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Motivated reasoning: Fuel for controversies, conspiracy theories and science denialism alike


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Conspiracy cartoonPieces of information, disputed and not, can be woven very quickly into competing explanatory narratives. Press the right buttons, then it can be lightning fast to order them into a line leading to this or that logical conclusion.

Those narratives can cause feuds that won’t quit and entrenched positions of extreme certitude from which people can’t budge. These days, it seems to be accompanied by a trend not just towards uncivil discourse, but a reveling in the power of incivility. As though an increase in aggression – as a first resort even – can make our society better.

It’s always been understandable to me, when people choose that path. In my early days as an activist, I went there too, ignoring to some extent the difficulty with reconciling that with my deep admiration for the heroes of non-violent action: non-violence in word and deed. Like many traversing the same issue within the context of a great desperate challenge of my generation of activists, I found it painful at first to try to reach for the integrity of other ideals from a vulnerable place.

I still don’t find it easy. Nor am I particularly great at it, although I seem to have less cause for bouts of shame and regret as the decades go by. Experience ultimately came into sync with my aspirations: although far harder than whipping up frenzy, non-aggression is usually ultimately more powerful.

Like many in the USA, especially perhaps those of us not allowed to go to work right now or with reason to feel anxious about the future, I’m particularly pre-occupied by these issues at the moment, and the various impediments to clear, community-spirited thinking.

And then researchers serendipitously dropped another relevant study on cognitive bias into the literature. Lewandowsky, Gignac and Oberauer conducted a study of people in the USA. It’s here in PLOS One.

They discuss a way that science communication processes can sometimes backfire. When the views of people seen as experts converge on an issue, it has a strong influence on other people’s thinking. So generally, a strong scientific consensus can be convincing to many others, too. They cite climate science as an example where consensus among scientists may influence climate change denial.

However, in people who are prone to conspiracist thinking, strong consensus around science can have the reverse effect: it can be seen as evidence that they’re all in cahoots. As happens for some people with vaccination, say. Presenting yet more facts or another study could paradoxically confirm their rejection of science.

The study’s authors describe conspiracist thinking as a cognitive style that doesn’t have to conform to expectations of coherence or consistency: its “explanatory reach” is therefore greater than competing scientific theories. Yet, it can also provide an explanation of why a consensus is wrong.

Photo of scientific meeting

Scientific consensus can be convincing - except when it's not

Lewandowsky and his colleagues surveyed Americans’ attitudes to two issues where views on science are polarized: climate science and GM foods. Based on their sample, conspiratorial ideation could, they conjecture, be a more consistently explanatory factor in science denialism than people’s educational levels or world views.

Cultural or political world view and conspiracist thinking may be close relatives. They could both be seen as motivated reasoning, according to Lewandowsky: “Motivated reasoning refers to the discounting of information or evidence that challenges one’s prior beliefs accompanied by uncritical acceptance of anything that is attitude-consonant.”

World view can be associated with some types of science rejection – but not others. Thus, people with a “conservative” political world view could be more likely to reject climate science than “liberals,” but less likely, say, to reject childhood vaccination. And people with a more “conservative” world view who are more highly educated could be more skeptical of climate science than those who have fewer years of education.

How might it be countered? One of the articles they point to on this question, is another Lewandowsky paper – about misinformation and countering it. Misinformation, it’s argued there, can be worse than ignorance. When you’re not informed, you could fall back on heuristics that could have a lower chance of leading you astray than when you’re misinformed. And it might be easier to acquire information than to wipe away misinformation.

