Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Bora Zivkovic Rules of Science Communication

Bora Zivkovic ("Coturnix") has posted on the Bloom and Weisberg article and on the issue of Do You Trust Scientists?. Naturally Bora has some ideas on this and (surprise) they involve framing.

Since he specifically mentions me [More than just Resistance to Science], I thought I might as well respond.
That is why, Larry's protestations notwithstanding, we desparately need the advice of people whose job is to study communication. We have no idea how to talk to people with hierarchical worldviews and the phatic use of language and we better listen and be prepared to learn.
Name some names. Show me these mythical communications experts who are doing such a good job of communicating science to the general public. Where in the world did you come up with this ridiculous idea that scientists have no idea how to talk to the average person?
All the examples that Larry points out - teaching science majors in college, talking to other scientists, writing popular science books, writing science blogs - are aimed at the audience that already is rational and uses language to get and impart information. It just does not work in persuasion and education of the irrational folk. The way to frame the science is completely different.
Bull. The way to talk to irrational people is not to get down in the gutter with them and behave irrationally. How in the world do you expect people to trust you, Bora, if you abandon the core principles of science?
So, what do we do?

Phase 1 is to attain authority (that is why science reporters will not do for this - it has to be scientists themselves). In doing so, the scientists have to do more than just assert equal authority as the priest, sheriff and mayor. For a hierarchically-minded audience, the only way to rise in authority is for someone else's authority to diminish at the same time ("How can the UN tell MY President what to do?"). It is a ladder they think of and only one person or group can be at any single rung of it. Thus, scientists have to displace clergy, lawyers and politicians as sources of authority on scientific matters.
I agree with this. Scientists need to challenge religion since in the USA that's the dominant authority. The first step is to get their attention by making some noise. So far it's working.
How does one do this? When dealing with kids (and adults who have not yet made the change to a rational worldview), the only way is to appear to be 100% sure. This is not the audience that gets error-bars, confidence intervals, fine points of philosophy of science, and alternative hypotheses. You tell it how it is (even if inside you cringe, knowing that what you are saying is only 98% sure). You tell it with conviction. No need to lie. Just get out of the science-paper mindset. The studies mentioned in the Edge piece confirm this notion as well.
You do that and you've lost my respect. What do you get in return? You get the same kind of respect as politicians and everybody else who's prepared to sacrifice truth for spin. What you're advocating is not "framing," it's surrender.

"Truth" is something like "pregnancy." Something is either true or it is not true. There's no such thing as 98% true. That's just a polite word for a lie. "Spin" is another polite word for a lie and so, it appears, is "framing."
Phase 2 is to gain trust. As Sara Robinson explained in her series "Tunnels and Bridges" and "Cracks in the Wall" (both found in the sidebar here), this is a slow and gradual process. No looking down at people. Not calling them stupid or evil. Giving them a helping hand and encouragement. Perhaps promise an induction into a secret powerful society of scientists. Even if one makes small steps, reward them even if you do not like where they got in the process: smile when the individual moves form YEC to OEC, and again when he moves from OEC to IDC, and again when he moves from IDC to Theistic Evolution, and again when he moves from Theistic Evolution to a genocentric, hyperadaptationist form of naturalistic evolution and give them a damned PhD when they understand and accept the modern evolutionary theory.
Whatever. You do it your way and I'll do it my way. There's plenty of room for all kinds of personalities in this battle. For the time being I'm impressed with the Dawkins approach. People have been trying it your way for decades and look at what kind of success they've had in America.

For over a century, the creationists have been mocking, criticizing, and demeaning scientists from the pulpit, in books, on television and in newspapers. Not only do they call us stupid but evil as well. Guess what? That strategy has been working for them. It's time to fight back. Think of it in terms of attack adds if that makes you feel better. Except that our attack adds are truthful.
While phases 1 and 2 can, to some extent, be done simultaneously, Phase 3 can be attempted only once the person has already passed the first two phases. The Phase 3 is science education as we understand it. It can only be applied to the audience that is already rational and uses language for the exchange of information, not emotions. Actually understanding the world, not just taking your word for it (phases 1 and 2 are pretty much getting people to trust you on your word, not understanding any science yet) is something that we want them to achieve and traditional science education can do so. I am sure that Larry is really good at this phase, even though he refuses to acknowledge that the first two phases are necessary or even existent before a person can understand and accept what Larry is teaching.
Oh come on, Bora, I'm not nearly as stupid as you imagine. If the other phases are to establish trust and gain authority then I'm perfectly aware of the fact that these are important. Just because I think that your tactics will do the exact opposite does not mean that I reject the goal.

