Friday, June 08, 2012

Where Do We Go from Here? Some Final Thoughts

(by guest blogger Carrie Figdor)

I've discussed growing public anger and confusion about science, and the role of scientists, the popular science press, and philosophers who may all contribute to or fail to alleviate this confusion in different ways. I'll end my guest stint with a big "thank you" to Eric and the readers of his blog, and a few concluding ruminations.

There have already been calls for greater attention to miscommunication between "the folk" and scientists. In a 2010 article on neuroscience communication and the need to address public concerns, Illes et al. recommend a cultural shift among neuroscientists (including more openness regarding the potentials and limitations of the research), the development of neuroscience communication specialists, and additional empirical research on science communication. And at least one neuroscientist is being openly critical about the field online with the Neuroskeptic blog. However, there's also reason to think even these steps will not suffice to end miscommunication.

In a recent New Books in Philosophy interview about In Praise of Reason, Michael Lynch provides an interesting interpretation of data from a 2007 Gallup poll on American beliefs about evolution. According to the poll, the majority of Americans don’t believe in evolution.  But why don’t they?  Only 14 percent cited lack of evidence for evolution as the reason for their disbelief. That is, most agree there is overwhelming scientific agreement on evolution. Although the persistent lack of belief in the face of this evidence is often blamed on lack of scientific education, psychological factors, and so on, Lynch suggests an alternative (which is compatible with there being several factors): many Americans are implicitly skeptical about the methods and practices associated with science, and are not at all convinced that these methods are reliable when it comes to things that matter.

If so, the miscommunication problem is not just a matter of misleading uses of words and a lack of vigorous critical scrutiny of science by professional skeptics. These factors may just exacerbate prior widespread public skepticism about science and its methods of getting at truth when the truths are more complex than science is well-equipped to handle. Such skepticism needn't be an expression of religious conviction or the brute denial of empirical data, but of inchoate doubt that the simplifications required by the scientific method to generate empirical data will ever do justice to real phenomena. From this perspective, the public has good reason to be pissed off when scientists fail to treat it with respect: What make them think their method is so keen and wonderful when it comes to understanding real humans? The question is a propos, because we're living a moment in which science urges replacing our old vision in which we are not machines with a new vision in which we are. Ah, but everything, the public might say, hangs on the word "machine". As a professional skeptic, I'm inclined to agree.


Scott Bakker said...

I've actually pinned my whole writing career to this very issue, though I'm primarily critical of the humanities (philosophy especially) and think science does far-and-away a better job reaching out to the cultural commons. But still not good enough.

One of the things I've noticed about discussions of this issue is what might be called the 'Broadcast Fallacy,' the assumption that the message actually reaches everybody, but is somehow flawed or garbled or drowned out. But what if the problem is quite different?

What if the problem is primarily one of getting through, of reaching ears in the first place, and then reaching ears capable of listening. One of the big reasons I write fantasy fiction has to do with the kinds of audiences it puts me in contact with. If you want to challenge people, you need to avoid ingroup communication (like this!) as much as possible, reach out to those holding dissenting views using the cultural vehicles they consume. Since evangelicals are big fans of fantasy, I write fantasy that is very critical of religious certainty. And as the information revolution continues fragmenting markets, pandering with ever greater specificity to the confirmation biases of disparate ingroups, I think this 'trojan horse' tactic will become more and more crucial. Just think: 15 years ago you were forced to test your views against those of your neighbours (who likely disagreed). Now you just Google, and voila, there's a thousand websites telling you why it's a great thing starving to death in the name of beauty.

You might argue that the classroom is the one place where broadcasting, and refining the content (as opposed to the form) of the message is still important. I agree, but I think there are clear limits on what can be accomplished in the classroom. When you look at our contemporary culture and its fetish with groundless Belief and pseudo-empowerment, you can see just how deeply a science teacher has to cut against the grain to get their message through.

What we need, I would argue, is a more critical culture, one that urges the producers of content to reach beyond their ingroups to engage 'folk' with drastically different views. Fiction, as recent research seems to be revealing, can have a profound impact:

I also have a (dated) article on the subject at:

And a more recent one (but not quite so germane to your point) at:

But I've said too much already! Thank you, Carrie. I've immensely enjoyed your posts!

Neil said...

The difference between the US and other countries on evolution *has* to have a sociological explanation, not an explanation that invokes science communication. Science communication worldwide is dominated by the US and by the model it provides, yet the US is an outlier wrt to evolution.

Carrie Figdor said...

@Scott: I can't say i've never ever thought of fiction as a kind of trojan horse -- i think of ursula hegi's science fiction exploring basic social assumptions/norms -- but not in the context of getting science across. I think you're right about the broadcast fallacy, and i take illes et al. as a proposal to address the problem; but as they also recognize (and make a valiant attempt to raise consciousness about) a lot of it remains the nature of scientific education -- that of scientists, not the folk. Several neuroscientists told me recently -- I don't know if this is representative, but it rings true from my experience -- that neuroscience students just aren't introduced to the implications of their work for 'the folk'. such things just aren't on their radar. and that's likely true for many sciences. so is science better at reaching out than the humanities? i doubt it. it's a problem with lots of contributing factors, and i guess if i had to sum up this aspect of my posts it is that scientists also are part of the problem (along with lack of science education of the folk, poor science reporting, etc.) -- everyone has some share in it, but scientists are in a position of authority. thank you for the links, and for your kind words!
@Neil: i don't see why the u.s. would dominate science communication since it doesn't dominate the news outside the u.s. In any case, i suppose the obvious explanation for why many americans don't accept evolution is 'sociological' ( --> religious?); my point was not that rejection isn't often due to religious conviction, but that there's room for non-religious based skepticism -- i.e. what might be considered 'good' reasons rather than 'bad' ones. but i'm certainly not defending the rejection of evolution or any science due to ignorance or faith.

Michael Lynch said...

Thanks Carrie for the shout out. I might point out that, contra Neil's interesting point, a number of other developed countries are showing a rising skepticism about evolutionary theory. Example: I just came back from giving some lectures in South Korea (both academic and public). The level of education in South Korea is famously high (indeed the journalist I talked to, to cite just one instance, were incredibly philosophically sophisticated). But the "Society for Textbook Revise" (sic) has just successfully lobbied the S. Korean government to eliminate references to evolution in high school textbooks.

This is not to deny that there are sociological factors at play of course. But examples like this suggest to me that there may also be skepticism about reason itself at work.

Carrie Figdor said...

@Michael: very interesting. that does seem to provide evidence that public ignorance, religiosity, etc. (the usual culprits) aren't really what is driving the rejection (or reconsideration, or skepticism -- to call it 'rejecting evolution' is itself odd, because being skeptical of science is itself a scientific attitude -- unless, of course, only scientists are allowed to be skeptical).