Do Scientists Understand the Public?

By Chris Mooney | June 29, 2010 6:04 am

Do Scientists Understand the PublicUpdate: The American Academy paper is now live. Download it here.

My Washington Post piece is receiving a truly unexpected blog critique. It is basically being criticized for being relatively brief, and not getting into that much detail. In other words, it is being criticized for being what it is by definition–a short newspaper commentary.

Thus Orac, PZ Myers, and Evil Monkey all fault the piece for not providing more on solutions. The irony is that the byline of the Post piece mentions that I’ve done a more in depth paper on all this for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. And that 15 page paper, in turn, is based on a reading of hundreds of pages of transcripts for four expert workshops put together by the Academy. There is more talk of solutions in the transcripts than the paper, and more in the paper than in the Post piece…and so on. As you’d expect.

In any event, the paper releases today, whereupon it will be available at this link. Thus far, the link isn’t working, but it should pretty soon.

So for those who want more detail, please download the paper. Or, if you prefer, criticize the Post piece and then download the paper!

[Note: There are other points to respond to in these critiques, especially from Orac. I’m busy preparing my talk about the paper for an event this afternoon at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, but hope to address those tomorrow.]


Comments (34)

  1. Katharine

    Crud, I sully myself by venturing onto this blog to comment, but have you considered that they have the information but they can’t put it together? The anti-vaxxers do the research, but they’re so dumb about the scientific method that they can’t figure it out.

    Likewise, what are the degrees of these Republicans in? Because unfortunately there are liberal arts majors and business majors. A lot of them scoot through college without taking a real science class. (I’m a biology major and have developed something of a reflexive dislike of business majors, at least, partially because so many of them go on to be ethically bereft and separated from reality.)

  2. There’s a special and hilarious irony to seeing PZ Myers whining about others not providing solutions.

    Many thanks for providing the full paper, I look forward to reading it.

  3. ponderingfool

    From PZ Myers blog post I wouldn’t characterize that you don’t have solutions. He is more or less calling you out as a Clinton/Obama type of Democrat.

    He wants solutions as to how to dismantle the current power system that feeds denialism in this country. He wants to know how to treat the disease while you are providing answers as to how to treat the symptoms.

    As for education, as others have noted what science education are people really getting in college who aren’t science majors?

  4. Jon

    All the PZ fanboys say the same thing, “how can you talk to a brick wall?” And all religion, by definition, is a brick wall, right? Even moderate religious people, and heck, even sympathizers of religion, are a brick wall. So why even bother trying to reach them?

    What we need from social scientists is better strategies for dismantling the influence of religion and demagoguery on American politics, and that requires clearly identifying and targeting those bad beliefs as the enemy of good science and good education.

    So our problem is religionanddemagoguery. They’re the same. Why even try to understand each one individually? Don’t bother. A blind rant is much more fun.

  5. GM

    3. ponderingfool Says:
    As for education, as others have noted what science education are people really getting in college who aren’t science majors?

    It’s not as if the science majors are getting a good science education either. Just to point it out

  6. GM

    Jon @ 4:

    You are absolutely right – there is no point trying to reach to believers. It is clear what is needed and it is the death of religion. You can’t “reach” believers with this idea. Simply not going to happen. You can’t even get them to understand evolution, then how do you expect them to abandon belief?

    But the last thing that this means is that scientists should not constantly and actively attack superstition. It is hard to change those who already believe, but if we are not as loud and vocal as possible, there is no hope for the next generation either. Religions have identified children as the target for indoctrination a long time ago. For a reason

  7. JMW

    In the spirit of your post, don’t you find that the headline “Do scientists understand the public?” to be unjustifiably generalizing both scientists and the public?

    Or was that your point?