When people have an organized explanatory narrative, they may need a complete functional narrative to replace it, not just isolated bits of information that break the internal logic. A logical and respectful explanation of how the mistaken belief arose might be useful. And hearing it repeatedly might help. Lots of food for thought and experimental research in science communication. Learning how to effectively correct misinformation and stay reasonable is feeling pretty urgent this week.

~~~~

The Statistically-Funny cartoon is my original work (Creative Commons, non-commercial, share-alike license).

The photo of participants of the 50th Anniversary of the Global Carbon Dioxide Record Symposium and Celebration in Hawaii 2007 is from the photo library of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), via Wikimedia Commons.

Correction: On 15 October, a comment by Robert Starkey alerted me to the fact that I had made an inaccurate assumption that consensus among scientists had reduced climate change denial. I’m grateful for the feedback and the sentence now specifically refers to the findings of three studies cited by Lewandowsky.

Update 21 March 2014: Concerns about potential for defamation actions led to a journal’s removal of an article – by Lewandowsky and colleagues: note, it is not a retraction. It is now available here, with a notice that reads in part: “This article is now posted on a website of the University of Western Australia, which has come to a different assessment of the risk posed by this article and reaffirms its commitment to academic freedom.”

(I have an additional full post on this general topic in the pipeline.)

The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here at Absolutely Maybe are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Hilda Bastian About the Author: Hilda Bastian likes thinking about bias, uncertainty and how we come to know all sorts of thing. Her day job is making clinical effectiveness research accessible. And she explores the limitless comedic potential of clinical epidemiology at her cartoon blog, Statistically Funny. Follow on Twitter @hildabast.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. singing flea 4:49 pm 10/14/2013

    No matter how well written and researched an article on science is, it will never make sense to people who don’t have the education to understand the language or the math. The best scientist and educated individuals can do, who do understand the science, is to strive to get a majority consensus in congress to enact laws to avoid the worst consequences of the actions of the most ignorant.

    Unfortunately efforts to educate the masses now depends on a press that is funded by advertisers who’s ulterior motives are not based on science but rather quarterly profits.

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  2. 2. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 5:48 pm 10/14/2013

    Totally agree about the importance of education, singing flea. But people can learn new science especially, in a variety of different ways. A solid foundation, interest and then media literacy too is critical. Inoculation, if you like, against the media influence you describe is a critical part of a good foundation.

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  3. 3. ultimobo 5:53 pm 10/14/2013

    we tend to start with our prejudice – then select facts to support it, while carefully/willfully ignoring anything to the contrary

    given this ‘gut-feeling’ bias/belief cannot be overcome by simple logic – perhaps some exploration of the emotional side of belief could offer explanations for extreme views, e.g. the conservative tendency to display ‘disgust’.

    Childhood/single traumatic experiences can etch permanent pathways in the brain – I’m not suggesting extreme conservatives have had traumatic experiences (?) – it may be that they were simply born sociopaths (just kidding – I hope!)

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  4. 4. Jim Macafee 6:17 pm 10/14/2013

    Richard Leakey, son of two of the preeminent paleoanthropologists of the 20th century, and himself now an honored practitioner, recently said that within 30 years the evidence for evolution will be so conclusive that there will be no more doubters. Silly boy. To the remaining deniers, evidence means nothing.

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  5. 5. rkipling 6:21 pm 10/14/2013

    Ms. Bastian,

    So, as someone not educated in the sciences, you advocate for science education? I’ve read your CV.

    It’s fine with me. A little truth in advertising doesn’t hurt though.

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  6. 6. Jim Macafee 7:10 pm 10/14/2013

    I am old now. But when I was a boy among the Baptists, I saw how profoundly perfidious the mind can be, and knew that my best hope was to find tools to keep me uninflated. I keep ever-present on my mental desk top now five things: the picture of Anne Frank, still innocent and expectant; the picture of August Landmesser, a lone dissenter (soon to die) in a sea of Nazi “patriots”; a pointer to Carl Sagan’s “Mote of Dust’ video; the Richard III soliloquy “Come, let us sit upon the ground”; and the reminder Caesar’s slave whispered to him during a triumphant celebration: “Memento mori” – remember also that you will die.

    We could name dozens of science’s wisest men who have found their own motivators to authentic humility, and write so that I, a curious layman, am able and eager to absorb what they have to say. Great wisdom is useless without the art to communicate it.

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  7. 7. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 7:49 pm 10/14/2013

    Hope so, ultimobo! Otherwise it’s all too bleak (and I’m gonna need a lot more chocolate!). But yes, the emotions have got to be having a big impact. I was very impressed by the Nussbaum’s work, Upheavals of thought: the intelligence of emotions. She argues that emotions are a kind of intelligent feedback/thought that happens too quickly for us to be aware of. An interesting concept anyway.

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  8. 8. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 7:50 pm 10/14/2013