The problem is, you can't have it all. You can't expect to get "respect" by lying about science, or framing it in ways that are unacceptable to scientists, and then expect to turn around and teach good science. By the time you've spun your way to "respect" you lost the moral authority to teach.

25 comments:

  1. Who is talking about religion here? Have you read my post and everything linked in it?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Name some names. Show me these mythical communications experts who are doing such a good job of communicating science to the general public. Where in the world did you come up with this ridiculous idea that scientists have no idea how to talk to the average person?

    Go to the Communication department at your University. They need not know shit about science, but they can teach you about communication.

    ReplyDelete
  3. The way to talk to irrational people is not to get down in the gutter with them and behave irrationally.

    Who ever said that? You behave rationally by studying how other people communicate, then talk to them in a way they will uderstand. If they speak French, and not English, you study French in orther to be able to talk to them. If they talk 'phatic' you learn 'phatic' firts, then use your bilingual skill to teach them to use the language rationally.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I agree with this. Scientists need to challenge religion since in the USA that's the dominant authority. The first step is to get their attention by making some noise. So far it's working.

    We agree on something, though I think you go to narrowly by focusing on just religion. Religion is just one of the symptoms (and tools) of a hierarchical worldview which needs to be addressed as a whole. Religon AND everything else about their mental development that allows them to be irrational (including also religious).

    ReplyDelete
  5. You do that and you've lost my respect. What do you get in return? You get the same kind of respect as politicians and everybody else who's prepared to sacrifice truth for spin. What you're advocating is not "framing," it's surrender.

    Why? You have a daughter who is herself now an accomplished scientist. When she was five, did you explain the details of all the alterniative hypotheses and error bars, etc., or did you make your explanations short, simple and CONFIDENT?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Something is either true or it is not true. There's no such thing as 98% true.

    My example was the exact opposite. Are you saying that every scientific finding with less than p=1 is a lie? No, saying stuff confidently and talk stats to people who cannot comprehend stats is counterproductive but NOT dishonest. It is not even a matter of purity at all.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Whatever. You do it your way and I'll do it my way. There's plenty of room for all kinds of personalities in this battle. For the time being I'm impressed with the Dawkins approach. People have been trying it your way for decades and look at what kind of success they've had in America.

    Yes. As I said before during the Framing debate, there need to be two kinds of people working simultaneously: the loud ones moving the Overton Windown, and the nice ones working in the trenches, converting one person at a time.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Oh come on, Bora, I'm not nearly as stupid as you imagine. If the other phases are to establish trust and gain authority then I'm perfectly aware of the fact that these are important. Just because I think that your tactics will do the exact opposite does not mean that I reject the goal.

    The problem is, you can't have it all. You can't expect to get "respect" by lying about science, or framing it in ways that are unacceptable to scientists, and then expect to turn around and teach good science. By the time you've spun your way to "respect" you lost the moral authority to teach.


    OK, so you did not even read your own post up to this point, let alone mine, not to mention the stuff I linked to and insisted people read. OK.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Uncertainty, tentativeness, and probability are all integral parts of science. Science is NOT a set of facts, it's a process. So I don't see how highly self-confident pronouncements from scientists in pursuit of an improved position in other people's heirarchies counts as explaining science. It might be fun and ego-boosting, but it's not teaching science, it's just reciting facts.

    Go to the Communication department at your University. They need not know shit about science, but they can teach you about communication.

    Two points: first, a silly anecdote - at the university where I did my M.Sc., the widely-posted course description for Communications 110, an introductory course in that department, included the line "This course will teach you how to communication more effectively". Not a great way to get respect, but obviously also an isolated incident.

    Second, if science is a method of learning about the world, then I agree that if one wants to learn about communication (as a phenomenon that occurs in the world) then it would be useful to talk to those people who study communication. IF they use scientific methods to do so. I don't know what the people in the communication department do, but nobody has ever claimed to me that those people are scientists in any sense of the word. If they "need not know shit" about science, why should I trust that they have learned anything about the world using some other method? How do I know their knowledge of communication is not based on magical thinking or some other irrational system?

    You behave rationally by studying how other people communicate, then talk to them in a way they will uderstand. If they speak French, and not English, you study French in orther to be able to talk to them. If they talk 'phatic' you learn 'phatic' firts, then use your bilingual skill to teach them to use the language rationally.

