Science to Action: Thoughts on Convincing a Skeptical Public William H. Press University of Texas at Austin 2015 William D. Carey Lecture April 30, 2015 Actual full page ad in USA Today and The Wall Street Journal February, 2015) This is the only way that it could be less effective, in my opinion! National Geographic
(January, 2015) reporting on Pew poll (2014) The questions are a mixture of being about scientific fact, and about the opinions of scientiststwo quite different things! Storyline No. 1 Scientists who are motivated by a sense of pure discovery observe, measure, and characterize a new phenomenon. Other scientists and engineers, motivated by a desire to create
applications, develop technologies and inventions that utilize the new phenomenon. The results are new products, jobs, and industries. What do successes look like? The rise of new industries. Disclaimer: N-grams are not always accurate indicators of social trends. However, they are fun. Storyline No. 2 Scientists familiar with the data recognize a danger or hazard to the public. They convince the public that action
is needed, often despite opposition from economic interests or people who disagree with the evidence. The result is appropriate action by government and favorable outcomes for the public. What do successes look like for Storyline No. 2? Discussion rises, action is taken, issue loses urgency The two storylines are quite different. No. 1: Scientists enabling research discovery, invention, and development what can be No 2: Scientists educating the public and
advocating action and change what should be These are both important roles for scientists. But they are different and distinct and require different kinds of interaction with the public Storyline No. 2 successes are not all post-WWII phenomena Triangle Shirtwaist fire (1911) San Francisco earthquake (1906) Iroquois Theater fire (1903) Chicago fire (1871) Fire protection as a case study The hazard was one familiar
to the public. There were catalyzing events. There were effective and affordable mitigating technologies. 1890: Grinnells glass disk sprinkler head Economic interests were not exclusively on one side 1894: Underwriters Laboratories We might hope for progress without catalyzing events, but history indicates otherwise 1911
1962 1964 Case study: Smoking Is Is the the hazard hazard familiar familiar to
to the the public? public? Have Have there there been been catalyzing catalyzing events? events? Are Are there there effective effective and and affordable
affordable mitigating mitigating technologies? technologies? Are Are economic economic interests interests not not exclusively exclusively on on one one side? side? ? ? Case study: Climate
Is Is the the hazard hazard familiar familiar to to the the public? public? ? ? Have
Have there there been been catalyzing catalyzing events? events? ? ? Are Are there there effective effective and and affordable affordable mitigating mitigating technologies? technologies? ?? or or
Are Are economic economic interests interests exclusively exclusively on on one one side? side? ? ? Sandy, 2012 Ambiguities arise when Storyline No. 2 masquerades as Storyline No. 1 A hazard
exists, is mitigatable by technology, so it should be mitigated. A new technology exists, can make better lives, so it should be widely adopted. In substance, these are both Storyline No. 2! the operative word is should How successful are efforts to influence public opinion on these two variants? Mitigating hazards
Fire safety Food safety Building codes Vaccination Tobacco Pesticides Air/Water pollution
Climate change Antibiotics overuse Cybersecurity Making better lives Chemicals Nuclear power GMOs Targeted advertising Sharing economy (Uber, AirBnB)
Color code: Success, Ambiguous, or Failure at convincing the public. Two views on GMO labeling expressed by scientists (overheard) GMO labeling is scientifically misleading. It creates externalities with identifiable costs, such as higher food prices, and poorer nutrition in the developing world. It sets a precedent for anti-scientific public policy. Governments should discourage GMO labeling. GMO labeling is a matter of consumer preference. As long as a GMO label is not designed to be intentionally confused with a safety label, science and scientists have only a limited
special role in this debate. The point: This is a debate about values, not about science. Perils of using the word should A matter of judgment, not of scientific fact Whose judgment? Are people like me represented in the process? Do scientists have, or claim, a special role in judging? At what cost and to whom? Disruptive to established economic interests? Implying a redistribution of wealth? Implying a perturbation of political influence? By whose moral compass? My values are different from yours.
My priorities are different from yours. My beliefs are different from yours. My tolerance for change is different from yours. 1. Science is a fact-discovering enterprise. 2. Science is a rationalist approach to life. Quantification Experimental validation Repeatability Underlying natural laws
Statistical inference Processes open publication peer review advancement by merit Translational path to applications This is a methodology. Decisions based on data Weighing pros and cons Skepticism about the use of untestable facts assertions based on authority only
Some version of a utilitarian metric Some belief in the efficacy of action the future can be different and better This is a value system. There are competing value systems and they are unlikely to disappear any time soon In recent decades, distrust of science has increased in a way that does not appear merely cyclical. A significant part of this is distrust appears to be financed by contrary business interests, a marketing strategy first
perfected by the tobacco industry. Unfortunately, this is the new reality for current and future science-based issues. What should* the scientific community do? I. More clearly separate fact-based conclusions from value-based judgments, even when both are valuable Journals should publish more opinion labeled as such And be more rigid in excluding should (and its equivalents) from refereed publications Be more active in communicating the merits of a rationalist approach to decision-making By our own example in the public space In education, e.g., How would a scientist approach this policy decision? Be careful and selective in invoking science as a privileged platform
Less This data shows that we need to More Speaking for myself But not shy about It is an accepted scientific fact that * using the word carefully What should the scientific community do? II. Be less dismissive of unscientific (as we might see them) value systems. First rule of marketing: Knocking the competition destroys credibilityyours. Be more assertive in reacting to threats to the integrity of science More criticism of poor quality science, even that which supports our values (the irresistible finding) More meaningful disclosure of funding sourcesultimate source, not opaque frontsas condition of publishing
More calling out of meretricious balance (there are two sides to every issue) when it is poor journalism More calling out merchant of doubt campaigns and their practitioners (tobacco, climate, ) In the long run, convincing the public is a long, two-step process. Step 1: Communicate the value of a rationalist approach to decision-making Step 2: Communicate well-established scientific results
We need to be better at both kinds of communication.
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