How to appeal to science denialists with raw work ethic

Two scientists are racing
For the cure of all mankind
Both of them side by side
So determined
Locked in heated battle
For the cure that is their prize
But it’s so dangerous
But they’re determined
Theirs is to win
If it kills them
They’re just humans
With wives and children
Oklahoman American Rock Group The Flaming Lips

I read two things that got me to thinking about how to communicate about science to science denialists. The first is a piece at New Scientist, lamenting the fact that for all of the science on TV right now, we’re not exactly winning over science denialists with it. The second is an Amanda Marcotte piece over at Alternet, lamenting that the right wears ignorance as a badge of honor these days.

My suggestion? Humanize science, as a process. I hope to find a common ground between denialists and scientists, I hope that work ethic can be that common ground, and I hope that good science communication can shoulder the burden of bringing the scientist’s work to life.

TV science is not real science

At New Scientist, Chris Mooney discusses Americans’ appetite for shows like The Big Bang Theory and Cosmos. While Big Bang focuses on scientists as people, Cosmos packages science as a product. Very little is said about what goes on in between: the process. Mooney says Big Bang “is a show in which sciencey people say sciencey things, and people can’t get enough of it.” He argues that despite this humanization, and despite the wow factor of Cosmos, there remains a need to “to pull apart dazzling and fascinating from convincing and persuading.” In other words, we aren’t changing any minds. Viewers may love Big Bang‘s nerds in that way your homophobic grandmother loved Jack on Will & Grace. It’s a big project to get people on board with the realities of scientific research, not just the people and the product.

Meanwhile, Marcotte points out the right’s pervasive unwillingness to base decisions in fact. Problem is, scientists don’t deal with facts either, and when we say they do, it allows denialists to point to any discrepancy between ‘facts’ (the supposed outputs of science) as a weakness. It also makes it easier for denialists to construct the ‘snob’ narrative. The truth is, science is a very human project, and it’s the project of figuring things out in case we someday need to know these things to save ourselves. Increasingly, it’s looking like that someday is now, and the thing we need to save ourselves from is ourselves.

Because of this, Marcotte is right to be alarmed at the sheer persistence of denialists who claim to create their own reality through action (see: G.W. Bush). But making it about ‘reality’ vs. ‘action’ is polarizing. We are all actors, and none of us have a firm grip on reality. Facts don’t always point us to answers to our problems. Sometimes the kinds of facts we’re able to get at (the low-hanging fruit) aren’t the kinds of facts that are helpful. And sometimes the helpful ones are elusive. Even just deciding which facts to chase is a decision about what we want and what is likely to succeed. Scientists know this better than anyone, in fact. We sweep it under the rug sometimes when we need to seem awesome (like when it’s time to apply for grants), but we do ourselves a disservice by making it look easier than it is. It’s a struggle. We stumble around in the dark, and in the meantime, the problems are getting bigger.

Finding a common ground

A tractable component of this problem might be, as I said, to humanize science as a process. Sure, I love nerding out about space and the brain as much as your next NPR-listening liberal (note–I do not in fact listen to NPR, but nearly all of my best friends are NPR listeners), but I think denialist culture has a very large overlap with a conservative culture that emphasizes family and tradition. For everyone but, say, Shulamith Firestone, who I can’t say is wrong, family is an ethic we can work with. At the very least, it’s one that seems very dangerous to ignore, given the intense social bonds humans experience.

The prosocial impulses of caring for your own lead to a desire to see them happy and successful. There’s a reverence for the practicality of seeking a career that will guarantee you a roof over your head and food on the table. A good work ethic is something every parent hopes their child has. The dark side of having pride in one’s work ethic sometimes manifests as hand-wringing about ‘welfare queens’ and ‘freeloaders looking for a handout.’

But let’s think about the swing-voting middle class, straddling the line that marks the midpoint of the work to live / live to work continuum. Marcotte’s ‘pinheads’ are those of us lucky enough to have landed a job where you have the intellectual breathing room to engage with ideas that expand your mind and leave you fulfilled. Privilege and hard work are both currents that propelled many of us here. On the other hand, those with less privilege see these jobs as pie-in-the-sky farting around. “Good for you, nerd, but most of us have to put up with more bullshit for less money” is not an unjustified stance.

