My Washington Post Piece on Science and the Public

By Chris Mooney | June 27, 2010 8:03 am

I’ve got a piece in this weekend’s Sunday Outlook section in the Post, entitled “If scientists want to educate the public, start by listening.” The argument is that although people often seem to resist science and argue back against it, they’re frequently motivated by nonscientific considerations at the core–nonscientific considerations that scientists themselves often don’t really understand. But alas, this means that arguing with them scientifically often doesn’t yield the desired result. Example:

Or consider the long-running controversy over plans to dispose of the nation’s nuclear waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. Although many technical experts have long argued that the repository would be safe, this has hardly convinced frightened and angry Nevadans. In 1991, the American Nuclear Energy Council even launched an ad campaign to educate the public about the Yucca Mountain plan but it backfired. Nearly a third of viewers became more resistant to the repository, and among those who were already opposed, their resolve strengthened. (Just 15 percent had a more favorable opinion of the repository after seeing the ad, and half of viewers did not change their minds.)

The piece also makes a similar point with respect to climate change and vaccination.

So then what is the solution?

Initiatives that engage the public about science policy in a two-way conversation — before controversies explode — show great promise. In Canada, for instance, the national Nuclear Waste Management Organization spent three years listening to the public’s views about how to handle nuclear waste disposal and promised that no dump or repository would be sprung on a community without its consent. Throughout the process, even critics of waste storage efforts remained engaged and supportive of attempts to come up with the best possible solution. In the United States, meanwhile, the federally funded National Nanotechnology Initiative has sponsored a great deal of social science research to explore possible public concerns that may arise as this new field of technology advances.

In sum, work with experts who understand the public to figure out what is driving concerns and resistance–and ideally, do so before you have a long running controversy with lots of bad blood and entrenched positions.

The Post piece mentions in my byline that I’m “author of a paper on the relationship between scientists and the public to be released Tuesday by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.” Indeed, there is a much more detailed and lengthy paper that will be coming out shortly–as well as a public event on Tuesday at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to present the paper and engage in a discussion about it. You can register here to attend. Also appearing: American Association for the Advancement of Science President Alan Leshner, American Academy of Arts and Sciences Executive Director Leslie Berlowitz, and Resources for the Future scholar Robert Fri. For more details, click here.


Comments (29)

  1. John Kwok


    Eminent evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson has been doing exactly what you’ve suggested, in trying to recruit his former fellow Christians in the “Bible Belt” to help preserve “God’s Creation” (biodiversity), but also by stressing that they need to recognize the fact of biological evolution and why it is sound mainstream science. Listening must occur as part of a two-way street, not coming solely from scientists themselves (which is a point you seem to ignore at yours and Sheril’s peril, judging from some of the harsh criticism which has greeted the publication of “Unscientific America”.).

  2. GM

    For the 145895486th time: if someone’s political views trump scientific facts, then this person is scientifically illiterate and a victim of poor science education. How hard is that to understand?

  3. Dave

    Isaac Asimov said there is no greater education than self-education; so maybe the public *itself* should want to engage science and tap all its vast riches. Blaming (sorry, “shifting responsibility”) onto scientists is, on some level, bordering offensive.

    I agree in general that scientists and its defenders should attempt to articulate as best as possible (and frequently) to the public, but the public (i.e., each individual) holds the largest share of responsibility with respect to educating itself.

    And if one’s views on science are sculpted by his or her political leanings, then he or she is truly a moron who doesn’t understand the objectivity *inherent* in the system of science.

    While one may disagree about how to tackle difficult problems, such as global warming, questioning its factual existence due to a personal disdain for, say, Cap and Trade, is just insane. Because if the last point reflects the mentality of our fellow humans, a title of “lost cause” is therefore tragically apt, and essentially any overall public engagement becomes futile.

  4. @GM – Good job missing the point.

