Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Science of Communicating Science - Why Facts Don't Matter

Facts don't matter.

Of course, facts do matter, but not as much as you might think. This is especially true in communicating science to the public and policy-makers. I previously addressed how to communicate climate science to the three pillars of community - other scientists, policy-makers, and the public. Now let's take a broader look.

First of all, what do I mean when I say "facts don't matter?" Obviously, facts are critical and scientists MUST stick to facts when communicating the science. They are our credibility. No "alternative facts" (aka, falsehoods) allowed. And that goes for using facts to intentionally mislead the public, such as is commonly done by the fake "experts" fed to the media by lobbying firms (the recent shameful inclusion of lobbyist William Happer in a recent CNN panel). No matter what the situation, we, as scientists, and as honest people, must always be factually in our communications.

But facts can only get you so far. The idea that countering ignorance or denial with more data is called the "information deficit model." "If only we scientists could simply communicate the science better to the public," says this model, "the public would 'get it' and take action."

It doesn't work. In fact, it may have the opposite effect. This may sound counter-intuitive, but it has been shown scientifically, over and over again. Piling on the facts can actually hurt the communication effort.

If you're into categorizing things, you could easily classify the anti-science crowd into four groups:

  • Ignorant
  • Willfully ignorant
  • Actively deny
  • Actively dishonest

Ignorance is a normal state. We are all ignorant of something, even many things. I've been educated, trained, and have years of expertise in science, but don't ask me to do your plumbing or taxes. We all don't know more than we do know. Most of the time it doesn't matter, and most people don't really care to learn about things that have no relevance to their day-to-day lives. So don't expect everyone to understand the science, nor even try to understand it. All of us relies on experts for nearly every phase of our lives, and science is no exception. If people don't want to learn, they won't.

The willfully ignorant are more difficult. These people seek out confirmation bias, that is, actively listen only to those sources that reinforce their preconceived notions, often tied to their political ideology.

Those that actively deny go a step further. They not only seek out sources confirming their biases, they actively deny all the science that conflicts with those biases. Deniers of climate science, for example, rationalize multigenerational global conspiracies involving all the world's climate scientists and organizations in order to dismiss 100+ years published, peer-reviewed science.

The actively dishonest are people such as the Happer example above. In the CNN segment, Happer gleefully repeats the false talking point that "CO2 is not a pollutant and therefore global warming is a hoax" even though he knows he is intentionally misleading the public. Happer isn't ignorant or stupid, he's being actively dishonest. There are others like him.

So simply providing more data to any of these groups is unlikely to have an effect. Those in the "ignorant" group might learn something new, but likely they won't care enough to do anything or even voice an opinion. Those in the "willfully ignorant" group simply won't listen. Those in the "actively deny" will rationalize their denial. And those in the "actively dishonest" already know the facts, they deny them because they are, either directly or indirectly, paid to do so.

Okay, so providing more factual information isn't going to be enough. How do I communicate the science?

More on that in following posts. Here are some previous tips to get you started.