    Well, there are plenty of countries in which that is true, Jim – including the one I grew up in. I’m out of my league on this one!

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  9. 9. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 7:58 pm 10/14/2013

    rkipling, I think I had a good school-based science education, to be honest. It was actually very advanced, because of the schools I went to. But even if that weren’t the case, that’s no reason I couldn’t advocate for it. I was impoverished too for large parts of my life – that doesn’t mean I can’t advocate for people to have enough money for their needs. What it does do is sometimes curtail people’s life opportunities, and I would with no hesitation always wish that others could have a better childhood than mine. As to my qualifications now: turns out there are more ways to learn than being in school – and certainly, everyone who leaves higher education doesn’t stop learning afterwards. As to truth in advertising: the fact that you can read my CV would suggest I’m being transparent enough. I linked to my bio (of which I have 2 on the site and a third elsewhere) within this post where I thought it was relevant. I said I was an activist as a young person, not an academic. So this one doesn’t bother me.

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  10. 10. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 8:02 pm 10/14/2013

    How very beautiful, Jim. Thank you. I’m going to follow up the ones among there that I’m not familiar with. “Memento mori” reminds me of one of the rituals I loved when I was a Catholic child. On Ash Wednesday, you’d line up, the priest would rub a spot of ash on your forehead and say “Remember man that you are dust, to dust you shall return.” I always found it talismanic and comforting, for some reason. I’m not sure why. Do you write somewhere that I could read it?

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  11. 11. rkipling 9:36 pm 10/14/2013

    When you claim people who are politically conservative are more likely to deny there is climate change, that reveals your own bias. Without a real background in science, your own views on climate change and what can actually be done about it are informed by your political beliefs.

    It seems you have conflated conservatism on fiscal matters with religious fundamentalism. As an agnostic myself, I assure that is not always or even usually the case.

    From what I have seen on the environmental blogs, there is a broad segment of the population lacking any meaningful knowledge of science. This seems to be independent of political affiliation. I suspect you only consider those with whom you disagree as ignorant of science.

    Given your current job it is likely that you fully support Obamacare. There is no need to argue its merits. After it collapses under its own weight, take some time and evaluate the contribution of your activism.

    I have no ill will toward you. I’m sure your intentions were and are noble.

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  12. 12. Jim Macafee 10:45 pm 10/14/2013

    In a way I was lucky to spend a couple of years in a Catholic orphanage, because I saw that there were both good and wicked people in both places, but that their world views were daft. I don’t have much good to say, now, about any kind of orthodoxy, but find myself admiring the new pope, for saying “Who am I to judge?” How refreshing, and how contrary to the self-righteousness and judgmentalism that seems almost universal among them! And now he won’t go live in the palace, or wear the red shoes? This is interfering with my regular rant, and I’m too old for all this change. Is nothing sacred?

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  13. 13. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 11:26 pm 10/14/2013

    Oh, I see what you meant then, rkipling. OK, it wasn’t my claim: this comes from the paper (see the link) – most of it was quoting the findings of the study, although I think there was one finding about vaccination that they were quoting a different study in the discussion section. I didn’t discuss my own views on climate change: I don’t see how you could know what they would be from that post.

    I didn’t conflate conservatism on fiscal matters with religious fundamentalism: you should perhaps read the study. It’s worthwhile and thought-provoking.

    I cannot imagine on what basis you could presume I would regard people as ignorant because they didn’t agree with my views on science, rkipling. Perhaps you might like to refer back to my CV and see that I was a consumer advocate for a couple of decades in Australia (in roles to which I had to be elected by constituencies who wouldn’t take kindly to someone who regarded them as ignorant): I wouldn’t have lasted a fraction of that time if my attitude was like that.

    What an odd assumption about Obamacare: I can’t for the life of me see what this post has to do with health insurance. My job is a scientific one unrelated in any way to health insurance. As I’ve only been in the US for two years, and am not a citizen, and cannot for the life of me understand how any activism I did a decade ago in another country could be regarded as a contribution to Obamacare. But thanks for giving me the benefit of the doubt on the motive front.

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  14. 14. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 11:37 pm 10/14/2013

    Thought of a little kid in an orphanage makes me sad, Jim, and I wish that so many of us didn’t encounter wickedness already as children. Yes, the inconsistencies between the different belief systems do get you thinking! “Who am I to judge?” was the really astonishing one, and the non-luxury of the accommodation. Perhaps you could simple recycle the rant to be applied to some other sanctimonious flock shepherd? There must unfortunately still be lots of candidates. Although for me, I’d want to see some change in relation to women’s rights and women’s health before I’d let him totally off the hook.

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  15. 15. kirkMmaxey 8:13 am 10/15/2013

