Chris Mooney is encouraging people to read the longer paper on which his Washington Post op-ed piece was based (some of my thoughts on the op-ed are here). So I did.
My short take: there’s some good, mixed in with some bad. I’ll behave unusually and describe the good first.
The powerful influence of politics and ideology is underscored by a rather shocking survey result: Republicans who are college graduates are considerably less likely to accept the scientific consensus on climate change than those who have received less education. These better-educated Republicans could hardly be said to suffer a knowledge deficit; a more apt explanation is that they are politically driven consumers of climate science information–and often quite voracious ones at that. They strain information through a powerful ideological sieve and end up loudly supporting a viewpoint that is incompatible with modern scientific understanding.
A more scientifically informed public, then, is not necessarily the same as a public that will side with scientists more frequently. Perhaps what is needed instead is a public that is more familiar, comfortable with, and trusting of scientists; that is more regularly engaged by the scientific community on potentially controversial subjects; and moreover, that is engaged before truly fraught conflicts are allowed to emerge.
I think a point Mooney makes that is critical is that, to the extent we can anticipate potential problems, we should, and grapple with them earlier, rather than later. Here’s a good instance (one I’ve dealt with myself):
While observable traits certainly run in families–as do diseases–in many cases their emergence, expression, and characteristics are conditioned by hundreds, sometimes more than a thousand, separate genes, as well as by interactions with the environment and random events in human development. The increasing speed and declining cost of gene sequencing provide some access to this complexity, but the information revealed may not be particularly profound: it is not as if any single gene “causes” anything in the vast majority of cases. Yet members of the public may latch on to newly revealed genetic information anyway and scurry with their 23andMe reports straight to their doctors, who may not know how to handle or advise about the results.
Many other potential problems could arise in a world of cheaper, easier, and largely unregulated access to personal genetic information. Will there be discrimination based upon one’s genes? Will there be more terminations of pregnancies based on five-week fetal genome sequencing and the alleged “flaws” it reveals? Will law enforcement agencies have universal DNA databases for all citizens? 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.
Where I think the report goes awry is the emphasis on the deficit model:
One response to such offenses is simply to dismiss the public, to paint average Americans as stupid, scientifically illiterate, or emotional. During the 1970s, Nobel laureate James Watson famously dubbed those hoping to constrain recombinant DNA research as “kooks,” “incompetents,” and “shits.” Another more recent example of such lashing out was captured in the 2006 documentary Flock of Dodos by scientist-filmmaker Randy Olson. Olson gathered a group of scientists around a poker table to talk about the anti-evolutionist “intelligent design” movement and how to respond to it. One offered the following strategy for addressing the creationists: “I think people have to stand up and say, you know, you’re an idiot.”
Whether or not these scientists recognize it, they are working in what science and technology studies (STS) scholars have dubbed the “deficit model.” They assume that if only their fellow Americans knew more about science and ceased to be in a state of knowledge deficit, a healthier relationship between science and the public would emerge.
Actually, I think this shows a deficit model of why some scientists, including the Mad Biologist, have adopted the “stand up and say, you know, you’re an idiot” strategy. For me, I’ve adopted this strategy in certain contexts because the true believers serve as a foil. As Nicholas von Hoffman, who wrote a biography of Saul Alinsky, put it (italics mine):
He [Alinsky] was not worried about hurting their feelings. Having grown up in Chicago in the wild old days, Alinsky was a rough customer when he needed to be and would not have done well in a sensitivity class. In fact, Alinsky was very good and often quite imaginative when the occasion for name-calling arose, but when he used names he would be referring to particular individuals, not groups of people.
Calling the Germans Nazis during World War II was OK but in American politics terms such as racist, sexist, antisemitic, trailer trash, etc. are an invitation to alienate those with whom you might find common cause. Name-calling should be aimed at individuals or small groups such as boards of directors. The names must be calculated to make the other side look ridiculous or convince a wider public than he or she is a bum. Good name-calling, Alinsky would tell you, is like sharp shooting. Don’t do it until you have the target firmly in the cross hairs.
You will never convince everyone, so don’t waste your time. Don’t engage in the Cumbaya Fallacy. Instead, use them to sharply define the differences between and implications of science and pseudo-science:
The other thing we evolutionary biologists don’t do enough of…is make an emotional and moral case for the study of evolution. Last night, I concluded my talk with a quote from Dover, PA creationist school board member William Buckingham, who declared, “Two thousand years ago someone died on a cross. Can’t someone take a stand for him?”
My response was, “In the last two minutes, someone died from a bacterial infection. We take a stand for him.”
This is how I think we need to argue. We need to put creationists on the defensive by arguing, part of the time, on behalf of the utility of evolutionary biology. Doing genomics without evolutionary biology is like drilling for oil with a dowser. Force creationists to defend the morality of their position.
And we should use phrases exactly like “genomics without evolutionary biology is like drilling for oil with a dowser.” We have to hit them hard.
Finally, a larger problem with this paper is that it seems focused on nascent scientific issues–which do have to be dealt with–but it ignores how to deal with opposition to ‘entrenched’ issues. By Mooney’s own admission, pseudo-science is a component of a larger worldview that is often tied into identity politics. While these identities can be fluid, to the extent they change, it’s usually caused by very personal shocks and trauma, either at an individual or group level*. Clever wordplay isn’t going to cut it here; only a bracing dose of reality–and consequences of these beliefs–will do. Until then, we should try to woo the undecideds, and sometimes that requires being harsh, not gentle.
So it’s not a bad report, but doesn’t really seem useful for dealing with the tough issues.
*For example, fundamentalist Protestants either supported Roe vs. Wade or didn’t care about it until Carter removed the tax deductions for Christian ‘segregation academies’, at which point conservative Southern Protestants aligned themselves with the Catholic right out of political necessity–it was the full-fledged threat of having to send their children to school with ‘those people’ that forced many Protestant fundamentalist to revisit their relationship to politics.