Tag Archives: Guide to the Perplexed

Confronting Science Denialism in the Trump Era

Our last post discussed President Trump’s advocacy of a link between vaccines and autism, while also noting that Trump has taken that stance despite the fact that the “link” has been well-debunked by several large-scale scientific studies (1). Also, our post made a case for biomedical scientists to speak out against Trump’s anti-vaccine pronouncements.

As Trump does when rejecting the findings of climate scientists, he similarly misrepresents and ignores the vast amount of scientific evidence that confirms the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. And this is happening while he asserts almost daily that any facts, which call his positions to account, are “fake.” Moreover, his millions of followers, who feast on his “alternative facts,” can pass them on to others with a click. See Aside 1.

[Aside 1: Trump surrogate, Scottie Nell Hughes, “explained” that everybody now had their own way of interpreting whether a fact was true or not.There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts,” she declared. Thus, “a large part of the population” will pick and choose whatever “alternative facts” confirm their views (2).]

Many biomedical scientists now feel an urgent need to speak out against vaccine non-compliance. Yet others argue that scientists hurt the cause when they take political sides. Nonetheless, science is founded on honesty and rigor. And, if scientists do not speak out when their findings are distorted or ignored by politicians who put forward policies that harm the public, who else will? So, our concern here is to consider how we might effectively engage not only anti-vaxxers, but science denialists in general. It is important that we consider this, since we have not been especially effective in the past at curtailing science denialism (e.g., re evolution and human-caused global warming).

A key prerequisite for effective communication is that each party listen to, and acknowledge the others point of view. This may be difficult to accomplish with science denialists under any circumstance. But it is most difficult in public discussions, where a group of committed denialists is unlikely to allow the free and open discussion that is essential. Even if you should happen to get your points out, hard-core denialists in the audience will probably not consider them (see Asides 2 and 3). So, in front of a group, address your remarks to the skeptical and undecided members of your audience, rather than to the stanch denialists.

Your chance of influencing undecided or skeptical individuals is much greater in a one-on-one discussion. But whether before a group, or in a one-on-one discussion, your major asset and advantage is that the scientific consensus supports your position. Focus on the evidence.

[Aside 2: Hard-core denialists provide but one example of a more general phenomenon that is well known to social scientists; people zealously resist challenges to their most strongly held beliefs. Moreover, studies show that threatening those beliefs has the effect of people clinging to those beliefs even more fervently; the so-called “worldview backfire effect.” Thus, the stronger your evidence-based arguments against the vaccine-autism link might be, the stronger your disputants might cling to their anti-vaxxer position. The reason is the same as that which makes religious and political zealots immovable. See Aside 3.]

[Aside 3: Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), who many consider to be the greatest Jewish philosopher, confronted dogmatists in the 12th century, when writing his Guide to the Perplexed; his attempt to reconcile the Old Testament bible with what he considered to be the irrefutable scientific worldview put forth by Aristotle and other eminent Greek philosophers. In brief, Maimonides argued that the bible should not be taken literally but, instead, should be read metaphorically. Then, it could be entirely consistent with the truths arrived at through science and reason. Yet, Maimonides realized that most people did read the bible literally, and that to challenge their traditional point of view would be equivalent to challenging their faith itself. Thus, he realized that his arguments would be listened to by only a small group of the most open-minded readers.]

University of Sussex social anthropologist, Melissa Leach, suggests that scientists need to be more empathetic to the personal and cultural beliefs that cause people to reject scientific evidence (3). To that point, scientists need to listen to and understand the reasons why denialists seek alternatives to science, before they might be heard in turn. And scientists must be careful not to imply to science deniers that they are ignorant or irrational (see Aside 4). “Dismissing public and political concerns about health interventions as unscientific, irrational or misled fails to do justice to the different perspectives in play… It is why we see backlashes to even the best-intentioned initiatives (3).” In addition, scientists should not fall into the trap of advocating for an abstract principle. If you are perceived as an advocate for a policy, you may lose trust as an unbiased knowledge broker. So, stick to the evidence. Patiently and clearly connect the dots.

[Aside 4: It may surprise some that science denialists do not sort cleanly along income or education demographics. For instance, the movement to forgo vaccinations has become popular in some more liberal and affluent communities; the organic grocery demographic. Also, consider the example of conservative columnist George Will; an obviously well-educated and sophisticated individual, who nonetheless steadfastly maintains that since climate change happened naturally in the past, we cannot know that human-caused carbon pollution will cause harmful climate changes in the future. Others have noted that Will’s logic is equivalent to saying that since nonsmokers died of lung cancer in the past, we cannot know that cigarette smoking is a cause of lung cancer now. George Will also is not moved by the fact that there is a consensus among climate scientists—based on the accumulation of massive evidence—that human-caused carbon emissions are changing the climate. Climate scientists are now as certain of that conclusion as biomedical scientists are that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer.]

