitt Romney in the last election (in which Sarewitz notes that of the 68, 43 have a record of public donations to candidates, and of these, only five have ever donated to Republican candidates, and none in the last election cycle). It goes without saying that, well-meaning as it may be, openly partisan activities like this aren't helping with the whole "not being perceived as a lockstep Democratic constituency" thing. (Note that I am explicitly not advocating mass abdication of scientists from the political discourse, which a genuinely terrible idea - but rather, a caution that lending one's scientific credibility to openly partisan ventures may not be in the best strategic interests of science...)

Dueling PhD banjos
Sarewitz recommends bringing together scientists with less monolithic political views together to demonstrate overall scientific consensus on key issues such as global climate change and the like, along with ensuring greater ideological balance in high-profile scientific advisory panels. The overall of goal of such an enterprise would be in restoring a public perception of science as a bipartisan enterprise - and in particular, inoculating policies based on scientific recommendations as simply being based upon "partisan science" - or to use a favorite expression - bringing in the "dueling PhD's." Unfortunately, while Sarewitz correctly diagnoses the problem, his solution falls far short.

The deeper problem here antagonism - both perceived and real. Dan Kahan (of the Yale Cultural Cognition Project) has prolifically written about the issue of "Cultural Cognition" - in other words, how our individual values can (unconsciously) conspire to shape perceptions of risk to accommodate our pre-existing worldviews (something I've discussed prior in how this relates to public perception of risk and nuclear energy) - also known as motivated reasoning. In essence, the mind rebels against cognitive dissonance and will do what it takes to ensure such is resolved - namely by shaping our perceptions to confirm previously-held beliefs. Ideology, as it turns out, is an extremely effective marker for predicting risk perception - and more distressingly, these differences in perception grow more pronounced with "high-information" individuals, strongly pointing to the existence of motivated reasoning.

So what does all of this have to do with antagonism? Quite simply: everything. People will by nature rebel against information perceived to be antagonistic to their worldviews - downplaying evidence of phenomena that threatens their worldviews. (Kahan notes how this cuts several ways - both in how the threat of global climate change threatens market-oriented views of individualists and hierachists, and how the associations of nuclear power with "big business" and highly concentrated capital raises the hackles of those of more egalitarian and communitarian mindsets.) These associations are particularly acute when said scientific issues are charged with a single solution - such as in the case of climate, direct government intervention into the economy to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.

One of the more interesting outcomes of some of Kahan's experimental work has been in strategies toward de-polarization - science communication strategies which seek to minimize these perception gaps, namely by presenting scientific information in a way which seeks to minimize antagonism toward deeply-held values.  An example of this depolarization with respect to climate change is of course nuclear energy (along with geo-engineering); when communication of climate risks is presented with policy prescriptions of increased use of nuclear energy or new technologies such as geoengineering, individuals oriented toward skepticism of climate risks become more receptive - in other words, the use of framing has a demonstrable de-polarizing effect. Why? Namely because the science is now presented in a context where it is no longer threatening to the worldview of the listener.

And yet too often in science communication (and at times among nuclear advocates as well) there is the very opposite at work - science is presented as antagonistically as possible to the audience - as if somehow dismissing climate skeptics and religious fundamentalists as stupid and venal will cow them into belief. (Once again, to my horror I have seen the same phenomenon at work in certain discussions over nuclear energy - where those representing the house will shout down any who dare trespass in their domain instead of making any attempt at reasonable engagement.)

The same goes as well for the policies that from the science - absolutist arguments that inherently tie science to one favored set of policies - rather than a panoply of potential solutions. Such strategies are practically an open invitation to partisanship and motivated reasoning, and yet all too often are the standard for how high-profile science communication on controversial issues gets done. (Similarly, attempts to reconcile the idea of science as not being fundamentally incompatible or at odds with various political and religious values are frequently dismissed as at best naive and at worst "selling out" science.) It is in these cases where members of the scientific community in fact become their own worst enemies - namely in hardening an opposition predicated on the idea that certain scientific findings are fundamentally antagonistic to their values (and thus we return to the realm of "dueling PhD's...")

