The Value Of Listening In Science Outreach
    By Hank Campbell | June 27th 2010 01:05 PM | 6 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0® and co-author of "Science Left Behind".

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    Frustrated in dealing with the public?   You are not alone.   It may seem to researchers that the public is either stupid or intentionally ignoring evidence but it's not that one-sided, writes Chris Mooney in the Washington Post.

    Chris generally doesn't think a lot of the science IQ of Americans (and don't even get him started on Republicans!) but he recognizes something more scientists should (and most do here, thus the whole Science 2.0 thing) - making scientifically smarter people does not mean they will always agree with you.

    For example, if you are a string theory advocate, you may not think much of supersymmetry - this may lead you to believe readers here are stupid if there are a lot of articles about quantum field theory and no guest posts by Brian Greene (Brian, we'd love to have you write a guest post, that is just an example of a science disagreement), yet that is not really true.   Physics is an exciting field because there are still big mysteries to argue about and we do here - loudly.   

    Some of non-acceptance of science is political and cultural interest, of course.  Chris points out that Republicans who are skeptical of climate change are likely not stupid, but rather putting the political cart before the science horse.  I could contend that Republicans are more skeptical by nature, if I wanted to put positive spin on that, while a political pundit who sides with conservatives would say Democrats are sheep who will believe anything they are told if it is framed as helping the environment.  Basically, if a Republican had written his article, the framing would have been different, which is the point he is making.

    And he's right in doing so.  There are a subset, outside science and in, of people who, while intelligent, will rationalize ways to disbelieve what a more neutral person might accept as scientifically valid, and climate change is a good example of that.    Skeptics are more likely to be Republicans and it is unlikely the correlation arrow is going the other way, such as that climate change deniers become Republicans.

    On nuclear power, it is primarily Democrats who are anti-science, ignoring modern developments in the technology and the overwhelming success in countries that have adapted more nuclear power.  The protests and anti-science attitude about nuclear power have resulted in more greenhouse gases produced by the US in the last 20 years, which hasn't helped the environment.

    Vaccines are not a political issue but instead a cultural one - as I have pointed out before, both Obama and McCain said the same thing in the 2008 election about the possibility that vaccines cause autism, so it is not political leaning but instead primarily people with kids who have autism looking for any answers that don't involve bad luck and worrying that researchers are hiding incriminating information in return for funding - it's a common thread, the other side is for sale, and the same argument detractors of climate science use, because then you are not anti-science for not accepting something, you are pro-ethics.   Simple rationalization.

    If you have long felt the same way, you're certainly not wrong in thinking some Americans don't know science (Chris really believes that so I think he sees a different audience than we do but he is a journalist so doesn't always deal with science readers) but you're also not wrong in wondering if fellow scientists don't know much about the public and, most importantly, how to deal with the fundamental issues that concern people in an effective way.
    It's good stuff.  Give it a read.


    What is interesting about all the examples you give is that they may not simply be based on a misunderstanding of science, but on a different assessment of what is an acceptable level of risk. 

    Nuclear power is perhaps the best example of this.  It has a pretty good track record in terms of safety and the newer developments are encouraging.  On the other hand, there have indeed been accidents at such plants (the latest being a tritium leak at a plant in southern Vermont earlier this year), and current forms of nuclear energy all produce radioactive wastes that require extremely stable storage methods.  A person who looks at the track record of nuclear energy and thinks about scaling that risk up to 100% of our energy production may not be terribly enthused to switch over from fossil fuels as a permanent solution even if as the risk factors from climate change begin to mount.  (It's easier, after all, to assess the risk of an acute emergency than that of a long-term crisis likely to increase in severity.)  And frankly, the up-front costs of building a new nuclear power plant suggests that the use of this form of energy production is more likely to be viewed as a permanent solution than as a stopgap measure while we develop even better ways to keep our laptops running.
    I certainly understand your point but zealots against nuclear power, like those who refuse to accept climate science, aren't thinking in nuanced ways about acceptable risk, or they would look at the evidence.   France is not a post-apocalyptic wasteland and the additional coal plants the US had to build to offset the decommissioned nuclear ones and the ones that were not built have resulted in the terrific increases in greenhouse gases.    That argument works fine in Europe among green party members yet American environmentalists are unconvinced.  So there are non-evidence reasons in play.
    I have to agree with you on this one, Hank. Third and fourth generation nuclear power plants not only use a lot of the waste material in the generation of electricity, leaving a much smaller amount of the waste material to be stored than their predecessors, but some of that waste material (i.e. cesium) has medical applications in radiology.

    The main criterion in building new nuclear power plants is to build them in areas with relatively low seismic activity--something which is ignored in many case as pointed out by my former professor, Kelvin S. Rodolfo in his paper The Geological Hazards of the Bataan Power Plant. In a word, you do not want to build or recommission rehabilitated nuclear power plants in known seismic zones where Earthquakes and/or volcanism are prevalent. That's just common sense, and yet at the same time is something which in some cases is being ignored. Geology is as much an important consideration in the building or rehabilitation of nuclear plants as the technology itself.

    Nuclear power plants may not be a long-term solution to our energy needs, but they are certainly a viable alternative for the present and near future.


    You see, Hank! Some of us "Democrats" actually do allow our reason to prevail over our emotions! ;-)
    P.S.S. I wish you could get Brian Greene to write a guest post. I really love reading his stuff and listening to him lecture. ;-)
    He writes for New Scientist or something but print columnists don't do things for love and a  magazine can recoup the cost rather easily whereas no paid guest spot would ever pay for itself here, where we let contributors veto ads in a way print does not.
    Oh, I see. Thanks for the explanation, Hank.