Sunday, December 09, 2018

Social Nonscience again

So, prompted by Doug McNeall's tweet, I went and read that much tweeted (and praised) paper by Iyengar and Massey: "Scientific communication in a post-truth society". My expectations weren't high and it was just as bad as I'd feared.

It starts off with a encouraging abstract:
"Here we argue that in the current political and media environment faulty communication is no longer the core of the problem. Distrust in the scientific enterprise and misperceptions of scientific knowledge increasingly stem less from problems of communication and more from the widespread dissemination of misleading and biased information. [...] We suggest that, in addition to attending to the clarity of their communications, scientists must also develop online strategies to counteract campaigns of misinformation and disinformation that will inevitably follow the release of findings threatening to partisans on either end of the political spectrum."
Great. They realise that the problem is not because scientists communicate badly. It's long been obvious to many of us that there are lots of excellent public communicators in science, certainly within climate change. Some are excellent at both research and communication, some make more of a career out of the communication than the science, and that's fine too. Blaming scientists has long been a lazy excuse by those who should know better.

And even better, these social scientists have a recommendation! They actually have a proposal for how to break the policy logjam. Us scientists should "develop online strategies to counteract campaigns of misinformation". Yes! Let's do that! Though my spidey senses are tingling a bit, is this really the scientists' job? We do research and communicate it, I'm not really sure our expertise is in developing communication strategies in an adversarial environment. Sounds to me like that might be a whole new area of research in itself. Well never mind, let's see what they are actually recommending.

[...reads on through several pages of history and analysis relating to scientific communication in a post-truth society, which is interesting but hardly news...]

On to the section entitled "Communicating Science Today". At last, they are going to explain and expand on their recommendation. Aren't they?

Here is the last paragraph in full
"At this point, probably the best that can be done is for scientists and their scientific associations to anticipate campaigns of misinformation and disinformation and to proactively develop online strategies and internet platforms to counteract them when they occur. For example, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine could form a consortium of professional scientific organizations to fund the creation of a media and internet operation that monitors networks, channels, and web platforms known to spread false and misleading scientific information so as to be able to respond quickly with a countervailing campaign of rebuttal based on accurate information through Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media. Of course, this is much easier said than done, and — given what research tells us about how the tribalization of US society has closed American minds — it might not be very effective."
Oh congratulations. The authors have invented groups like Sceptical Science and RealClimate. Sadly, they don't seem to realise that the scientists are more than a decade ahead of them. Granted, they do seem to be talking about something a bit more grandiose than those sites but it would be nice if they'd had some awareness of what was already going on, and perhaps offered some sort of useful critique.  They seem to be moving from a position of blaming scientists for not communicating adequately, to blaming them for not inventing some sort of magical unicorn for which they have no roadmap and which, they admit, probably wouldn't work even if it could be created. This is progress?


Hautbois said...

Similarly, I wonder if they're aware of which does exactly what they seem to describe.

James Annan said...

yes, thanks for the link, I knew there were more groups along similar lines. I guess the authors may be looking for something bigger, with more reach and influence? Though it's hard to be sure, it is after all just make-believe on their part.

David B. Benson said...


...and Then There's Physics said...

I liked that they recognised that it wasn't really because scientists communicate badly, but beyond that it just seemed to be wild hand-waving and little recognition (as you point out) of what has actually already been tried.

(I think this is going to end up being posted under a username I haven't used for a long time, and which I can't seem to easily change. It's ...and Then There's Physics).

Unknown said...

Seems a bit ironic that consensus studies are just such an initiative to counter misinformation (that "there is no scientific consensus", c.f. Luntz memo), and yet "consensus messaging" is often criticised by those interested in public communication of the science of climate change. This seems a rather difficult game to play.

James Annan said...

If you think that's difficult try winning at Brexit :-)

(hint: Kobayashi-maru)

Unknown said...

If only it was a simulation that could be reprogrammed :-(


afeman said...

Do they suggest using blockchain?

David Young said...

I'm not impressed with the paper either. What and who do these disinformation campaigns? Normal politics is mostly about disinformation by everyone involved. There are lots of lies and many people make their living doing "whataboutism" to distract from their own sides' disinformation by combing the writings of their opponents for inconsistencies or statements that might offend someone and then publicizing and exaggerating their importance. This is just normal hardball politics. If the lavishly funded Center for American progress, Al Gores public relations outfits, Barach Obama and Tom Steyer, not to mention a press that hypes the severity of every weather event and blames it on climate change can't get the message out, something else is preventing the forces of virtue from triumphing. Billions are being spent already on "countering disinformation" using more disinformation.

I personally think a more likely culprit is just general distrust of experts based on many years of experience with experts telling the public one thing after another that often contradicted each other. We were told for 60 years by scientists and governments to eat less fat and more carbohydrates. That harmed the heath of millions of course. And this is just one example among many many others.

Part of the problem here is the drumbeat of scary stories in the press who like to exaggerate in order to generate clicks or sell their yellow sheets. These are in many cases prompted by misleading or exaggerated press releases by academics.

And then there is the replication crisis. There is no longer any doubt that there are a lot of wrong or biased studies and papers out there, perhaps 50%?

Scientists perhaps should be a little self-reflective and try to take some reforms to increase the trust of the public in institutions that are rather badly tarnished at the moment. Refusing to admit that there is a problem or just hoping it will go away if you refuse to talk about it is wishful thinking, not a strategy.