Between Scientists & Citizens

Scientists: Don’t feed the trolls

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We all know how internet trolling works. The troll writes something outrageous, which provokes the readers to respond with outrage, which amuses the troll and his cohorts. We also know the solution: don’t feed the trolls.

Yes, this applies to science communication, too.

To start, let’s note how this strategy shifts the costs of communication onto the victims. The troll doesn’t have to expend much effort. Instead, it’s his audience who puts in a lot of work elaborating their outrage, and their pointless frenzy is precisely what amuses the troll.

“Expressive rope-a-dope”–that’s what Dan Kahan has cleverly called the political version of trolling. In his example, the NRA promotes the passage of essentially meaningless–i.e., cheap–gun “freedom” laws. The gun control community exhausts itself with predictable outrage, in the process displaying all the stereotypes associated with left-wingers in American culture. The NRA and its associates can then go back to their base and say with justification: “See, we need to oppose these over-sensitive liberal wusses who want to take away our rights.” Instead of having to do the difficult work of making the case against reasonable gun control, the NRA provokes its opponents to continue a fighting a war in which everyone’s mind is already made up.

There’s no doubt that Donald Trump is (perhaps inadvertently) a master of this kind of trolling. A few tweets; massive outrage; amusement on Breitbart at the progressives’ “there you go again.” Trump tweets he wants to jail flag burners; in protest, anti-Trumpers burn the flag; now its clear we’re in a battle between those who respect and those who defile the precious symbol of our national values.

How to oppose? “Don’t feed the trolls” is one traditional strategy: don’t give away for free the response that they are seeking. As Kahan says, “there’s no meaningful political theater if only half the cast shows up.” Laughter and ridicule may also work, since they treat the troll’s speech as exactly what it is: cheap talk. Finally, in the “culture war” context, the audience being trolled can respond by seeking higher ground–laying claim to positions that transcend the habitual battle lines, and forcing the trolls onto the defensive. For example, when Trump tweets this:

trump-flag-burningone potentially powerful response is to wave the flag that represents our right to burn it:


OK, so how does all this apply to science communication? As Kahan points out, by propping up the culture war the NRA maintains an environment where science can’t be communicated effectively. When the primary context for science communication is a culture war, then any bits of science that manage to make it into the public sphere aren’t going to be considered on their merits. Everyone is already going to know whether they agree or disagree with the science as soon as they hear about it, and will use their reasoning abilities to justify their pre-existing decision. It’s only when science is communicated in ways disassociated with the ordinary battle lines that it can take its “rightful place” (whatever that happens to be).

So scientists may not be doing the public or themselves any favors by starting to organize an aggressive response to the infamous Trump tweet:

“Thousands of scientists,” including “22 Nobel Prize winners” have now issued a letter inching close to threatening the incoming administration with “monitoring” and “being held accountable”–language notably absent from previous calls to strengthen the integrity of science in federal policy-making. This sort of response reinforces the appearance that scientists are drawing a line in the sand against the incoming administration. Some on the science side may see the situation as a just war between Science/Responsible Citizens/[Progressives] and Anti-Science/Trump/[Republicans]. But they should recognize that all their communicative labors also serve to legitimate the opposite perspective: that there is a war going on, and it’s between Science/Responsible Citizens/[Republicans] and Politicized Science/[Democrats].

In sum: scientists should be cautious about feeding trolls. Efforts to communicate science that reinforce the idea that we’re involved in a “war against science” will not be effective.

If there is a war, then science is going to lose. Scientists can only win by refusing to fight: by unilateral disarmament in the war against science. There’s more to be said: namely, that there is no war; but that gets into tl;dr territory.

Written by jeangoodwin

December 5, 2016 at 10:35 am

One Response

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  1. Nicholas Kristof with a similar sentiment:

    “When universities are echo chambers, they become conservative punch lines, and liberal hand-wringing may be one reason Trump’s popularity has jumped since his election.”


    December 11, 2016 at 12:51 pm

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