Between Scientists & Citizens

Unilateral Disarmament in the “War on Science”

with 15 comments

Here is the thesis that I’m nailing to the cathedral door.

Some scientists perceive themselves as an embattled minority, fending off attacks from a public whose declining trust in science has been manufactured by self-interested adversaries aided by an easily-duped press. This perception is largely unfounded. When scientists communicate to the public from this point of view, they don’t contribute usefully to public deliberations. In fact, they add more toxins to the already polluted science communication environment. There has to be a better way.

This is a story that the public is anti-science–I want to promote an anti-“anti-science” story. Or put dramatically, I want to promote unilateral disarmament in the so-called war against science.

To make a case for this thesis, I aim to advance discussion of the following questions:

1. What does the anti-science story look like, in detail? How frequent is it, who is telling it, for what purposes?

2. Which aspects of the anti-science story are largely true, which speculative, and which false? For example, a small number of scientists have been targeted for harassment–that is true, and reprehensible. But is there evidence for a decline in trust, a significant role for “denialists,” or misbehavior by the press?

3. How does the anti-science story influence scientists’ public communication? How does it influence the reception and impact of scientists’ public communication?

4. Why do scientists find the “anti-science” story so attractive?–especially the speculative/false bits? Are there psychological biases in play, e.g., the false polarization effect?

5. What are approaches to communicating in the face of deep disagreement and even hostility that aren’t based on the anti-science story?

6. How can scientists be engaged in reflection on and discussion of this topic?

Written by jeangoodwin

August 30, 2017 at 10:00 am

15 Responses

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  1. Very thought-provoking. I have a twist to add, though. I work in an area (nutrition epidemiology of chronic disease) where it would be entirely appropriate for the public to be largely “anti-science,” or at least to be far more critical and skeptical than they have been. In fact, I would even make the case that the missteps we’ve made in nutrition science as it relates to chronic disease have been fuel for some aspects of the “anti-science” debate, to the extent that it exists. To put it another way, there is a large overlap among folks who don’t believe the “saturated fat = heart disease” theory (which, from my end, is a reasonable take on the matter) and those who don’t believe in getting their kids vaccinated. The reasoning goes like this: If the government would pursue a political agenda in telling you meat is bad for your health (which really does seem to be the case), then why is it so unthinkable that the government wouldn’t do the same thing with regard to vaccines?

    Doesn’t how we define what science is (and isn’t), what counts as “evidence” and what doesn’t, come into play here?

    Adele Hite, MPH RD

    August 30, 2017 at 2:28 pm

    • Very thought-provoking back at you! I’ve lived through the entire egg cycle (healthy! dreadful! healthy!), which indeed has left me suspicious of all single-ingredient nutrition claims.

      For a start, I’d say that people who question research for shoddy methods, hype, or political agenda aren’t anti-science. They’re pro-science! They are looking for scientists to live up to their own ideals.

      So then maybe one question is: what are good practices for scientists to use to address such pro-science people who (in a case like vaccines) aren’t correct in concluding that scientists have betrayed science? Making war on those people doesn’t seem like the right choice.


      August 30, 2017 at 6:51 pm

      • I agree. It does seem that even folks who seem to have arrived at a conclusion that can’t be upheld by (scientific) evidence are nevertheless seeking out and responding to evidence of some sort. Also, I think that if scientists could admit that (as Steven Shapin puts it) science is “never pure,” then it would be easier for them to see some commonalities with thinking they dismiss as non-science.

        Adele Hite, MPH RD

        August 30, 2017 at 10:14 pm

  2. These are really interesting questions. But who are ‘the scientists’ and what’s ‘the science’? As the comment above already indicates, there will be a myriad of sciences and scientists with a myriad of issues (climate, bio, geno, neuro, nutrition, medicine, AI, robotics, astro, cosmo, techno….socio?). So answers to your questions will be quite difficult to pin down. But it’s good to ask them, as generalised hand-waving about a loss of trust in science and an anti-science movement is bad.


    August 31, 2017 at 1:26 am

    • Definitely. Question 1 asks us to document which sciences are perceived as under attack. The anti-science story is familiar enough in some contexts, with different versions identifying different enemies:
      – AGW: Koch Brothers, Heartland Institute
      – Vax: Jenny McCarthy, Andrew Wakefield
      – GMO: Vandana Shiva, Food Babe
      I’m also pretty confident that scientists outside of the affected fields circulate these stories. Do they have their own versions about their own fields, though?


      August 31, 2017 at 6:23 am

      • How can one find out though?? I bet the majority of working scientists only rarely have time to think about these and other issues and ‘perpetrators’…unless prompted by a scandal or social scientists working alongside them 😉


        August 31, 2017 at 7:20 am

        • One approach I’m planning: harvesting the complete Facebook and Twitter discussions prior to the March for Science. The data has some weaknesses (e.g., not every speaker is a scientist), but it is an “unprompted” window into the stories people are telling themselves about science communication.


          August 31, 2017 at 2:13 pm

          • That sounds interesting. I’d be interested to hear about the results!


            August 31, 2017 at 3:32 pm

  3. […] Source: Unilateral Disarmament in the “War on Science” […]

  4. > They are looking for scientists to live up to their own ideals.

    This has been served as a justification for all the never ending audits I know.

    Meeting impossible demands is hard.


    September 13, 2017 at 2:32 pm

  5. […] my overarching project Unilateral Disarmament in the “War on Science” I claim that (4) cognitive biases lead scientists to faulty perceptions of attacks on science, and […]

  6. […] 4 in my project “unilateral disarmament” considers why the story about beleaguered science is so prevalent. I will collect here […]

  7. This is a rich topic. I’d like to suggest that it could be useful to draw a distinction between attacks on scientific method and attacks on scientific institutions. In the world of politics and advocacy there are undoubtedly some who act in bad faith (a la Merchants of Doubt), treating science as politics by other means, but in most cases I suspect what might appear to be a “war on science” is simply a distrust in institutions. When segments of the population doubt consensus views on climate or vaccines, they are not rejecting science, they are doubting that scientists are living up to commonly accepted standards of good science. In the latter case we have a problem that ought to be tractable: with more and better communication, either scientific institutions could be reformed, or the public could be reassured, or both. I’d suggest that what makes this so hard is that there is grey area between the two cases. It’s hard for scientists to tell whether critics are acting in good faith or bad faith, and criticism in bad faith appears to demand a different kind of response. Jean, I wonder if one way of formulating the “unilateral disarmament” idea would be to treat all critics of science as if they were acting in good faith?


    July 5, 2018 at 4:37 pm

  8. […] thus seems to be another case where well-meaning defensiveness of science may exacerbate the conditions being defende….  The existence of vaccine skepticism should not limit what scientists can say in publications. […]

  9. […] confess to doubts about the accuracy of this familiar narrative. But even if it once was true, we now are entering a new phase. Big Oil is putting money behind a […]

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