  5. Bruce Lewenstein

    The reference to Asimov above leads me to the following story:

    In a 1987 column in The Scientist (13 July, p. 12), examining the bust of the “science boom” (in popular science magazines) of the early 1980s, I argued that “the perception of boom and bust…has obscured an underlying issue: the whole concept of ‘popular science’ may be an arrogant mistake on the part of the scientific community. The fact is that ‘science’ qua science is interesting only to science professionals.” I argued that we needed to learn to “present science without demanding that nonscientists accept the scientific world view.”

    Isaac Asimov responded in a letter to the editor that he had read my column “with puzzlement…. How does [Lewenstein] expect to do that? Does he want us to explain that photosynthesis works by magic? That if we pray hard every night a cancer will cure itself?” My favorite part of the letter is Asimov’s conclusion: “By Newton, I’d rather be ‘arrogant’ than stupid.”

    I tell this story neither to defend nor to reject my original position (either of which would require much more space). Partly I want to point out that Chris’s argument is about a deeply fundamental issue that has been with us for decades and is unlikely to be easily resolved.

    But mainly I tell it because I love Asimov’s concluding statement and want to share it with others.

  6. Ichthyic

    In sum, work with experts who understand the public to figure out what is driving concerns and resistance–and ideally, do so before you have a long running controversy with lots of bad blood and entrenched positions.

    Um, hate to break it to you Chris, but as far as the divide between religion and science, that horse left the gate hundreds of years ago.

    so, your advice here wrt patching the supposed religion/science divide is… worthless.

    overall, your conclusion apparently completely ignores the role of the media in all the various examples of contentious debate mentioned, ESPECIALLY global warming.

    There is obvious benefit to two way communication. That isn’t, and was never the problem wrt to science communication.

    Kwok mentioning EO Wilson’s attempt further clarifies the complete FAILURE of that particular approach.

    when do you recall any religious person who had a contention with science EVER mentioning that book?

    never, that’s when.


    logic seems to have left you.

  7. Jon

    That Asimov quote is a keeper. (Although I think there are problems with the notion of a single monolithic “scientific worldview.”)

  8. TB

    Kwok: “Listening must occur as part of a two-way street, not coming solely from scientists themselves (which is a point you seem to ignore …”

    Chris and Sheril have never said that scientists are the ONLY ones who need to listen. That’s a lame attempt at a smear based on a poor reading of that article.

    Ichthyic: “overall, your conclusion apparently completely ignores the role of the media in all the various examples of contentious debate mentioned,”

    If people actually READ their book it clearly discusses the role of the media – both the commentariat and the dwindling positions of professional science writers – as a problem that needs to be addressed. (Unscientific America is now in paperback and probably in your public library so give it a try.)

    So logically Ichthyic, you either forgot about an entire chapter of a book that’s central to your criticism or you never read it and are assuming that since it wasn’t addressed specifically in this article that they haven’t addressed it at all. Neither scenario salvages your credibility.

    Interesting line from the article: “Parents in such families are more likely to go onto the Internet (what McCarthy calls the “university of Google”) to research the health risks of inoculation than are other groups of parents.”

    I think even google has recognized the problem with their search and the limits to wisdom of crowds. As I understand it, they’ve been developing a way to connect people to authoritative sources to combat the deficiencies of their information search. Not an easy task, apparently.

    On Asimov: He was a remarkable communicator – his fiction probably did more to ignite my love of science than anything else. Certainly another novel way of engaging the public about science without screaming at them for being illiterate.

  9. SLC

    Re John Kwok @ # 1

    AFAIK, Prof.Wilson is a non-believer, thus conflating him with his “fellow Christians” is erroneous. However, AFAIK, he considers himself a cultural Christian, much as Jason Rosenhouse, who is also a non-believer, considers himself a cultural Jew.

    Re Chris Mooney

    Ken Miller, who is a believing Christian, attempts to do the same thing; through lectures and books. As Mr. Ichthyic comments about Prof. Wilson, are they just preaching to the choir?

  10. Chris Mooney

    Thanks for the comment. Is it too much to ask you to also defend (or reject) your original position? I certainly would like to hear. I guess we’re close on this…?