    I don't like your analogy - French is an entire language, spoken by millions of people, and the first language of communication of a large number of important scientists throughout the history of science. It has proven its utility as a means of communication for precise terms and scientific concepts. Any language worthy of the name could probably claim the same. I am unfamiliar with this "phatic" communication - is it possible to speak in a rational, meaningful way about basic scientific concepts like hypothesis disproving or experimental controls entirely in "phatic"?

    ...or did you make your explanations short, simple and CONFIDENT?

    I still do not understand why an answer or explanation must be "CONFIDENT" to be effective. Perhaps error-bars and p-values are not appropriate for a discussion with a 5-year-old, but that is not to say that expressing some of the nuance and flexibility of scientific knowledge (e.g., it's always available for revision) is inappropriate. Could one not explain, say, why the sky is blue and include phrases like "as far as we have been able to tell" or "to the best of my imperfect knowledge" or something?

    ReplyDelete
  10. No, it is not teaching science. Teaching science is Phase 3 (have you read my post?). Confidence is needed for the first two phases, which are necessary to prepare minds to be capable of being taught science. You cannot try to teach science to unteachable brains - you have to make them teachable first.

    ReplyDelete
  11. The original Science/Edge article (and several bloggers) demonstrate (and cites relevant studies) why unvawering confidence is necessary for the brains in that developmental stage (regardless of the actual age of the person).

    ReplyDelete
  12. Phatic language does not convey information, it conveys emotions only (search the literature on it). Many people are capable ONLY of using phatic language. Their brains are incapable of absorbing anyting more than the simplest information and even that information has to be simple, local, hierarchical and personal.

    ReplyDelete
  13. UofT doesn't have a communications department. Or journalism for that matter. I guess we're old school like that.

    I looked at your three phases, and I'm not impressed at all. Firstly, as Larry has said, it sets up scientists as a bunch of dry intellectuals with no idea of how to communicate. And yet everyday, scientists communicate the idea of evolution to undergrads who only have the faintest inkling of what evolution is. From 140 years ago on, many people can recognise Darwin's name and vaguely express what natural selection is. On the Internet, there are many resources like talkorigins or essays on Sandwalk which are accessible to even the most science-ignorant, all also expressed with "conviction", without science frills (except where warranted). In popular culture, sound-bites (your phatic language) about evolution like "survival of the fittest" are copiously abound. So what makes you think that resistance to evolution, which is still culturally ingrained in the face of so much stuff, can be overcome with your nostrums? In fact, scientists have already been doing, in one way or another, everything your prescriptions proffer. So really, what are you trying to add?

    ReplyDelete
  14. Go to the Communication department at your University.

    It's not your fault, but that made me laugh. The communications department at my university is the one real hotbed of creationism here. And it's not just here. John Angus Campbell, anyone? I don't know what it is, but the dismissal of the importance of content to emphasize superficialities of presentation is one of those things that might predispose them that way ... and it's one thing we must avoid.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Comment from the laity:

    Third-level science popularizers constantly blare their rehashes of "science" news, confidently, even in an authoritative-sounding voice: "Studies prove that... coffee is bad for you ... one in every x women is going to get breast cancer ... second hand smoke will/will not kill you ... the real culprit in global warming is ... Drink your milk!"

    And people believe them, act upon those assertions, only to have the same people, a year later, proclaim the opposite. Because they misrepresented the studies by their overconfidence.

    The end result is a loss of respect for scientists and science in general; "Ah, scientists, they're always changing their minds. They don't really know anything."

    To follow the lead of these "communicators" is to become part of the problem. I think it would be a good idea, in contrast, to make a greater effort to get across the idea of the tentativeness of science, the fact that we're feeling our way in the dark, and that the only flashlight we have is in the hands of the scientists.

    I'm dreaming, of course; people do love their certainties!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Dunbar - that is not phatic language. Read the link I provided in my post or search the Web for it.

    You cannot even start talking about natural selection to a person who is still in that developmental stage. 'Earth is round' is difficult enough. Can you say "Earth is round" with conviction?

    It is not about ignorance, and how to treat it with information (that is Phase 3), it is about preparing the minds to be able to accept information of any kind at all.

    The last phase is the easiest - those kids in freshman BIO101 are already (at least partially) rational thinkers - they left their isolated villages and got into college! They can be taught about statistics and uncertainty. They are way beyond their peers (and parents) in mental development.