Communicating about the process: Try it out at home!

These experiences color the messages sent to children about what they can, or should, strive to be when they grow up. In science, I know a lot of academics with academic parents. Value systems rely heavily on what we pick up from our parents, and in the case of scientists’ kids, they get a healthy dose of wonder and comfort in the face of failure. This helps inoculate them against despair and impostor syndrome, I imagine. If scientists don’t dance around their failures when it comes to talking to the public, I think we can slowly chip away at the ‘What the hell do scientists know, anyway?’ crowd. We know how much we don’t know, thank you very much. So help us out a little here.

Every time I go home to Minnesota, I try this out. I have a moment where I share my frustrations about the lack of funding for science with my Republican-voting parents. Being Minnesotan, this is unfailingly conveyed through raw passive aggression, a medium in which we as a people are the unrivaled masters. We are the Flemish realists of passive aggression. And so I pit their want to see me thrive against their votes against science.

But I also let them in on how hard what I’m trying to do is. I can’t handle the idea of them seeing me as some sort of Einstein, when my answer to “So, have you cured Alzhmeimer’s yet?” at Christmas has always been, and will always be, no. So, to explain away my unending lack of a PhD, I have learned to talk about the process, failures and all.

In general, the way we portray science and scientists could stand to have a lot more of this humanizing dialogue greasing the skids, and less of the anger and exasperation at each other that leads to this weird assertion that academic ‘elites’ are alone in our possession of facts. We all have value systems that drive our acquisition of facts. Pointing out the ways in which our values and workaday processes align seems like a way to catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Sure, contempt for facts is gross, but let’s not respond by being gross back. The sum of human knowledge is really just our best working model, and although sometimes it’s not much of a model, it’s the only model we’ve got. Let’s help people see scientific ‘facts’ for what they are: the end product of following a long road filled with best guesses and lucky breaks. Let’s help the ups and downs of research seem less like the flighty disorganization of the incompetent. Let’s make the messy process of fact-finding a necessary, noble grind in the eyes of its detractors.

Science isn’t magic, and that’s a good thing

Scientists in the trenches know that, while their goals are lofty, the day-to-day can be as much mundane drudgery as anything else. That’s because science isn’t about Carl Sagan thrilling to the mysteries of space. It’s a project, like any other. Joe the Plumber fixes leaks, for instance, and so do scientists. It’s just that we’re trying to fix leaks no one has ever fixed before. None of us know what the hell we’re doing, so yeah, it’s messy. It’s hard. We make wrong turns, chase red herrings, contradict ourselves. Normalizing these twists and turns can prevent them from being used as ammo against us. I think if we want to convince people that science is worthwhile, maybe exposing it as a project with indirect methods but very practical goals (curing cancer, anyone?) would help it seem more accessible.

The less you know about science, the more it seems like magic. The easier it is to discredit it. Calling evolution ‘just a theory like any other’ happens when we talk about facts and theories, but don’t talk about where they came from. Marcotte and Mooney both say that the problem is one of identity, and they’re right. But we all identify with our work–it is the Great American Pathology. Maybe we can leverage that to our advantage. In the end, we’re all just tinkerers working on really hard problems. We’re just trying to fix things. And there’s nothing my dad, a mechanic of some forty years, likes better than fixing things.

Tell your story–it’ll be worth it

Whether we end up fixing things or not, there’s still a story there. Dad also loves–and I mean LOVES–Ice Road Truckers. Have you seen this? It is a History Channel show about dudes who haul big loads over frozen lakes and rivers, and it is gripping stuff. I binge-watched like 6 episodes in a row one Christmas. And as science communicators, I think we can all take a page from their playbook. Getting shit done, against the odds, is the kind of story we all live for.

I’m not saying that scientists need MORE hassles in justifying their existence, or that it isn’t possible that exposing the messiness behind science won’t breed more contempt. But it could help science seem more practical and less snobby. I think we can successfully marry this drive now being espoused by conservatives, the one that says ‘Let’s just go and do, facts be damned,’ with the tenacity of scientists hammering away at some really stubborn problems. They’re not as different as they may seem.