    There are subdivisions within each constituency of what are called “deniers” including some who are scientifically astute, but nonconforming. Every issue of science comes with an attached political battle, and it’s the political implications that motivate Opponents (A much more accurate word than denier.) Some opponents of GM foods understand the nature of the science and that the risks are small and theoretical, but they are strongly motivated by political resistance to corporate agribusiness domination. Climate change, or its absence, is hardly debatable, as the measurements speak for themselves. Considerable bias exists in the reporting of these measurements, or we would be hearing more inquiries into the fact that global warming ceased about 12 years ago. No models predicted that, nor do they predict when or if it will resume. Again, the politics of climate change policy are the main motivator for scientifically informed people who do not believe, against this backdrop of uncertainty, that massive governmental interventions in the name of global climate are warranted or wise.

    It’s not surprising that those who oppose large business as a political reflex segregate into the anti-GMO group, and those who oppose large government segregate into the anti-climate intervention group.

    Vaccinations represent an even more complicated set of risk management choices, with physicians often making recommendations to patients that are of benefit to the population as a whole but detrimental to each specific recipient, conditioned on what all of the rest of the population chooses to do. Too complex to handle here. :-)

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  16. 16. Sisko 8:49 am 10/15/2013

    Hilda Bastian clearly demonstrates an example of motivated reasoning when she writes:

    “Climate science is an example where growing consensus among scientists reduced the influence of climate change denial.”

    You believe things to “absolutely” be true when in fact there is growing uncertainty in the conclusions of the IPCC’s reliance on models that have been demonstrated to be inaccurate.
    Hilda- what do you BELIEVE there is a growing consensus regarding in climate science? What evidence is there to support your belief?

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  17. 17. jayjacobus 9:46 am 10/15/2013

    Tell the truth. Have you seen the first hand reports and validated the methodologies or are you simply following the crowd?

    Psychological analyses apply to both sides of a
    dispute. But, in the end, they are simply an (unscientific) way of casting doubt on the opposition.

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  18. 18. geojellyroll 11:57 am 10/15/2013

    The author probably can’t draw a simple carbom atom, let alone a carbon dioxide molecule…yet she talks about bias in accepting a position on an issue?

    The irony is dripping.

    Hint…science is about methodology and not consensus, deniers, opinion or ‘whatever’. Unless when has a basis to judge the methodoloy we are all equally opinionated bystanders. I have 7 years of university educatioon and have been in the sciences for almost 40 years…yet have almostzero undestanding of the science of climate change.

    It’s amazing how the author is an instany judge and expert.

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  19. 19. geojellyroll 12:06 pm 10/15/2013

    All that education but I can’t spell on an Ipod.

    rkipling. True. I am an atheist so get a kick out of conservative Creationists….but, then get an equal kick out of liberals who deny that that races can have different intelligent curves, etc. We ALL have our scientific blind spots.

    However,99.9% of scoienctist work in non ideological fields. Fundamentalists use chemistry and physics to buld rockets and whacky liberals use cultured antibiotics to fight infection. The blindspots have zero impact on most science

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  20. 20. singing flea 5:19 pm 10/15/2013

    Quote from rkipling, “Given your current job it is likely that you fully support Obamacare.”

    This is exactly the kind of illogical conclusion that just goes to reinforce my contention that you can’t teach science to people who lack the ability to understand the language or do the math.

    The fact is that people who are politically conservative are more likely to deny climate change. This is not the political rantings of a radical liberal and it does not implicate that the writer of this article is a proponent of a particular piece of legislation on health insurance. It is simple a fact to formulate a line of reasoning.

    It is this kind of uninformed rebuttal that that is the very basis of conspiracy theory. If one can conclude that a particular ‘fact’ he or she doesn’t like, means something entirely unrelated, then it is an easy leap to say, “Therefore, anthropogenic global warming science is all just a plot to make money and not based on science.” One of the first things they teach you in a debate class is not to let emotion skew the facts. It is your interpretation of the facts that will win or loose an argument.

    These are the same kinds of people that would say,”All liberals like Obamacare.” The irony is that there is no such thing as Obamacare in the first place. It is product of ignorance and to make that statement in the first place and betrays the speakers emotions while at the same time shows a lack of understanding of the real issue. The ACA was a laws passed by both houses of congress and upheld by the Supreme court, not Obama. President Obama heads the administrative branch.

    I am a liberal in most political viewpoints, but I don’t care for the Affordable Care Act simply because I believe it should be a states rights issue. I must however admit that I am prejudiced in this belief because I live in a liberal dominated state where a similar health insurance system has worked for decades under Hawaii State law, not because I am influenced by conservative media. Hawaii also has some of the strictest gun laws in the country. I choose to look at the facts, I.E. Hawaii has the healthiest population of every state in the union, while at the same time has one of the lowest crime rates and lowest unemployment rates in the country. I chose to move to Hawaii 40 years ago for this reason as opposed to say, Alabama or Texas. That is an American right and should be based on my experience and knowledge, not political opinions.

