Understanding and Countering Science Denial: Background information when reading The Workshop and the World

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The Workshop and the World

What Ten Thinkers Can Teach Us About Science and Authority

by Robert P. Crease

The Workshop and the World by Robert P. Crease X
The Workshop and the World by Robert P. Crease
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    Mar 2019, 272 pages

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Chris Fredrick
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Understanding and Countering Science Denial

This article relates to The Workshop and the World

Print Review

According to Robert P. Crease, science denial is a personal rejection of only those specific scientific findings that conflict with an individual's political, economic or personal/religious beliefs. The Workshop and the World by Robert P. Crease looks at science denial throughout history and offers a synthesis that outlines: 1) the characteristics of scientific study that make it vulnerable to denial, and 2) better rhetorical tactics for countering this denial.

Science denial isn't simply about a few bad actors who are politically, financially or philosophically motivated. It has a deeper dynamic. The same characteristics that make coordinated scientific study an engine for innovation and progress also make it vulnerable to repudiation. Crease outlines six of these vulnerabilities, including the following:

  • It's a collective. Scientific research is a coordinated and collective effort, as was envisioned by the early scientific mathematicians and philosophers. That collective structure allows for new discoveries to challenge and build upon previous knowledge. However, being collective also means being institutional and bureaucratic. Those institutions have internal politics that can shape how scientific findings are presented. This characteristic enables science deniers to say things like: "Scientists have hidden agendas," "It's a hoax," or, "It's a conspiracy."
  • It's technical and abstract. Science, by its very nature, is highly complex. Scientists have the necessary expertise to understand a study's raw data and transform it into meaningful findings that relate to the world. Being highly technical and abstract, though, means it isn't accessible to an average citizen or politician lacking that expertise. This characteristic enables the science deniers who say things like: "Scientists are their own special interest group," or "Science is an abstract practice with little relevance to the concrete world of politics."
  • It's open-ended. Science is a collection of studies that is always changing; early findings can be and often are challenged with new experiments, and new data is constantly being produced. The overall trend is that the body of factual knowledge is always growing, and this open-ended quality suggests a lack of finality, an uncertainty or fallibility that can be exploited. This characteristic enables deniers to suggest that findings are not to be trusted because "the jury is still out."

Without first understanding the underlying dynamic, efforts to stop science denial are "doomed to an endless game of political whack-a-mole," according to Robert P. Crease. The traditional approaches to countering denial – denouncing individuals, moralizing or creating exposés – do not work because they take aim at specific acts and not the underlying dynamic. The author provides some short- and long-term tactics that he believes to be more effective, including:

  • Demand responsibility through pledges. A well-crafted pledge can improve voters' ability to understand the motives of potential elected leaders. An example pledge could be: "I pledge to defend and maintain the scientific infrastructure of the country, and to let my decision-making be guided by the facts rather than ideology or financial interest."
  • Expose hypocrisy. Show how science deniers betray the values they claim to hold. Some examples are to use startling metaphors, i.e. to ask a politician: "Explain the moral difference between ISIS militants who attack cultural treasures and politicians who attack the scientific process."
  • Use comedy and ridicule: be scathing, provocative and inflammatory. Comedy is often an effective way to reveal cognitive dissonance or hypocrisy because comedians have the license to be inappropriate and can deliver uncomfortable truths.
  • Tell parables: use metaphors and fables.A parable is a real or fictional story with a lesson that is easy to understand. Provocative metaphors could compare climate deniers to leeches or viruses, showing more viscerally how they live off the world without contributing to it.
  • Make saddle burrs. Continue to act in the public space, stubbornly repeating the messages and generally making life difficult and uncomfortable for science deniers.
  • Recall and retell. Find opportunities to tell stories of past action, about the successes and failures of science to renew the position of science as an authority, not a political cause.
  • Address current events. Take advantage of any current event and present a science or technology-oriented angle.

Readers curious to learn more on this subject might also be interested in Nathaniel Rich's Losing Earth, which explores the climate change misinformation campaign launched by the oil industry in the 1980s. Rich recently sat down for an interview with NPR.

Filed under Nature and the Environment

Article by Chris Fredrick

This article relates to The Workshop and the World. It first ran in the April 3, 2019 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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