The storytelling being done by science communicators in schools, online, on TV, and over beers is an important step. It is well-known that the complexities of science often prevent it from being neatly communicated, but we are working on it. None of us have facts, ok? So just get to work on communicating your process, facts be damned.

You don’t have to be Carl Sagan, and you don’t have to be a caricature of a pale pinhead. You just have to be a good worker bee. Convince the denialists that you, like them, are just working hard to do right by your world. Letting them see our foibles and hardships right alongside our passion and brilliance may go a long way towards finding that common ground.

The author strains against the great weight of pseudoscience and fear.

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31 Responses to How to appeal to science denialists with raw work ethic

  1. katwalk65 says:

    Reblogged this on We have no Secrets and commented:
    Raw work ethic sounds like me.

  2. I’ve always said that science plods forward at the pace of egos and fear. Even scientists are afraid of facts when they aren’t ready for them or when they disprove their published babies. (See: electricity, quantum physics, epigenetics, etc) Most things are called magic at first. Ghandi was right: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you….”
    The sick joke is that the onus of proof falls to the scientists, not the naysayers. If you’ve got the next big idea, you’ve got to show your work like a seventh grade algebra problem. The rest can sit back in their armchairs, cross their arms, and repeat smugly, “Prove it.” The punchline is that most of these armchair critics aren’t educated enough to comprehend your proof, so they call that magic, too.
    Which is a fine time to put your teeth together and back away slowly. You can’t teach that algebra to a toddler, you’ve got to find your audience. Such an audience isn’t going to be as visible or as vocal as the toddlers (see Fox News) so they won’t seem as accessible but believe me, they’re out there. They are the autodidactic crowd that never stops exploring the possibilities and reading up on the scientific latest. If you shout it, they will hear. In the immortal words of Mahatma, “…then you win.”

  3. I can’t help thinking that science denial, as a significant social phenomenon, is a largely US issue. It’s not so obvious, for instance, where I live in New Zealand. I’m about to publish a book (with Penguin Random House) on geoscience (for me, an extension of my interest in physics), and I don’t have the slightest concern that I’ll get locally targeted for daring to suggest that Earth might be more than 6,400 years old. The real question, as you point out, is why anti-science happens, and what can we do about it? My take is that the issue largely flows from the way particular ideas or belief systems are used to validate self-worth and a sense of personal value. This is something also true of some scientists! The scene is immediately set for an emotionally charged argument, because any effort to dispute the belief system immediately becomes a personal attack on self-worth. Ouch.

    To me, this explains a good deal about the heat I see in the US particularly. I think the anti-science phenomenon also has trigger words – one of which is ‘evolution’ (a field I studied as part of an undergrad degree). The problem is that any deep emotional involvement in a position renders it almost impossible to even discuss that viewpoint; it is too closely entwined with a sense of self. Those who do not feel secure, as valid and worthy people, are particularly liable, I suspect, to react angrily when somebody else shows up with a different system. And, as I say, that is also true of some scientists – certainly some I’ve met! Yet, as you point out, the reality of science is that it IS a human field. So I think your answer – to humanise the field and appeal to a shared ethic, is an excellent way forward.

    I should add, The Big Bang Theory is one of my favourite shows. My wife keeps calling me ‘Sheldon’, but honest, I’m not. Leonard, maybe… 🙂

  4. decoolprince says:

    Reblogged this on decoolprince.

  5. I don’t know…can you appeal to any science denialists? Maybe some but not most from my experience. It’s tough but we should keep trying

  6. TechChucker says:

    I think that science has done itself a disservice in some respects with the likes of Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins. They have been brilliant in their fields, but the problem is people who are religious (myself included) don’t respect someone who will emphatically state there is no God and then proceed to berate and belittle those that do. If everyone could have the humility to be honest with oneself and with others to admit that nobody truly knows whether there is a spiritual world or not that would go a long way. Unfortunately, the likes of Sagan and Dawkins have become the face of science to many, right or wrong, that is the reality.

    I don’t know how to curb the influx of denialists, but I don’t think hard work alone and a nose to the grindstone is enough. Science needs to actually become more compassionate and inclusive. Allow science and religion to coexist. Do the two have to be enemies? It would be nice if religion could do the same though as well.