    These are all facts that anyone who cares to research can verify, not just a blind point of view based on prejudice and peer pressure.

    What all people should be doing is sorting out the facts and doing the math. It is too bad so few actually do that anymore.

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  21. 21. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 5:37 pm 10/15/2013

    Thank you, Sisco – you’re right. I did jump to a conclusion based on my own perception, not evidence. In fact, what the authors said was, it had been shown that it could have an influence. I looked at the underlying references, and changed the sentence. I’ve acknowledged your comment in the correction notice. Happy to change the wording of the correction though if you see a problem or have further feedback. Thanks for catching that and taking the time to point it out. I appreciate it.

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  22. 22. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 5:55 pm 10/15/2013

    Jayjacobus: no, I didn’t go as far as checking the first hand reports, or validating the methodologies. But I did critically appraise the methodology before I chose to regard it as reliable and discuss the paper, and I did a brief search for other similar studies or a review of studies like it. (I didn’t find any, but I didn’t search extensively.) In several places, I used less certain language than the authors had done, to try to calibrate it to the limitations of the study. An example, where I also sought to indicate uncertainty, which for me methodologically was based on the fact that I couldn’t identify a second study like this: “Based on their sample, conspiratorial ideation could, they conjecture, be a more consistently explanatory factor in science denialism than people’s educational levels or world views.”

    I agree that psychological analyses of people who have certain beliefs, or make certain choices, are often applied in that way – not only to cast doubt on or denigrate opponents, but sometimes for other purposes, such as justifying limiting people’s rights. The reverse is also done: to justify privileging a position, or group. “Personality type” literature is prone to that. But that they are misapplied on occasion does not, I think, discredit the entire of field of enquiry into cognitive processes, nor theoretical work in other areas such as theory to underpin decision-making, communication or behavior change interventions. These are major areas – everything from investigating ways to help people quit smoking through to ways of reducing people’s anxiety before surgical procedures or addressing reasons for rejecting or not adhering to medications.

    You’ve pointed to a very serious problem: we could talk all day about this – and then some! I shall put it on my list of things to post on in future. Thanks!

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  23. 23. Sisko 5:58 pm 10/15/2013

    Hilda

    I appreciate the feedback and honest response.

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  24. 24. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 6:10 pm 10/15/2013

    Whoa, geojellyroll! Are you picking on the limitations of my drawing skills? ;) No, I guess that’s not really a comment about my artwork, is it?, given the tone of what follows. I could indeed draw a carbon atom and a molecule. But, like you, despite decades working “in the sciences”, I know very little about the science of climate change. So I wouldn’t write about the science of climate change either. The point that people who know relatively little about an area doesn’t limit their belief in their own authority bothers me a lot, too – although having an opinion, and being perfectly entitled to do so, is another thing.

    This post is about something else, though. And it’s an area where I believe I do have expertise. The theory and practice of communication and influencing behavior change has been an underlying area of my work for several decades. Indeed, for several years my main work was leading an international group of academics evaluating the effectiveness of communication interventions. Why people believe what they do in relation to science and health has been an area of literature I’ve followed since my 20s. Whether we’re talking about climate science, GM, vaccination, fluoride, agent Orange or any other topic as examples, the theories and methodologies in terms of confirmation bias or cognition are cross-cutting ones.

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  25. 25. rkipling 6:19 pm 10/15/2013

    Sisko,

    I’m sure Ms. Bastian is a good person. And Australian accents are interesting. There isn’t any point in giving her a difficult time. Asking a self-admitted activist for objectivity is like asking a snake to juggle. (I’m not calling anyone a snake here.)

    Activists enjoy a serenity and clarity of purpose you and I may never know. They are like the “Blues Brothers”. They are on a mission from God.

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  26. 26. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 6:22 pm 10/15/2013

    Geojollyroll, I nearly ditched the comment on – as I warn here, I will block comments that would make this blog an unpleasant to visit. The comment about race is an unacceptable one to me, but also one I don’t want engage with. If anyone argues that I should block it, I’ll do it. You made a really important point general though, and I don’t want to discourage you – but would you mind treading carefully on matters about people themselves? I’d really appreciate it.

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  27. 27. rkipling 6:25 pm 10/15/2013

    Ms. Bastian,

    Don’t take all the comments to heart. This can be a tough crowd.

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  28. 28. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 6:44 pm 10/15/2013

    rkipling: Accent? I don’t have an accent! ;) (Well, it’s rather a strong one actually.)