  8. Jon

    A great exchange between Robert Wright and Paul Bloom recently on Bloggingheads:

    Here is the thing–Paul Bloom is right about awe being a potent thing, sometimes in a bad way. Lots of people delude themselves, no question. But as this Alternet contributor noted a few years ago there is something definitely off about someone saying that only their brand of awe should be sanctioned by society. Says who? …Says you? This is where we get into illiberal territory, with someone claiming authority for their awe without even the appearance of respect for anyone else’s…

  9. Perhaps it was the lack of a quick summary conclusion or suggestion as to what should be done that left me a bit unsettled with the op-ed. Or it was the implication that scientist should communicate in a way to “convince” the naysayers to evolution, vaccination or climate change. However, should we scientist be targeting these people or those who are not as knowledgeable or on the fence on these issues? I do think that media doesn’t help what the scientific process has uncovered (e.g. Larry King’s special on autism in which he interviewed Jenny McCarthy and no one else) by not giving them screen time and pushing supposed conflicts. I think there should be a greater push by scientist and those who support their findings to actively counter these naysayers who seem to get more media time.

    I’m looking forward to reading your article Chris and hearing your thoughts on this topic.

  10. @Katharine Perhaps you’d like to read this article (provided courtesy of a liberal arts major who’s done a little studying on her own of the difference between violent and non-violent communication – your comment being an excellent example of ‘violent’ communication): In 1995, 41.6% of American patients couldn’t understand instructions to take medication on an empty stomach.

  11. gillt

    The title of this post is complete BS.

    Why the false dichotomy between scientists and the public? Mooney’s persistent stereotyping in service of his stubbornly held-to frame has cast scientists as socially awkward geeks whiling away their time in culture-free zones known as labs, immune to the vicissitudes of human affairs. Accept of course for the few “Rockstar” scientists mentioned in his book.

    Are scientists really as clueless of human behavior as the public is of general science? Is this another convenient frame?

    Even for the sake of argument to justify a sloppy us vs them comparison, I’m a biologist and so just as much a member of the unwashed herd when it comes to Global Warming.

    Btw., what’s to stop a short newspaper commentary from wetting the palate with one specific example? Is 500 words not enough?

  12. GM

    OK, I read the article and I have to say that it does not by any means provide more substance than the WashPost piece as it was promised. It is basically regurgitating the same tired cliches and false assertions as Unscientific America and everything else that has come out of that camp in the last two year.

    To begin with, your choice of examples to focus on is very odd and not at all representative of the divisive issues between science and society Geongineering is not something that is being argued for by scientists, in fact most climatologists will probably say it should not be done; what is argued for is more research on it, but it is as far as something on which scientific consensus exists as things get, and if anything, most of the support for it comes from the pro-BAU people whose starting positions on the issue are not much different from the denialists. And nuclear waste disposal is hardly the most pressing issue dividing science and the public and it is relatively easy to solve compared to the fight over evolution for example. I understand that you had a whole session on this, so this is the reason it features so heavily, but it is just not where the real conflict is.

    Some of the real howlers in the paper:

    In an innovative twist, meanwhile, a much noted 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, undertaken in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, inverted the traditional “scientific illiteracy” paradigm. The survey not only polled Americans about their views of science but also polled scientists about their views of Americans. Revealingly, it found that while Americans tend to have positive views of the scientific community, scientists tend to consider the public ignorant and the media irresponsible. The resulting headline: “Public Praises Scientists; Scientists Fault Public, Media.”

    This was explained you and others at that the time by multiple bloggers, yet you insist on repeating it. Before you can conclude that the answer to the question “Do you respect science” has any meaning, you have to make sure that the person responding understands what the thing he is asked about, in this case science, really is. In this study this was not done. There are all the reason to think that the majority of people who responded positively did so because they are hopelessly confused about the nature of science and mix it science up with technology, two very different things. Are people pro-technology, pro-cures, etc.? Yes, Is this what science is about? No.

    Will particular genetically based diseases become linked to particular
    races—echoing eugenics, Tuskegee, and other nightmares of the earlier days of
    genetics and biomedical science? Certainly, one of the most important recognitions
    about the “public” that came out of the workshop is the fact that particular
    segments, such as the African American community, have very good,
    historically grounded reasons to be suspicious of medical research and advances,
    particularly with regard to genetics.