Better communication with science denialists is not easy for reasons noted above. Moreover, many science denialists have learned to rebut the consensus view by cherry-picking “scientific” evidence that might cast doubt on the consensus view; irrespective of whether their selected evidence came from poorly conducted experiments. Moreover, denialists may throw their “alternative facts” at you so fast that, in refuting them, you exhaust your energy and patience well before you get to make your own argument (see Aside 5). And there still will be vociferous politicians, who will continue to misrepresent and ignore science, to advance their own agendas.

[Aside 5: To that point, in 2013 Italian programmer Alberto Brandolini put forward Brandolini’s law (also known as the “Bullshit Asymmetry Principle”). It states: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”]

In early February 2017, scientists across the United States began to plan a March for Science, to take place in Washington on April 22; Earth Day. Are organized marches an effective way to promote a pro-science agenda? Some scientists say that the march might be counterproductive. For instance, Geologist Robert Young, of Western Carolina University, argued that the march “could deepen the divide between conservatives and liberals, reinforce the idea that scientists are a political interest group…There’s a section of the American electorate—whether we like to acknowledge it or not—that has become skeptical of science. . . I don’t think that scientists standing in Washington, giving speeches and holding signs, is going to convince those people that they need to pay attention to our concerns… Somehow, as a community, those of us who care about science need to find a way to communicate with those folks…It has to be direct communication or ways that we have not imagined yet (4).”

Young’s remarks provoked a notable backlash on Twitter, with most scientists coming out in favor of the march. Also, consider the outcome of a 2012 march in Ottawa, by Canadian scientists opposed to the anti-science policies of Canada’s conservative Harper government (Aside 5). The Canadian march did not diminish the credibility of the participants, nor did it lead to polarization of the public. Instead, by bringing the Harper government’s anti-science policies to the public’s attention, the march may have helped to elect the more pro-science government of Justin Trudeau in 2015. So, one might hope that an American march might have a positive effect here, even if only to stem the tide of misinformation being fed to the American public.

[Aside 5: Canadian scientists protested the Harper government’s restrictions against free communication between scientists and the media; particularly communications that opposed the government’s pro-industry environmental policies. Scientists who did not comply with the Harper government’s restrictions might have their research programs terminated. In the U.S., in December 2016, then President-elect Trump asked the Department of Energy for the names of career employees and contractors who attended U.N. climate talks over the past five years. He also requested emails of those meetings. The DOE responded with a statement saying that Trump’s request had “unsettled” many in its workforce, that the DOE would “be forthcoming with all [publicly] available information,” but that it would withhold “any individual names.”]

There is no middle ground between objective science and unsubstantiated “alternative facts.” As stated most eloquently by Wendy Palenfeb: “Evidence and objective reality are the foundation of successful policy and governance. Openness is as vital to science as it is to democracy. We cannot allow hard-won knowledge to be ignored or distorted (5).”

References

  1. President Trump’s Advocacy of the Debunked Link Between Vaccines and Autism, Posted on the blog January 26, 2017.
  2. Charles Sykesfeb, Why Nobody Cares the President Is Lying, NY Times, February 4, 2017.
  3. Melissa Leach, Accommodating dissent, Nature 450, p283, 22 November 2007, doi:10.1038/450483a.
  4. Diana Kwon, Will a March Help Science?, The Scientist, February 2, 2017.
  5. Wendy Palenfeb, When Canadian Scientists Were Muzzled by Their Government, NY Times, February 14, 2017.]

Addends

  1. Prompted by President Trump’s comments asserting a link between vaccines and autism, on February 7, 2017, more than 350 medical and professional organizations sent the President a letter stating that vaccines are a safe and most effective means for protecting the health of children and adults and saving lives. The text of the letter, and its signatories, can be accessed from: The week in science: 10–16 February 2017. Nature 542, (16 February 2017) doi:10.1038/542276a.
  2. The following is from an April 11, 2017 editorial in Nature, Nature supports the March for Science: “Finally, to the critics, yes it is true that the march blurs the lines between science and politics. But that line is already much fuzzier than some try to argue. It is possible to care about science and scientific thinking while ignoring the political context in which it operates. But it is difficult to do that and demand change at the same time.”

 

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