    I think everyone should demand objectivity from activists, self-admitted or otherwise. I have a clarity of purpose, that’s true, at any given time, but it’s to try to make things better. Consequently, objectivity is an absolute necessity. Serenity, though – no. Early in my 20s as a maternity activist I had to come to the painful conclusion that in a major part of my activism, I had advocated in a way that contributed to great harm. Sometimes I think 30 years later I’m still trying to atone for it. I certainly work hard to preventing doing that again, and indeed my work since then has been focused on how you can avoid making those mistakes. It was totally ideologically driven: hence my interest in the influences on understanding and belief. But you’re right: it was about as hard a transition to make as being a snake learning to juggle. Isn’t for everyone, but it was for me.

    Thanks for adding a “Blues Brothers” reference to my blog.

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  29. 29. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 6:50 pm 10/15/2013

    Thanks rkipling – I won’t take it to heart. Although some things do sting for a bit. Definitely worth it, though. I appreciate a tough crowd. Keeps you on your toes and increases the chances of your BS being detected.

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  30. 30. genevehicle 8:05 pm 10/15/2013

    Hilda
    Wonderful post. I am glad there are people studying the thinking behind science denialism. It is a growing epidemic in this country, and a solution is sorely needed.
    All too often, I find myself giving in to my own frustration and venting more vitriol than substance in defense of what I understand to be good science. While it may fleetingly feel good to do so, I agree, it is ultimately counterproductive.
    I believe we need more people capable of effectively, and artfully, communicating to the general population the events occurring at the frontiers of human understanding. As we push those frontiers outwards, the discoveries made, and their implications, become ever-more abstract and removed from our daily lives. I believe these ever-increasing abstractions, and the equally obscure methodologies used to extract them from the unknown, must be a contributing factor to the increasing phenomenon of science denialism. As always, education is key. And doing so in a constructive way is probably the best inoculation.

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  31. 31. Jim Macafee 8:25 pm 10/15/2013

    I really admire your apparent poise and grace, knowing that it also must require you to often bite your tongue. And I understand your reservations about Catholicism, at the same time that I appreciate the incremental improvement, which is hard to believe. You certainly landed on a topic that has provided lots of examples of itself in the comments! If there were a god, the first thing I’d beg for is that he/she/it stop me from reading comment!

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  32. 32. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 10:01 pm 10/15/2013

    Thanks, gene vehicle/tod! Yes, it certainly seems to be taking up a lot of the public discourse. But you can’t force it: people often just shut off or rebel, and fair enough too.

    Good points – increasing abstraction is hard to communicate, but hadn’t thought of it in quite that way. I try to do statistical/effectiveness concept cartoons over at my personal blog, and I’ve got complex abstractions I’ve wrestled with and find extremely hard to work out a way to make it easy to grasp quickly. Because that’s another thing: people have little time when there’s so much competing for their attention. Tough. And it really does feel as though people’s (and society’s) attention spans are getting shorter, doesn’t it? Don’t know if it’s true, but it feels like it.

    Journalism is a key way of improving public knowledge, but instead, that “there’s two sides to every story” gives a sense of false equivalence & credibility, which is part of the problem. More science education for journalists would be good, that’s for sure. I’m part of the faculty of a once-a-year “boot camp” for journalists about the science of evaluating health care, and it seems like a great thing to do. Also makes you see, how much it’s needed.

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  33. 33. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 10:28 pm 10/15/2013

    Thanks, Jim. That comes from years of consumer/disability advocacy: it was a whole lot of accountability, from a great diversity of people, often who were hurting a lot or have very big chips on their shoulders that made it hard to sift through. You can’t represent people if you don’t understand what they’re telling you or miss the important point. When it comes to my writing, it’s wonderful to get to see how people interpreted what you said.

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  34. 34. GreenKing 3:50 am 10/16/2013

    Hilda, I am afraid that if you enter into this debate at all, a thick skin is required. In particular, if you write about “science denialism” and “rejection of science”, you are already yourself engaging in unpleasant mischaracterisation of a whole class of people.
    Your blog is already “an unpleasant place to visit” (#27).
    This is another illustration of your lack of self-awareness and lack of objectivity.

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  35. 35. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 7:41 am 10/16/2013

    Yes, GreenKing, discussing this area generally, or any topic that has become a substantial battleground, requires a thick skin. And my blog can’t be a pleasant place for everybody either – nowhere that ventures into discussion on topics people care a lot about ever could be all sunshine and bluebirds tweeting. And I blog about my thoughts, therefore I am a very opinionated person.

    But nor do I want to deter people who have provocative things to say, so in #26 I was trying to explain firstly that loaded blanket statements about race overstep the boundaries for me – and I’m going to moderate according to my definition of too unpleasant. It’s my prerogative in this little corner of the internet, and I do block comments. I don’t like to do it though.