To put it on a meta level for a moment - getting the public to accept the scientific process as a means of understanding the natural world is in essence getting them to agree upon a common source for facts. But the role of science communication is not and should not be a platform for antagonizing whatever misguided metaphysical or theological beliefs the speaker believes the audience has. In other words, science can and should speak to facts and leave issues of metaphysics to others. (Or, to put it yet another way as I did on Twitter - is your goal to change beliefs over scientific facts or religious theology?)

This problem of "dueling PhD's" - or to put it another way, competing certifications on science, and in turn what experts we trust inherently come back to these kinds of issues. Kahan recently posted an interesting four-part essay (drawing heavily on the ideas of Karl Popper) on the notion of a "Liberal Republic of Science" (IIIIIIIV) - discussing how a key issue which arises even in societies which broadly accept science as a foundation of knowledge is in the inevitable conflicts of how we certify these sources of facts - in other words, the dueling PhDs. (Kahan stresses that in his view, much of the current wrangling over hot-button issues like climate, nuclear power, and vaccines is not even a question of who accepts science as a source of knowledge as it is the process of how our values shape whose information we certify as credible - which again, comes back to how this information validates existing value systems. Kahan's argument is thus for a science of science communication.) Ultimately this once again returns to the issue of antagonism - science presented in a way which is directly antagonistic to the values of the listener will be stripped of credibility in favor of information from sources which does not antagonize values. (Thus we get to Kahan's argument for a science of science communication - determining the best means of ensuring the best and most accurate scientific information is received and accepted by the overall public.)

Growing a consensus on science as a source of knowledge (or further, developing a common understanding on the same core set of scientific facts) does not imply unanimity in policy ends (and nor should it!), namely because policy is inherently a normative process. More importantly, dropping an explicitly antagonistic communication strategy in favor of one more easily accommodating to diverse values doesn't it in any way imply "giving in" or "selling out" science (as my position has been rather uncharitably characterized). Above all else, the goal here is to get people recognize a common starting point for facts, and letting the implications - both policy and metaphysical - flow from this common starting point. Getting people to agree to the reality of climate change does not imply unanimity about what to do about it, namely because this inherently involves value judgments over the required trade-offs - and of course the same is true for nuclear energy as well. What it does do however is to ensure a more honest, reasoned, and productive discussion of the available options.

Again, however - this requires a strategy for science communication that inherently puts aside antagonism and focuses upon compatibility with existing values. Two recent posts - one by +Suzanne Hobbs Baker at the ANS Nuclear Cafe and one by +Rod Adams at Atomic Insights fit well into what I'm proposing. Both discuss the role of communicating the value of nuclear energy as a strategy for combating climate change - Suzy within the context of framing nuclear as an ally of environmentalism in the face of climate change, and Rod in regards to how because discussions of climate are often so charged even within pro-nuclear communities that such debates become toxic (and thus are often placed strictly off-limits), thus depriving the nuclear community of a key message in communicating with the public. Both of them are focusing on how presenting nuclear as explicitly compatible with concerns with the environment can perhaps help to potentially forge partnerships from communities skeptical (and even at times adversarial) to one another. (And again, to emphasize - a deep concern over how to rectify doing something about climate change while maintaining our present standard of living is one of the fundamental reasons I decided to change careers...)

This is something that I myself have tried to embrace myself when dealing with audiences hostile to nuclear (such as the NNSA hearing on disposing of surplus weapons plutonium in MOX fuel in Chattanooga, back in September). The very first thing I acknowledged to the audience is that we clearly have disparate opinions about nuclear energy (ones unlikely to be resolved in the span of a single evening) but that everyone in the room shared common concerns over peace and security - our preferred means of achieving this ("...to MOX or not to MOX, that is the question...") simply differed. I'm not so fantastically egotistical as to believe this changed the entire tone of the meeting (there were still certainly rancorous and loud comments by the opposition), but I do sincerely believe starting from a position of common values and as much as possible eschewing antagonism helped to provoke thoughtful discussions which occurred afterwards (and at least some civility during).

None of this implies stepping down antagonism in science communication is a magic-bullet or a panacea, nor will it necessarily work in all cases (such as dealing with perhaps the most hardened zealots - be they of the anti-nuclear or fundamentalist variety...) But what it can do (in fact, what folks like Kahan have explicitly demonstrated when it comes to "compatabalist" communication strategies), is that it can help to detoxify these kinds of discussions, namely by pulling people away from the brink by not threatening their deeper values. That in itself would be progress.