  11. Brian Too

    I think there is a lot of merit in the article’s idea. Keep in mind however, that it probably means a long-term committment to staying engaged in a public dialogue. Even absent any specific agenda item being on the table.

    Personally, I think the Nevada/Yucca Mountain situation is particularly interesting. I have the impression that Nevadans (hope that’s the correct term) feel a bit neglected or left behind in terms of the overall country. This notion is familiar to me as I too am a resident of a western region that does not get the same attention as more populous areas.

    Therefore, when someone proposes to put a nuclear waste project (is “dump” too inflammatory?), it’s not hard to see how this can be seen as being taken advantage of by richer, more powerful neighbors. Even if within the same country.

    This is how local politics can come to exactly the opposite conclusion of a scientific process. The very same considerations that led to the “safest” location (isolation, lack of population, desert climate) are also at the root of the area lacking population, votes, economic activity, infrastructure, opportunity for the young, and so on.

  12. Anthony McCarthy

    Asimov’s conclusion: “By Newton, I’d rather be ‘arrogant’ than stupid.”

    Since the question is about the popular understanding of science, it’s not a question of scientists’ understanding of it. Popular understanding, then, to an end other than to produce more science or to spread existing knowledge of a kind that is going to be used by scientists, professionally. So, the reason for making the effort is important to judging the wisdom or lack of it, in the approach and the substance presented.

    The public needs to know some of the things that science can tell them, a lot of people have jobs that depend on what science produces, nurses, technicians, cleaning staff… if they didn’t do their jobs on the basis of scientific evidence, you’ll wish they had.

    For people who’s work doesn’t depend on that relatively sophisticated scientific information there is the issue of supporting science education in public schools and the funding of research in science, which doesn’t require as much information but, again, if they don’t have it, eventually science will notice the lack of it. That is science communication for the benefit of science. Science is propagated through converts produced by science education, it exists as a profession, to a great extent, through public expenditures. Both of which can be withheld by voters and students who have been antagonized by arrogant scientists who tell them, unnecessarily that they are stupid and ignorant and uncouth and superstitious. The public is under no obligation to be receptive, something you’d think a fiction writer would realize.

    I don’t think there’s anything smart about turning off the people whose support you need. That’s pretty stupid.

    For much of science that scientists would like people to accept, if it’s not something important to their lives, it’s mostly an optional cultural matter, and if you annoy them, they’ll reject it. Take that from someone who is a musician by profession, a classical musician.

  13. John Kwok

    @ TB –

    They put more of the onus on scientists not being more like Carl Sagan (And again, I respectfully disagree that he was the public face of science back in the 1970s and 1980s. There were others, ranging from Sylvia Earle and Jacques Cousteau in the marine sciences, Stephen Jay Gould for Paleobiology and Evolution, Ernst Mayr for Evolution, Lewis Thomas for Biology, E. O. Wilson for ecology, and of course, some British theoretical evolutionary biologist named Richard Dawkins. We’ve have had a vast explosion of science communicators to the public, of which I could cite lesser known people like invertebrate paleobiologist Peter Ward, marine ecologist Jeremy Jackson, evolutionary developmental biologist Sean Carroll, vertebrate paleobiologist Scott Sampson, astrobiologist David Grinspoon, among a substantially larger cast.). So I am not misintpreting them nor their intentions.

  14. John Kwok

    @ Ichthyic –

    More and more Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christians here in the United States are coming to the realization that they must join with others to ensure that humanity is a superb steward of GOD’s CREATION (Earth’s biodiversity), including building alliances with some major conservation biology and other environmental organizations. One of the reasons must be E O Wilson’s message, even if they are not yet ready to accept biological evolution as sound mainstream science. As a former son of the “Bible Belt”, Wilson is in a unique position, able to understand and to communicate effectively with them (MEMO TO SLC: I did note that Wilson himself, is no longer a Christian, but you seemed to have missed that, perhaps merely as a means of scoring yet another rhetorical point on me? Just wondering.).

  15. TB

    Kwok: That doesn’t have anything to do with your accusation that they don’t think listening is a two-way street.