    Your comment (#34) is a good example: I think it’s a tad nasty. And I also think you make a really important point. The terms “science denialism” and “rejection of science” are often used pejoratively, I agree. I tried to think of better terms that describe a category of strongly held opinion, but I couldn’t. I don’t think I characterized the class of people though: I didn’t use the variants of that language that do that – or at least, I hope I didn’t. If you can point out where I did in the post, I’ll re-phrase it.

    I was uncomfortable with the “conservatives” and “liberals” in this context, which is why they had the air quotes in this post – a clumsy attempt to indicate the respect I hold for people when they’re being categorized. I don’t know of less loaded language for the beliefs though.

    The denial/rejection being discussed here is a phenomenon that’s not just about critique or analysis. How have others described it in a way that’s not pejorative or dismissive? If there’s a way of grasping at this phenomenon that shows more respect, I’d like to do it. But it’s hard to get around the fact that in my opinion, the phenomenon is a real problem that does at times cause significant harm to society and threatens/ends people’s lives.

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  36. 36. Sisko 9:50 am 10/16/2013

    Hilda’s interaction with readers is a quite refreshing cahnge here at Scientific American. It is contrasted with David Wogan who does just the opposite and posts opinion pieces/propaganda and doesn’t allow any comments.

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  37. 37. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 10:51 am 10/16/2013

    Sisko – thanks for the compliment, it’s good to know you think I’m on a good track. I will do my best, but there’ll be times I’m pushed for time in the short-term and it could take a while. I’m finding it very valuable (and I do like to talk!). And don’t speak too soon either – I’m new at this gig. Wait for the long-term outcomes.

    But I’m not comfortable about the reference to someone specific. I think turning off comments is a perfectly valid thing to do, that requires no defense. These days, there are enough venues for everyone to express their opinions.

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  38. 38. sault 12:13 pm 10/16/2013

    The problem with motivated reasoning is that it can allow people to dismiss entire fields of study that come to conclusions that do not conform to their preexisting beliefs or to cherry-pick the conclusions of certain fields and / or take those conclusions out of context. My experience discussing things on this site has exposed me to a lot of motivated reasoning in action. I have posted piles of scientific papers, studies and expert conclusions only to have them ignored by those who just KNOW that all those scientists and experts are wrong even though the justification for these beliefs is paper thin to nonexistent. Some of the usual suspects in this regard have posted on this very article.

    While I am familiar with the adage “If you choose to debate a fool, the discussion will merely be two fools talking past each other”, I continue to post rebuttals to all the ignorance and misinformation I see so that others that read these comments aren’t misled by it.

    The funny thing is, the “motivated reasoners” are happy to use computers, the Internet and a whole host of other modern conveniencies that have come out of the Scientific Method and peer-review, but as soon as the outputs of these processes conflict with their beliefs, all of a sudden they are suspect and all sorts of unscientific sources and methods can somehow disprove established science.

    I blame the sorry state of science and critical thinking education in the USA. I also blame the media’s failure to adequately cover and explain exactly where the science stands on certain issues, preferring to frame everything as a “he said / she said” political battle in order to keep eyeballs glued to the screen. This has caused millions of Americans to think the conclusions of over a century of climate science and observations are completely invalidated by a bunch of fossil fuel company PR laundered through front groups, for example.

    If we could just agree to live in the same reality and take into account the ENTIRE scientific discussion on the issues facing us today, we wouldn’t have such a problem. But as long as we have millions of people that don’t understand how scientific understanding progresses, we will continue to prove Mark Twain’s observation that “A lie can go around the world before the truth can even get its pants on.”

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  39. 39. Sisko 1:24 pm 10/16/2013

    Hilda
    It is strictly my opinion, but it seems that many Scientific American articles are written with a strong bias towards not just acceptance of IPCC positions, but of trying to belittle other positions. The majorities of these articles are actually short on the science and tend to act as propaganda to try to convince the relatively uninformed reader that “the science is settled and we must do something immediately”.

    David Wogan is a SA writer who has recently changed his position and now writes articles that exhibit the behavior I referenced, but he has just recently eliminated the possibility for those of us who actually know the science to point out where he is being less than accurate.

    There have been examples of others here exhibiting different behavior. David Beillo (who strongly believes that action needs to be taken immediately)recently had an extended exchange with me on the topic of acceptance of the IPCC’s conclusions and the readers seemed to find it to be informative.

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  40. 40. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 2:27 pm 10/16/2013

    Sault, agree with you, and it’s beautifully put. Not entirely though, which is part of what makes impasses so difficult. And each time I think I’ve learned what the answers might be from scholars in dissent, I see something happen where I think, well, what now? I think, though, we are all motivated reasoners: it’s only a question of degree. And we need to get as good at seeing it in ourselves as we at seeing it in others. Science isn’t usually clearcut, either. So it’s particularly tough.