    You sound like Anthony McCarthy here, i.e. like a typical anti-science bigot (you are not but this is how it comes out). African-Americans have good reason to be suspicious of racism, not of research. How hard is it to distinguish between what certain scientists did at a certain place and time from what the whole enterprise of science is about?

    At the same time, the session also showed that despite the seemingly irreversible
    political polarization of the public around climate change, there is much
    greater potential to achieve solutions if the issue is reframed around new energy
    innovations. Americans are broadly in favor of advancing energy technologies,
    regardless of their political affiliation. (This finding neatly explains the recent
    trend in leaving the word “climate” out of the title of various pieces of energy
    legislation in the U.S. Congress.)

    This very nicely illustrates the inadequacy of your proposed “solutions” and your whole approach. Americans are broadly in favor of advancing energy technologies. So what? Is this going to solve the problem? No, because that’s not the problem. The problem is global ecological overshoot (of which climate change is the most visible part right now) and words can not describe how far the fact that Americans are in favor of new energy technologies is from what hast o be done about it. Americans may be in favor of new energy technologies, but they aren’t even in favor of slightly higher energy costs. As I said in the previous thread, if they are not willing to accept this, how are they going to accept the complete gutting of the economy that is necessary to make any progress towards stopping climate change (and of the much more serious changes needed to tackle global ecological overshoot in general)?

    What you can’t understand is that the rift between science (i.e. reality) on one side and the public on the other is so deep that these aren’t issues that can be solved by “listening to the public’s views and concerns” and not attacking them, as it is the public’s views and concerns that create the problem in the first place.

    Again, you promised more detailed propositions that will actually work in the previous blog post. These are the recommendations that you listed in the article, how are these different from that vacuous nonsense you have been producing recently. It is the same too general, vague, inadequate BAU stuff…

    1. Scientists and engineers should seek input from the public at the earliest stages of technology development and should continue to seek consensus through a participatory process.
    – One attribute of an effective participatory process will be for experts to demonstrate to the public that the scientific community is taking the public’s views into account.
    2. When assessing the risks and benefits of new technologies, scientists and engineers should account for the non-technical and value-based concerns of the public in addition to technical concerns.
    – Scientists and engineers should perform a thorough and publicly accessible evaluation of non-technical concerns.
    – Scientists and engineers should clearly articulate the ethical values that will guide their work, build those values into all aspects of their work, and consequently build all relationships around those ethical principles and values.
    3. The expert community should value and utilize data from social scientists in order to better understand public attitudes toward science and technology.
    – Science and engineering journals should include regular columns that present data from social science studies regarding public attitudes toward science and technology.
    – Professional scientific meetings should include discussions of current public attitudes toward new scientific discoveries and why those attitudes are vital to scientific research.
    4. Scientists and engineers need to create more opportunities to establish the trust and confidence of the public.
    – Open forums, tours of facilities, and science cafés are existing ways the public can interact with the expert community; these options provide the expert community an opportunity to build the trust of the public.
    – Scientists and engineers should develop effective communication strategies based on authoritative information from independent scientists and government officials. This strategy can be used both when creating new regulatory guidelines and during times of crisis.

    Science is not a democracy. Don’t try to make it be so as you will kill it if you do. A democracy very quickly turn into idiocracy.

    Which is why, of course, a very good argument can be made that as science is not a democracy, and science is the only thing that we have that can guide social policy, society should not be a democracy either, but that’s a different topic…

  13. GM

    A little bit more on the trust issue because this is a point I never see brought up.

    Have scientists engaged in behavior inconsistent with proper scientific practices due to non-scientific motifs, in serious conflicts of interests, etc.? Absolutely yes. Why are they doing so? Because, as strange as it sounds, that’s what the public wants them to do.

    Take a look at this:

    If the public sees science as technology and economic growth generator, and insists that research should be targeting such goals, then there is no surprise that there will be scientists who put money and profits first and the research integrity second. As was pointed out, scientists do not exist outside of society (to begin with, they are not born and raised within the university) and general societal attitudes influence the way the majority of them think and perceive their work. So the presence of shady practices, (especially in fields where there are serious money at stake) should come to no surprise to anyone. But it doesn’t mean that science should be blamed for this.