  16. Bruce Lewenstein

    Chris, didn’t want to muddy the comment with my defense/self-critique. :-).

    But now that it’s a separate comment….

    I still hold something similar to Chris’s position, that unresolvable debates rarely end in victory by insisting that the other side is wrong (#13Anthony says something similar). Purely from a rhetorical point of view, it’s not a winning strategy. I continue to believe that scientists who insist they are right, without listening to what the “illiterate” are saying, will fail to create many converts. By listening and taking seriously those who have problems with what scientists say, those of us who believe that science offers the best chance for a better world (and I count myself among those) might learn more about what the concerns are of those who know the facts of science and still reject its findings, and about why some people find it so hard to grasp the facts of science.

    I also believe that much discussion about what science “is” would be tremendously helped if scientists spent some serious time looking at history and sociology of science, understanding the way that social forces deeply shape how and how they frame what I prefer to call “reliable knowledge about the natural world.” (This is, of course, a self-interested argument, since I’m trained in history & sociology of science; that’s a self-referential comment about some of the social forces shaping my OWN argument!).

    And, indeed, it’s an additional 20+ years of researching these issues that lead me to some self-critique. I agree with #8Jon, that there’s no monolithic scientific worldview. That was a mistake on my part. I also disagree with (or think I oversimplified in) my 1987 statement that “The fact is that ’science’ qua science is interesting only to science professionals.” Clearly, science qua science is interesting to lots of nonprofessionals.

    Still, on balance, I think that members of the scientific community who insist on their own understanding of the world, without serious engagement with those who draw conclusions on a different basis than their own, are being arrogant. Arguments aren’t won by insisting that you’re right; they’re won by engaging the arguments that OTHERS make and responding to them.

  17. Ichthyic


    funny, but you appear to be referring to his books, while I’m referring to the article published in WaPo.

    however, your comment is even more interesting considering, since Chris does mention the media in his book, why does he apparently feel it not worth mentioning in this article…

  18. Ichthyic

    Arguments aren’t won by insisting that you’re right; they’re won by engaging the arguments that OTHERS make and responding to them.


    I would DEARLY love to see you take that attitude and go have a “debate” with Ray Comfort.

    oh the hilarity that would ensue.

    You probably meant this when applied to arguing with someone who is honest to begin with.

    creationists and most science deniers I have ever argued with are inherently… not.

  19. ThomasL

    Ichthyic (@18),

    I think that would be one of those whom can’t be reasoned with… I also think Bruce is referencing normal people who are interested and willing to engage in the conversation (not willing to use the conversation as an excuse to try to preach –which I would say goes for both sides). I generally enjoy science and try to keep somewhat current (I have life to deal with and as science isn’t my profession there is only so much time to devote to such things). I can attest what I ran into on most the blogs wasn’t pretty and almost made me come close to saying “screw it”, I’d rather stay in the dark then deal with these @sses… (I expect that from the fundamentalists – getting it from the supposed scientists was a whole new experience).

    Anthony (@13),

    I agree with the gist of your comment. I really fail to see how alienating the majority of the world’s population is going to make any headway. Of course I’ve also always giggled when I watch them try to get computers to generate music using mathematics. They may pull off a pop tune someday, but I doubt they will ever get close to anything more involved. If only it were so easy (not classically trained, played drums in bands until well after college though – and yes, you’d best not annoy the crowd if you want them to support you…)

    Brian (@12)

    Yes, that’s about how they felt about it. I lived in Flagstaff for awhile (actually went to school with one of the leads working for the USGS on the mapping for that project – have some pictures somewhere of a Grand Canyon river trip we took together, couldn’t ask for a better person to be down there with!). It wasn’t a very popular idea even a state away (it was actually a regular topic of conversation when it first came up as a possibility)…

    GM (@2),

    I wouldn’t say the view “trumps” the facts – rather the view trumps the provided “solution” and again, once you’re at that point it is a comparative value kind of thing. They may well be rejecting your “solution” as being in any way better than what you are telling them will surely happen if they don’t. Why do you insist such is not allowed?