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  41. 41. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 2:31 pm 10/16/2013

    It’s hard and it matters: those are the main things we all agree on, I guess, Sisko. I am frustrated by over-certainty, everywhere. There is a very sad shortage of doubt about the place. Which is what I hope is communicated by the banner of blog – at least, that’s what I was trying for. Doubt doesn’t get enough praise and is sadly very under-rated.

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  42. 42. davidwogan 4:09 pm 10/16/2013

    Hi Sisko, you can always send comments and feedback my way via email: david.m.wogan@gmail.com or on Twitter: @davidwogan. I’m open to posting reader feedback and comments on the blog if I think they constructively add to the conversation.

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  43. 43. M Tucker 5:44 pm 10/16/2013

    “There is a very sad shortage of doubt about the place.”

    Considering the title of this piece a couple of examples would be wonderful Hilda.

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  44. 44. Jim Macafee 6:47 pm 10/16/2013

    Jefferson said that when critical thinking is abandoned by an opponent, one’s only remaining effective weapon is ridicule. Works for me. And it’s for the audience to appreciate, because the opponent cannot.

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  45. 45. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 11:14 pm 10/16/2013

    Good idea, M Tucker! Thanks – will add a post on this to my “to do” list.

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  46. 46. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 11:16 pm 10/16/2013

    Well, I guess that’s from the debating time, Jim, so it would be appropriate to the “medium.” As long as it’s ridicule of content, not people.

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  47. 47. jayjacobus 9:32 am 10/17/2013

    M. Tucker

    There is a sad shortage of scientific analysis.

    And sadly there is an abundance of opinionated rhetoric which seems not be supported by good methodologies.

    I for one prefer “skeptic” to “denier” because I am unconvinced by the rhetoric.

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  48. 48. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 11:22 am 10/17/2013

    Thanks so much, jayjacobus. I think that’s probably a subset of something else, isn’t it?, but everyone gets lumped into a pot. But I’m grateful to make sure I use that terminology more than the other.

    I’ve been thinking about what jim said about ridicule, and my own relationship to it – especially since I’m a cartoonist. I try to avoid the really savage in my cartoons, and use it because it’s a great way to communicate. Yet…. Along with various suggestions that came in these comments, and M Tucker’s suggestion, I think a great thing would be to see this post as needing a second post to sit alongside it, looking at the other side of this coin. And I shall fasten my seatbelt for that ride! (Don’t hold your breath, though – I have several other topics I need to tackle first.)

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  49. 49. M Tucker 11:50 am 10/17/2013

    Hilda thanks for the response and your tireless attention to this post. I can be patient and I look forward to your next post no matter the subject.

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  50. 50. jayjacobus 2:10 pm 10/17/2013

    If you plan to use well-supported, unbiased data, a change in perspective will be meaningful. Otherwise it will just be questionable rhetoric with a different twist.

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  51. 51. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 5:00 pm 10/17/2013

    You’re welcome, M Tucker, and thank you! I’m enjoying it.

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  52. 52. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 5:04 pm 10/17/2013

    Jayjacobus: Well, when I look at this from the other direction, I’ll still only be able to minimize my bias to the extent that I usually can – and then you can point out where I didn’t succeed very well, which is inevitable. There’s no such thing as completely unbiased data either really: just as unbiased as humanly possible. And people looking with different biases will see it differently. Sometimes because they’re biased against ever coming to that conclusion. To make it worse, it might only even be opinion/personal experience if I can’t find data.

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  53. 53. geoffchambers 1:03 pm 10/21/2013

    Jeremy Harvey
    Thanks for the tip off. You’re right. Your 52nd comment by Hilda is my 54th, and it’s followed by my second comment. (I can see my first comment twice at 43 and 44). So in theory everyone might have their own thread, at the whim of the moderator, with no way of knowing what was on other people’s threads. As you say, it’s Orwellian, but in a nice way I suppose, in that no-one gets their face bitten off.

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  54. 54. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 6:32 am 11/12/2013

    Yes, sorry about that – I was still getting the hang of this thing and somehow managed to duplicate. (The follow-up post is on its way – should be finished in the next week, I hope.)

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  55. 55. aidel 4:36 pm 01/8/2014

    Hilda, you are golden and I appreciate the discussion you have started here, even if it frustrates the %*!! out of me. I do want to bring up, however, that there is a difference in the realm of journalistic integrity between say, giving ‘equal time’ to creationists (vs. evolution)and allowing the accused to be given as fair a shot as the accuser. The scientific attitude is one of openness and if creationists or climate change denialists, or even criminals can produce meaningful evidence to be evaluated, then have at it!

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