  14. John Kwok

    @ Katharine –

    The problem of science denialism isn’t confined only to Conservative Republicans (BTW I happen to be one, am educated in science, and recognize both anthropogenic global warming and biological evolution as sound mainstream science), which, incidentally, physicist Lisa Randall discovered by accident here:

    But Chris’s solution doesn’t quite explain how one can deal with a nutcase like Kent Hovind, as NCSE’s Genie Scott tried to do back in 1993, as noted here:

    All too often it is regrettably necessary to just call a spade to spade, especially when those in opposition are relying upon rampant emotionalism and snake-oil logic, in other words, to act as devious peddlers on behalf of their mendacious intellectual pornography. Sometimes you must bite the bullet and call these people, idiots.

  15. gillt

    Mooney: “One attribute of an effective participatory process will be for experts to demonstrate to the public that the scientific community is taking the public’s views into account.”


    Scientists are not politicians and the public is not our constituency.

    For one, public opinion is a fickle beast, so we should be working to shape it not cater to it. I’m all for reaching out, but this sounds like kowtowing and a recipe for disaster unless we have a better informed public.

    George W. Bush is a fine example of what happens when you indulge the public’s irrational fears and tribal ties: stem cell research, GW, teach the controversy, revenge war. I refuse to believe that that is what the author of “The Republican War on Science” is advocating, but it sure sounds like it.

  16. ThomasL

    Ahhh, yes GM,

    The “Philosopher King” (which you would call “Scientist King”, but same idea). I think someone already suggested your idea of utopia a few thousand years ago. It’s as likely to happen today as it has been sense it was first argued by Socrates as the ideal arrangement for society (not a chance). There was one ancient ruler who came close to this (a student of Aristotle’s whom you may have heard of), but he mostly seemed interested in fighting wars and creating an Empire…

    So, as usual, stop wishing the world and those who inhabit it are something other than they are. Part of why it would behoove people to study the classics and history of thought (amongst the other social sciences) is to avoid making the same old tired mistakes…

  17. John Kwok

    Sorry Chris, but I strongly disagree with your comments in your Washington Post essay, which, I might add, are also among the main points of your publication (which I have downloaded and glanced at.):

    “Rather than simply crusading against ignorance, the defenders of science should also work closely with social scientists and specialists in public opinion to determine how to defuse controversies by addressing their fundamental causes.”

    Scientists don’t have time to work closely with social scientists or with specialists in public opinion. Too much of their time is devoted to writing grant proposals, conducting research and teaching. While your solutions might be laudable, they are also too simplistic and too unrealistic to be worthy of consideration.

  18. TB

    12. GM Says:
    “OK, I read the article and I have to say that it does not by any means provide more substance than the WashPost piece as it was promised. ”

    I read the article too, and it does what it promised. I’ll comment more later as I want to re-read it again. I encourage everyone to ignore the “deficiters” and read the article for themselves.

    And I have to smile at the Janet Kotra story. I’ve heard it before but now I can imagine GM or gilt being the scientist she’s talking about.

  19. Anthony McCarthy

    You sound like Anthony McCarthy here, i.e. like a typical anti-science bigot GM

    I reject the charge that I’m typical. While accepting the hilarious irony. You have any idea what the Tuskegee experiment is and how it has been demonstrated to have had a lasting cultural effect in making African-Americans reluctant to trust the research and medical professions?

    Scientists are not politicians and the public is not our constituency. gillt

    Just thought I’d highlight another of those hilarious ironies.

  20. Anthony McCarthy

    Hurray! On the third attempt my Reader downloaded the full paper. I will read it tonight.

  21. I’m following this and largely staying out of the frakas. But, Chris, I think an example you may want to take a look at is that of Pike in Lake Davis. For a documentary on the subject (made by *gasp* scientists – including me – and we all agreed that listening was perhaps the biggest take-home message of the process for us) see here. It can be used by anyone, and is available for sale (jut to recoup the cost of printing the DVDs – although, really, at this point we should just put it online).

