Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Denialism and Framing

Mark Hoofnagle sums up his work against denialism, and outlines the need for that work:

1) Well-funded think tanks are capable of derailing a scientific consensus, in this case the consensus on global warming which has existed for nearly 3 decades.
2) The goal of denialists is not to propose an alternative theory that is explanatory and useful, but to create controversy and doubt where it does not exist.
3) These attempts are highly effective despite a complete absence of controversy in the scientific literature. Attacks in the lay press are more than sufficient to create a false debate using an appeal for parity or balanced presentation of ideas.
4) The same strategies used by the tobacco companies to deny the link between cancer and tobacco smoke, and in fact, some of the exact same actors are present in both cases.

These efforts must not be ignored. The methods of denialists must be exposed and attacked, and the sources of denialism must be discredited. [emphasis mine]
I take this as a strong rebuke to Matt Nisbet of Framing Science fame, who is currently wringing his hands over whether Al Gore is an adequate advocate for the climate crisis and urging evolutionary scientists to counter creationism's broad-based body of lies by avoiding conflict, emphasizing the promise of medical advances, or shutting up.

In a recent post, Nisbet quotes extensively from a previous article of his, which issues another mash note to E.O. Wilson's approach to science communication:
We suggest that Wilson's efforts at bridging audiences be carried out systematically. On major issues such as climate change, nanotechnology, and the teaching of evolution, science organizations should work with communication researchers, conducting focus groups, surveys, and experiments that explore how diverse audiences come to understand these topics. Based on this research, messages can be tailored to fit with specific types of media outlets and to resonate with the background of their particular audience. In collaboration with national organizations and their institution's communication professionals, individual scientists can incorporate these messages into their media interviews, their talks to various audiences, and their popular writing.
To be clear, this sounds sensible as far as it goes, but it does not work for every question, and it neglects to consider the source of the problem, namely, the sort of well-funded think tanks that exist to derail science (the ones highlighted by Hoofnagle).

It is not simply a case of Al Gore or Richard Dawkins issuing the wrong sentences in the wrong order. It is significantly a matter of individuals and institutions with vast resources wedded to anti-science ideologies shamelessly using those resources to spread falsehoods. There has been a "controversy" over cigarettes because the tobacco industry has made it so; there has been a "controversy" over anthropogenic global warming because the fossil fuel industries have ginned it up; and there continues to be a "controversy" over evolution because religious zealots have been willing to spend money and time to generate and perpetuate it. These are realities that no amount of subject-changing can obscure.

Replacing Al Gore with a different spokesman won't make the fossil fuels lobby stop paying for junk science that supports their bottom line. If Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, and every other scientist Matt Nisbet doesn't like turned the communicative reins over to the AAAS, the NAS, Matt Nisbet and E.O. Wilson at noon today, there would still be religious fanatics from across the world propagating lies about evolution and seeking to elevate their favorite creation myths to the status of scientific truth.

Science, being a species of free and rigorous scrutiny, wants to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Sometimes this runs afoul of treasured ideologies and cherished income streams. I understand the point that the artful use of communication can help promote the science by avoiding conflicts, in whole or part. I also agree with the point that there are scientific ways to approach this communication. But not all conflict can be wished away, sidestepped, or euphemized.

Sometimes the way to win a fight is to acknowledge that you're in a fight and fight back.

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