  7. rtrube54 says:

    I thought this interview with Katherine Hayhoe on Bill Moyers insightful for how as a person of faith she deals with science deniers in her own faith community as well as her insights on the political roots of the denial of science in the US. http://billmoyers.com/episode/full-show-climate-change-faith-and-fact/

  8. TheValid says:

    Love your blog and this post! Check me out I promise you won’t be disappointed!

  9. Pingback: Arguing Creationism and Science at the County Fair | Midwest County Fairs

  10. As an aspiring science writer and undergrad biology student, thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this. I never thought about the science denialists, but I’ve seen some pseudo-science stories. Scary stuff.
    So far, I love your blog. Please keep writing.

  11. armenia4ever says:

    Science seems to be treated these days as a kind of non-spiritual religion.

    It’s supposed to give you facts about life, how things work, ect. rather then dictate people’s worldview compasses of what right and wrong might be.

    We should just keep getting used to people saying, “I believe in science” when questioned about what our foreign policy should look like or how to fix the justice system.

  12. stlcardinalfan2 says:

    Nice blog! Check out mine: clashfordummies.com

  13. magnocrat says:

    Denialists only deny what could potentially affect their lifestyle. They know how good science is and they enjoy it all to the full.
    Politicians have great difficulty with any science that may affect their re- election..They also enjoy all the benifits to the full.
    The reputation of science is not serious since it lavishes billions on toys for the boys and seems more concerned with the big bang than earthly problems.

  14. uknowispeaksense says:

    Reblogged this on uknowispeaksense and commented:
    I admire your optimism. I would suggest if the deniers can be convinced that they can benefit financially in a big way from science, their little brains may quickly take a hard left turn.

  15. cartoonmick says:

    We can’t pump all that carbon into the atmosphere without something eventually happening.
    We may disagree about exactly what will happen, but for sure, something is going to happen.
    And if we don’t know exactly how bad this “something” is going to be, doesn’t it make sense to stop pumping all that carbon into our air?
    It’s a bit like kicking a dog. You know it’s going to do something in response to your unwelcome kicking, but you have absolutely no idea what it will be. So why do it.
    Unfortunately, it’s all about money and greed.
    We need to have politicians listen to scientists and act on what they hear, instead of listening to those with wealth and vested interests.
    Maybe this cartoon explains it better . . .
    http://cartoonmick.wordpress.com/editorial-political/#jp-carousel-775
    Cheers
    Mick

  16. Very thoughtful take. One obvious place for scientists to ‘humanize’ both their process and the underlying stakes of their research and shared knowledge would be on social media…jargon, theory, arcane discussions of probabilities have their place, but so does story.

  17. mirzja says:

    Nice… with the spirit of the original can also be energy

  18. loretta7hill says:

    Reblogged this on growyourfinancialfeet and commented:
    Awesome piece

  19. Julia says:

    Great piece, I’ve just trained as a physics teacher and one of the hardest things about my job is seeing kids turn up for lessons expecting to be told some facts to memorise and then go home. Part of my job is to teach them what science is, not just what science “knows” and it can be very hard sometimes to crack that.

  20. Wyrd Smythe says:

    When people tell me that, “Evolution is just a theory,” I suggest to them that we find a ten-story building, have them step off the edge and then turn around and talk to me about how gravity is just a theory.

    When people tell me that carbon dioxide can’t be a poison because plants breath it and it’s in the air anyway, so how can it be harmful, I suggest they let me lock them in a room in which I will slowly increase the amount of CO2. They are allowed to bring with them as many plants as they like.

    Willful ignorance is a massive problem in this country, and it does indeed seem a badge of honor for some. When I hear things like, “We need to stand up to the experts!” I despair. Sometimes I think it’s a reaction to the world having become an extremely complicated place. There was a time when a clever person could understand most of what went on. Many could fix their telephones, washing machines or cars. Now? Forget about it.

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” ~~Clarke’s Third Law

  21. Pingback: Why I cheerlead for science even though sometimes I think it hates me | Unsolicited Honesty

  22. worleyf says:

    The first thing that has to happen is to de politicize science. No one denies science, when it is actually based on science, not political agendas. The Marxist agree or be scorned political fraud of global warming is a perfect example.

  23. Interesting and think nowadays seems to be mrs common to deny and to believe in conspiracies without any evidence. Information overload or media induced concepts??

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