  22. Physicalist

    Mooney: “The survey not only polled Americans about their views of science but also polled scientists about their views of Americans. Revealingly, it found that while Americans tend to have positive views of the scientific community, scientists tend to consider the public ignorant and the media irresponsible.”

    What is the point of this passage? Are we considering the possibility that this poll result might be explained by the fact that the scientific community really does have positive traits, the public really is ignorant, and the media really are irresponsible?

    Mooney: [N]o one benefitsfrom the too-common practice of lobbing missiles across the “culture war”divide between scientists and various subsets of the American public. This
    strategy simply leads to damaged trust, a hardening of attitudes, and long smoldering conflicts—the unending battles over the teaching of evolution and the science of climate change being the primary cases in point.

    a. Does this mean we shouldn’t write books like The Republican War on Science?

    b. Don’t the children in Dover and elsewhere benefit from all the missiles that were lobbed to keep creationism out of their classroom? Given that there is a war going on, shouldn’t we make sure that the good guys/gals win?

  23. gillt

    Granted, I’m unfamiliar with the controversy over geoengineering but this article did little to convince me of the need to further worry about it at this time.

    Mooney: “According to survey data gathered by Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Project on Climate Change, 74 percent of Americans have never heard of geoengineering. Another 26 percent say they have heard of it, but most appear to be misinformed, with some confusing it with geothermal energy. Less than 1 percent of Americans appear to know what “geoengineering” really means, or what the fight is truly about. In sum, it’s yet another brewing conflict between science and society—one that seems set to explode at an unspecified time in the future, at which point there will be little reason to expect the calm voice of scientific reason to prevail over alarmism, demagoguery, and simple fear.
    Here we go again.”

    Here we go again what? The public doesn’t even have an opinion about geoengineering. The resistance is a small vocal micro-minority of conspiracy theorists that are crying out to be marginalized as soon as possible, not listened to. Regardless, as geoengineering is his example du jour, I was looking forward to seeing how Mooney might suggest how scientists and technologists handle the ETC and its constituents. How would he apply his communication model to a real-world, alleged, emerging, public communication crisis? Turns out there was no specific advice. In fact, there was no advice on how to handle denialist groups and their impact on public discourse. He noticeably left out bridge building.

    Moving on:

    I agree with this passage:
    “Later in the same session, Eugene Rosa, a public opinion expert at Washington State University, criticized the “hypodermic needle” view of the scientist-public relationship, according to which scientific facts are to be “injected” into Americans almost as if they are in need of medicine—a cure that rarely, if ever, seems to take.”

    This may be the status quo, but I don’t know anyone who thinks it ideal.

    Mooney’s two prong approach to better science communication:

    “One is slow, steady engagement with the public on issues of concern—being available, being open and ready to listen, and working to defuse conflicts before they begin. Another is crisis communication, so that if and when a major event occurs with the potential for a long-term or dramatic impact on public opinion, representatives of the world of science are able to respond quickly before irreversible damage is done.”

    Seems as if the social scientist have all the potential answers and we should be criticizing them for not being more engaged with the issues. Or at least yell at them to share their data with us.

  24. Anthony McCarthy

    Could it be that Republicans tend to major in business more often than Democrats? You wonder how that could affect the differences in perception.

    I’m interested in seeing that documentary of the arrogant card playing scientists. You’ve got to wonder how many of them have gone before government agencies looking for money. Or will in the future.

  25. ThomasL

    GM (@13)

    Just finished your linked article. While I found it very interesting, it did not seem to me it was about what the public wants or expects, but rather what the policy makers, PR people, congressional members desire to tell everyone about how the way they are spending money means good things to everyone – and even University presidents and advocates desire to justify ever increasing funding, and their questionable economic models and research to indicate the ROI from such spending.

    As a result of using an economic improvementimportance argument to justify spending, the public ends up expecting such to be the case rather than the public demanding such to be the case.

    They have been sold a load of goods. They shouldn’t be blamed for being mad if it doesn’t turn out to be the load they thought and were told was being bought.