    OK, how about some CogSci dapartament or Linguistics, if your Comm departments are so lousy....

    WW: That is a real problem. Scientists (or actors posing as scientists) are in commercials and on bad TV shows, selling something or other. I don't know how to fight against that. This still does not eliminate the need to act confident and avoid the talk of uncertainty in the media. The irrational mind does not get information out of your words, only emotion, and it does not like to see wavering - it's fishy.

    ReplyDelete
  17. it is about preparing the minds to be able to accept information of any kind at all.
    Are you saying that there needs to be a cultural shift in how the American people treat science before one can presumably teach it?

    And I did look at your link, and it defines phatic language as: establish or maintain social relationships rather than to impart information, or language used for establishing an atmosphere rather than for exchanging information or ideas.
    Survival of the fittest sounds like a scientific law, which I think strikes a certain atmosphere. It's an atmosphere that clearly denotes a certain science inclusiveness, thus establishing or maintaining social relationships; in other words, it's phatic language. I don't understand how this really applies to communicating science though. Do you want scientists to 100% say evolution is the 'survival of the fittest', while inside their minds they're raging at the over simplification of it?

    You also seem to imply that those outside of the science sphere are very ignorant, from your 'Earth is round' comment. I can say the Earth is round with lots of conviction, as can most people-- perhaps you picked a poor example. Regardless, I think most people have heard of 'survival of the fittest', which communicates the spirit of natural selection if not the scientific truth.

    ReplyDelete
  18. A note to Coturnix:

    You can put all your comments in one post, you know. or perhaps you are trying to help boost Larry's hit rate? :)

    Coturnix said:
    "When dealing with kids (and adults who have not yet made the change to a rational worldview), the only way is to appear to be 100% sure. This is not the audience that gets error-bars, confidence intervals, fine points of philosophy of science, and alternative hypotheses."

    First, as Richard Feynman once said (in "The Meaning of it All") science is all about doubt. Representing it otherwise is not only dishonest, it is counterproductive, as anyone who has ever taught science to the general public (as I have) knows.

    The whole point of teaching science is to encourage people (especially kids) to doubt and to question things. In other words, the point is to encourage them to think for themselves.

    Second, people -- including kids -- are not as stupid as some think they are. They know that nothing is 100% certain and once you start BS'ing them, you have lost them.

    I have read much of what Nisbet and Mooney and others have to say about framing and I have not been particularly (or at all) impressed with what I have seen.

    What seems to be lacking is a very basic understanding of what science is about and of how scientists interact with and actually communictae their ideas to the public.

    -- John B.

    ReplyDelete
  19. PZ said: "The communications department at my university is the one real hotbed of creationism here."

    The plural of "anecdote" is not "data," etc., etc. What does the fact that Behe is a faculty member in Lehigh's chemistry department teach us about the predisposition of chemists to believe in ID? Nothing, I'd submit.

    I think Larry's post has done an excellent job of being sufficiently provocative to get a fine discussion going. I find myself agreeing with both "sides," which, it seems to me, are fleshing out where the boundaries of an agreed-upon middle ground may be found. Though there hasn't been much discussion of this middle ground, let me propose an example and see what the reactions are.

    I've often supposed that one way I might begin to talk with a religious Christian or Jew about evolution is to bring up the Book of Joshua, where it states that the sun stood still ( http://bible.cc/joshua/10-13.htm ). If the person I was speaking to insisted on a geocentric solar system, well, that would be a non-starter. But even in the heart of the Bible Belt, I think the vast majority of those self-identifying as religious would agree that the Earth circles the Sun, not vice versa. From there one might discuss the possibility that what is called Biblical literalism in fact involves interpretation (i.e., the statement that "the Sun stood still" must be interpreted in light of current knowledge of a heliocentric solar system), and go on to talk about how one might interpret Genesis in light of what we currently know about, e.g., evo-devo.

    Why start there, rather than with, say, Sean B. Carroll's books? (Not that they would be a bad place to start.) Because it seems to me that beginning at a place where the other person is comfortable is a good way to try to persuade him or her to follow you at least part way along the journey.

    What do you all think?

    ReplyDelete
  20. Why? You have a daughter who is herself now an accomplished scientist. When she was five, did you explain the details of all the alterniative hypotheses and error bars, etc., or did you make your explanations short, simple and CONFIDENT?

    Coturnix, I like you, read you regularly... But for what it's worth, my answer to this particular question is:

    I have a six year old daughter. And when she asks me about things not particularly confidently known, I don't hedge about uncertainty with her.