  20. Anthony McCarthy

    This is an argument about the tactics and strategy needed for science to win the cultural and political war with fundamentalist religion. You win that argument by getting an effective majority of the population on the side of science, you don’t have to convert every last biblical fundamentalist to win it. The largest part of the yet unconvinced are religious but not fundamentalists, they don’t need to accept evolution for any practical reasons, they don’t really need to understand it so they’re not going to spend large amounts of time mastering the material. While it’s unfortunate that leaves them open to stuff like Ray Comforts “edition” of Darwin, those are some of the facts you have to deal with in finding ways to win.

    If you choose to antagonize them in the new atheist manner, eating up the limited time you have to make your case in about the worst and most counterproductive way possible, you might as well save yourself the effort and cede them to the other side. Why do you think Comfort was so hot to debate Dawkins?

    Getting back to smart vs. stupid ways to do this, it is so aggravating to see people who are smart, who have the facts beaten by people because they are too arrogant to learn lessons that a even a mediocre salesman would have long ago learned. That Dawkins practiced that amazingly clueless form of advocacy while he was drawing pay as an Oxford chair for the public understanding of science has to rank as among the most ridiculous cultural features of the last twenty years. But no where near as ridiculous as watching so many intelligent people, made foolish by their conceit and arrogance, following him up Cemetery Ridge, doing your opponents work for them.

    Don’t feel bad, though, I’ve been frustratedly watching parts of the political left make the same mistakes for decades, though never as obviously. If I was in the habit of tearing my hair I’d be bald.

  21. Anthony McCarthy

    Of course I’ve also always giggled when I watch them try to get computers to generate music using mathematics. ThomasL

    Talk about striving in futility, as if people weren’t already the most cost effective and efficient means of producing bad music already.

  22. TB

    @ 18.   Ichthyic

    You said his conclusion completely ignores the role of media. For him to completely ignore something, that would encompass all his writings. That’s obviously not true. They’ve already addressed the role of media and may do so again.
    Your demand that they specifically reiterate previous positions in subsequent articles is unrealistic. Read the book.

  23. SLC

    Re John Kwok @ #15

    Not to be pedantic with Mr. Kwok but the statement that Prof. Wilson is no longer a Christian doesn’t mean he is no longer a believer. He could have converted to Islam or Judaism for instance. A statement which is both correct and accurate would be phrased as follows: Prof. Wilson is no longer a believing Christian but is a non-believer who still considers himself a cultural Christian.

  24. John Kwok

    @ SLC –

    It is presumptuous on your part to even conclude that E. O. Wilson is a “cultural Christian”. Your analogy this time is almost as bad as some of the risible commentary you wrote elsewhere online when I commented on who I had seen present at last year’s Science Faith Religion session at the World Science Festival.

  25. SLC

    Re John Kwok @ #26

    I believe that Prof. Wilson has described himself as a cultural Christian, although I can’t recall where I heard that. I may have seen him make such a statement in a talk he gave at TED or in an interview I downloaded from the web. Just for the information of Mr. Kwok, Richard Dawkins also has stated that he is a cultural Christian who likes Chrismas carols and the religious music of Bach. As another example, Jason Rosenhouse, who is certainly a pretty vigorous non-believer, describes himself as culturally Jewish.

  26. If I may, the discussion here misses a mountain of social science evidence that explains why people’s perceptions of fact are not always ‘factual’. This is not about science literacy. As Antonio D’Amasio’s work in “Descartes Error” showed, and much other evidence supports, the human animal uses an affective system to perceive the world…a combination of fact and feeling, cognition and intuition, reason and gut reaction, cortex and limbic system.
    Many of the strongest of these debates about whether the public “gets it” center around risk-related issues, and for good reason. Risk perception taps survival systems, which are sensitive and powerful and more emotion-based than reason-based. Forgive the self-promotion, but I have tried to bring the evidence on risk perception from various fields together in “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts”. With examples including vaccines, nukes climate change, and lots of other risk issues, it explains why our fears don’t match the facts, and WHY THEY NEVER WILL, at least at this point in human evolution


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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