Send in the epistemologists

Chris Mooney has a worthwhile op-ed about the public's perception of science.  The problem, he argues, is not (only) ignorance of scientific stuff, but selective skepticism about particular scientific claims.  Ironically, information only exacerbates the scientific pseudo-skeptic's  ignorance.  He writes:

In other words, it appears that politics comes first on such a contested subject, and better information is no cure-all — people are likely to simply strain it through an ideological sieve. In fact, more education probably makes a global warming skeptic more persuasive, and more adept at collecting information and generating arguments sympathetic to his or her point of view.

In addition to global warming denialism, he mentions the alleged link between vaccines and autism and concern of nuclear waste in Nevada.  Mooney goes on to conclude that scientists must do a better job of understanding the motivations behind views such as these.  Fair enough.

But I think this is really a job for epistemologists. 

9 thoughts on “Send in the epistemologists”

  1. These jobs are all being done well, though.  The main problem, to me, seems to be the lack of being able to communicate any of these findings through a press that operates under the rule that you blogged about last time.  Even the criticism of that, by scientists, journalists, or epistemologists (those poor souls), will get picked up as a "he said/she said" discourse.  
    With the irony that it's a journalist saying "hey scientists, pick up your game because the public isn't listening," when it's arguable that this situation is journalism's product. 

  2. I just read the full piece in the Post, finally.  I think it's worse than you let on, John.  I find it hard to blame scientists for thinking that people who don't use the rules of science in a scientific debate are ignorant.  Also, the author should be open to the possibility that "educated" people who have graduated from college might still know very little about how science operates.  The category mistake of filtering scientific testing through political bias, as you said, isn't a scientific problem.
    At the risk of being even more epistemological, didn't Plato cover all of this ground anyway?

  3. "Rather than simply crusading against ignorance, the defenders of science should also work closely with social scientists and specialists in public opinion to determine how to defuse controversies by addressing their fundamental causes."

    I'm not sure what this means. In what ways should "scientists" work with "social scientists" and public policy experts to present facts to the public? By utilizing effective manipulation of public opinion so that people are less likely to irrationally reject established scientific consensus? It is unfortunately unclear what else could be meant by this collaboration.
    Unfortunately, that sort of "on message" solution itself is a partial cause for people's lack of scientific understanding. People expect to get manipulated by social forces every day. I'm not sure what a "scientist" is supposed to do to address this problem. If people can't see the truth, manipulating them into believing it isn't the solution.

  4. I guess I should follow that up by saying that throwing data and "explanation" at a non-critically-evaluating public is just so much spray-and-pray, hoping that something will stick.  The author makes a good point about it being incumbent upon the arguer to address the issues behind the audiences' filter rather than merely addressing the apparant result generally characterized as "ignorance."
    But I've seen people, who are good communicators, fail at breaking through the political weave in a filter because of agnotology and epistemic closure.  It's a problem I've been puzzling over for a little while now.  To me, the filter is present to preserve (filter out what doesn't fit/allow in what does) one's belief system; one's political bent is part of that system, which provides for some thread in the filter's weave.
    PS: the CAPTCHA system employed by this blogging system introduces several usability difficulties. The first, of coruse, is reading it. The second is that, if you read and enter the code incorrectly, you go to a page that says "use the Back button"; and when you go back, you find that  the comment you entered is lost.

  5. ST–

    Thanks for tip on Captcha.  I'll work on it. 

    And I think you're right.  There's a basic epistemic problem here.  It's not he failure (only) to penetrate someone's preconceptions.

  6. What sort of argument is a social scientist or public relations specialist going to provide that the hard scientist could or would not?

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