    I'll tell her, because she's interested, that yes, astronomers are turning up exoplanets at a prodigious rate, that one of the recent discoveries is interesting because it's at least possible there's liquid water on the surface, but (a) it's a lot of guesses (I don't use the term 'long chain of highly conjectural inferences... this is my only nod to her age) that lead to that particular idea, lots of places to guess wrong, (b) even if there were liquid water there, we don't know that means life, or that that place is anything much like this place, not by a long shot, and (c) many of the planets 'discovered' are themselves guesses, of a sort... tiny wobbles in the star's positions spotted by sensitive instruments which we think means something of a certain weight is in orbit around them... We think we know things like orbital distances and mass of the orbiting objects fairly directly... everything else is at least one guess past those reasonably confident facts...

    I don't do this for any particular ideological purpose, or don't think I do. My daughter does live at a heady cross-section of religions--daddy materialist, mommy of Moslem background, an Anglican priest for a grandmother, and I do hope for her own intellectual self-defense she'll grow up with a healthy sense of what it means to be honest about how well you say you know what you say you know, and a realization that not everyone is quite that honest about it... But this isn't about that.

    It's just about my own honesty. I don't like exaggerating my certainty, not in anything, not even a little. Feels too much like a lie.

    I'd also point out, tho', it's also about the levels of certainty, with me, and what's significant to the answer. And certainly, if/when some creationist loon does bend her ear, I'll be sure to tell her how extremely confident mainstream biologists are that heritable variation is what's going on, here, with natural selection's role at the very least very, very significant to the enteprise (dunno how far I'd get into adaptationist/drift controversies... guess it would depend). And damned right, I'd tell her creationists aren't frequently extremely dishonest people, and apparently they're having a little trouble facing what the evidence is telling everyone else on the planet...

    (It's what I tell a lot of people, about that controversy, incidentally: it's really not much what evolutionary biologists might still have to learn that's the important part of that particular trumped-up 'controversy'... but that we can see very clearly that the creationists zealots are lying--to themselves and to others. Our current theories of descent are likely to be refined/modified in various minor ways, going forward... but 'goddiddit' is an extremely unlikely conclusion, and may quite safely be discarded, now, as a research direction.)

    ReplyDelete
  21. Edit: obviously, 'I'd tell her creationists aren't frequently extremely dishonest people' should read 'aren't frequently extremely honest people'...

    But you knew that.

    Gotta be a little more careful with those wry negative phrasings, I guess.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Aj Milne:

    I knew that. :)

    ..and i agree with what you say. I have taught environmental science to young kids (5tha nd sixth graders) at an environmental ed center and one of the things that I found most important of all was to say "I don't know" when I did not know the answer.

    That accomplishes several things. It reassures kids that adults do not have all the answers (which they already know at an early age!), that they are not being lied to, and it also encourages them to make up their own answers -- ie, to be creative and think for themselves.

    For example, one of the things I did with the kids was to have them look up at the night sky and make up their own constellations and stories about them. I would tell them the names that other people had given them, but only after they had made up their own.

    When I hear someone saying that kids can not deal with the idea that "we are not certain about everything in science", I just cringe.

    -- John B.

    ReplyDelete
  23. It is not only dishonest but is antithetical to science to say that "we know with 100% certainty" when we do not.

    Here's a link to Richard Feynman's thoughts on the Role of Doubt in science

    "If we take everything into account, not only what the ancients knew, but all of what we know today that they didn't know, then I think we must frankly admit that we do not know."

    "But in admitting this, we have probably found the open channel.

    This is not a new idea; this is the idea of the age of reason." -- Richard Feynman

    ReplyDelete
  24. First parents, then peers, then MAYBE we develop individuality. When I teach my sons they have the trust in me to be able to accept less than 100% surety. I/science doesn't know is acceptable. But if i teach other children I cannot compete with their parents indoctrination. If their parents provide 100% assurance through faith then my 'teaching' will not be accepted. Peer groups extend the problem. If the peer group happens to be their congregation/religion that provides 100% assurance through faith then our answers aren't going to have any effect. Its not until individuality begins to happen that people are even going to listen and individuality may NEVER happen. Its a long slow slog.

    ReplyDelete
  25. I have been visiting various blogs for my Term Papers research. I have found your blog to be quite useful. Keep updating your blog with valuable information... Regards

    ReplyDelete