Monday, February 15, 2010

Denialism Isn't All Their Fault

Michael Specter's idea of denialism is well founded and I think mostly true but I disagree with the solution that he seems to propose, where people simply become more open minded and accepting of the ideas of science that we establish through research. That people take sides is too obvious in our politics today, and there is clearly a degree of irrationality in our beliefs, but I don't think that the solution to the problem of scientific misunderstanding is for citizens to simply accept expert opinion.

If I were a climatologist, and a close friend asked me "what do you make of this climate-change business?" and I told him it was real, he would probably believe me because I am his friend who wouldn't lead him astray and he knows I am an expert. The same holds for evolution and so on. But it is reasonably more of a stretch to ask someone to trust the opinion of some faraway, faceless expert, especially in an time when science is sometimes closely joined to business and political interests. The solution? It should be easy - just read the literature. The proof is in the pudding. The problem is, scientific papers are not written for the layman, they are written for trained scientists. Naturally then they are usually full of jargon and efficiently (and robotically) worded. For the average person most papers are impenetrable. The problem that arises is that nearly all scientific information is passed to the public through secondary sources, which are sometimes boring (textbooks) and by nature lack the authority and level of engagement of a primary source. This principle holds across disciplines - history and political philosophy textbooks are boring, for example, but original documents are often fascinating (as is the spelling). One of the reasons these particular humanities struggle is because people hate hacking through the prevailing secondary literature.

I can think of a famous precedent for accessible science writing. In the mid-1800s, Darwin published the Origin of Species as a readable theory for the British masses, not just for Owen and Wallace, and it was a smash hit and started a revolution in thought. This happened in closed-minded Victorian England. My opinion on the subject is that today's scientists would be more persuasive if their writing and speaking were more readable and conversational. That the public will magically wake up to scientific understanding or simply accept our "settled science" seems to be a pipe dream to me.


  1. Great post! Just as Randy Olson said, we can't just throw the data at people and say "figure it out" we need to make it accessible and understandable too.

  2. I agree that scientific writing should be more conversational so that the layman will be able to understand it. But the truth is, our technology, scientific studies, and findings are so complicated in themsleves, that it is nearly impossible to translate it into every day language. Even if we translate it to every day language and don't use words that have more than 3 syllables, the non-scientist will still have a difficult time reading and understand the content.

  3. I agree with Deanna...I've tried explaining a number of things to my mom and sister (a middle school english teacher) and it's usually a waste of time.

    Also, the problem with putting things into "3 syllables" is that many of the things can't be dumbed down that far. I literally had a non-science individual ask me the point of DNA; other than saying it's EVERYTHING how do you jusftify it? I'm actually beginning to wonder if it's worth our time. People who don't understand probably don't care and people who care take the time to understand in which case, conversational writing isn't really THAT necessary...right?

  4. That is a pretty bleak conclusion, although it could very well be true. Maybe we can talk about this point in class.

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  6. (Sorry, typos)

    I guess my frustration got the better of me in this case. Bleak wasn't what I was going for but I guess it's what I've been thinking. There have been so many programs to enhance science communication and in class we try to address if they're working or not...and no one has definitively said, "YES! This is working!" Even more so in everyday conversations it doesn't appear to be working. I guess I'm wondering: At what point do we accept things aren't changing and re-evaluate?