Maybe if those in the media and popular press would stop treating us like a different species, “the people” who we don’t reach would feel less wary about trusting us when the data we generate challenges their preconceptions. Maybe if the media would stop treating everything like a “controversy”, and stop giving free air time for dissemination of misinformation, we wouldn’t have to spend our time debunking crap that was debunked 150 years ago (in the case of evolution) and could focus more on education. Here’s an example; anybody even remotely familiar with the “controversy” surrounding mercury and autism knows who Andrew Wakefield is. He gets mentioned in practically every article and gets the media’s “equal time” treatment, even though the guy is a total slime and we’ve known it for years. How many legitimate medical researchers, on the other hand, get more than a two-sentence quote? How many autism researchers fighting the good fight get profiled to the extent that Wakefield does? If you’re not in the field, can you even name an autism researcher on the other side of the line from Wakefield?
I read this before reading Chris Mooney’s op-ed, but I think this, in particular, is spot-on. One of the many ways the battle is biased against science is the ease by which one can make a false claim, and the difficulty in debunking the claim, because science is complicated. The artificially forced bilateral symmetry common in stories and debates works against us. I don’t know how much of a solution this ends up being, but it is part of the problem.
I think this also ties in with science needing to step up its PR game, though I think there are problems inherent in non-scientists becoming spokespersons; the more links you put between the people that best understand the research and the people interacting with the public, the greater chance you have of simplifying the science to the point it’s wrong. Somebody simply reciting talking points can’t interact and answer questions, which means that Evil Monkey’s point about scientists getting out and engaging the public is the best approach, and we scientists (and administrators who are our bosses) have to recognize the value of outreach. The other thing that bothers me about external PR that strays from the Sgt. Friday script (just the facts) is that appealing to emotion swings both ways. I think it would be much better if a person could sniff out false claims themselves, rather than having to rely on a PR firm to tell you. If you can be convinced by a persuasive but non-fact-based argument that something is true, you can also be convinced that it’s false. And then there’s the trump card — the antiscience crowd often wins the battle not by having great spokespeople, but having ones that are willing to lie, and science can’t go down that path.
One thing that all this ignores, however, is that many of the targets who disagree aren’t doing so because scientists aren’t putting forth a compelling argument. They made up their minds long ago — facts aren’t going to sway them, but neither is a smooth talker with a pretty face. I think that you have to recognize that there are people who will never be convinced — there is no strategy that will work. They are not interested in the facts, or in honest debate, and if what you have to say disagrees with Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, you’re just flat out of luck. Confirmation bias is real.