    I do agree it is a really bad way to drum up support for research, especially general or fundamental types of research…

  26. GM

    The policy maker, PR people and congressional people are part of the public when it comes to science. And it is definitely not the case that if you ask the average person on the street “Do you support the 10K Genomes project” or something of the sort, he will say “Oh, yes, it’s a great piece of fundamental science that will greatly advance our understanding of vertebrate evolution, so by all means, we need to spend a few hundred millions on it”…

  27. Anthony McCarthy

    A democracy very quickly turn into idiocracy.

    This is a typical distortion and also confirmation of a big part of the problem with the culture of some scientists and the fan boys of science. It’s the same kind of arrogance documented in the paper and which is on full display at many science related blogs, oddly enough, not so much on the ones that deal strictly with science, which seem to get fewer hits and many fewer comments, on the ones that are primarily political.

    While it’s true that science isn’t dependent on the opinions of those who aren’t engaged in it, as a profession, at the levels of complexity that it exists in today, it is dependent on the support of the society, either directly through government or indirectly through the subsidies of industries and corporations which also are dependent on the public patronage. It’s inescapable that the professional existence of science is directly dependent on the public, unless you are ignorant in the way that aristocratic elites can manage to be, denying that they are the beneficiaries of laws and customs that allow them to obtain the results of other peoples’ work for their own use and benefit.

    Modern science is a lot like a symphony orchestra, it’s very expensive, too expensive to be self sustaining, too expensive to be the product of individual scientists own income. It’s also dependent on propagation, not through the development of a closed caste of scientists, but through the education of large numbers of children whose parents are or are not scientists themselves.

    There’s nothing more idiotic than arrogant people who are made foolish by their arrogance. I’ve known a lot of classical musicians and a lot of people working in science, there are a lot of them who aren’t made stupid by arrogance but there are too many who are. Generally, they don’t do anything to help the effort of outreach to the public, they’re more likely to hurt those efforts necessary to sustain both professions. Both music and science require there to be an audience, both, unfortunately, have developed snob fans who are, if anything, even worse than the snobs in the profession, driving away other potential audience members who don’t want to be associated with people who are such unpleasant jerks.

  28. GM

    McCarthy @ 27:

    Science is not a profession, how many times do I have to explain that?

  29. Anthony McCarthy

    GM, you will never convince me that science is a religion, though I’m fully aware that scientism and dogmatic materialism fit the criteria to be religions.

    If you get paid for doing it, you’re a professional.

  30. gillt

    If only McCarthy would for once get around to making an actual point rather than the same tired self-serving moralizing. Someone needs a pulpit for Christmas.

  31. Anthony McCarthy

    gillt, are you forgetting the two or three points you lifted from me over the past few weeks. One being that religion isn’t any one thing another that while religion could contain science that science couldn’t contain religion? Because I haven’t.

    If the same points need to be made it’s because they are answers to the same old new atheist lines that you guys regurgitate more fluently than some of the more bizarre novelty artists in the lower ranges of Vaudeville.

  32. gillt

    Oh yea, I remember you go all excited at the prospect that we actually agreed on something, but I can’t for the life of me imagine why you assume I “lifted” some widely held opinions from you, McCarthy, in particular.

    What all religions have are a different and often conflicting hodgepodge of blind faith beliefs that are unique unto them. That’s how religions and religious people differ, in their particular beliefs. All religions are the same in that they promote belief in things without evidence or in spite of the evidence. That less trivial matter is how they are the same and how they are in conflict with science.

  33. Another Adam

    Gillt – “…so we should be working to shape [public opinion] not cater to it.”

    How can you try to shpe something you do not take the time to understand?

    John Kwok – “Scientists don’t have time to work closely with social scientists or with specialists in public opinion. Too much of their time is devoted to writing grant proposals, conducting research and teaching. ”

    This sounds like you value social sciences less than physical sciences. Don’t you think sociologists are also doing the same things. They dont have tiime either. But if you want to start reaching the public you have to find the time to do more. If you don’t want to reach any one else but your students then by all means stay in your comfort zone making excuses.


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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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