A post-fact world: Part III -what is a scientist to do?

I started this 3-part series noting that a lot of scientists (including myself) are very dismayed to be living in a post-fact world. I think the instinctive reaction to this that I have heard over and over again is basically “I have to do more outreach, talk more to the public, explain my science in a more understandable fashion and just get them to understand”. This is in many ways an unsurprising response. It is playing to our natural tendencies and strengths. It is in many ways doubling down on what we already do. Its also more than a little elitist (we need to educate them who don’t know as much as we). It is also empirically rejected – this is the knowledge deficit model (if people only knew more science they would behave differently) which has been thoroughly studied and resoundingly rejected (can I say trashed?) by social scientists (e.g. did you know among the general public the more scientifically literate people are, the LESS likely they are to perceive serious risks in climate change and the more likely their political affiliation is to predict their views on climate change?).  The knowledge deficit model (tell people smoking is dangerous) didn’t work to stop people from smoking. And its not working on climate change. More generally, it is not ever going to work. The literature on this is extensive.

Just to be clear, I have this “knowledge deficit” response too – I’ve spent much of the last semester working with three middle schools helping them understand climate change and exploring what they can do about it. And doing this certainly cannot hurt. So I’m not arguing against doing it or criticizing those who have these inclinations. But I am wondering if it is the best response or just the easiest and most comfortable response?

So I spent the previous two posts in this series trying to get outside of my own little scientist head and see what history and social science can tell us about how we got to a post-fact world. Namely, I argued that:

  1. Our current post-fact world has been coming for half a century and is part of broad brush societal trends
  2. Humans are not particularly prone to careful abstract thinking about cause-and-effects and largely choose beliefs and make decisions based on a mix of social-thinking, emotions and fast-thinking.

Or to put it succinctly, the human brain never worked by the knowledge deficit model (adding knowledge=changed beliefs and behavior) and societal trends for the last 50 years have only moved us further away from that non-existent ideal. So where does this leave us as scientists in dealing with a post-fact world?

To put it bluntly, I think it leaves us at the post-fact world is the new normal. In fact the last 50 years where science had a privileged position was the exception that with hindsight seems surprising it ever happened. And as scientists we need to come to grips with this new normal and to start finding a new way to be effective in influencing policy and the public’s behavior. The “trust me, I’m a scientist” approach is not going to work again in our lifetimes. Neither is the “let me explain why this is true” approach. So while teaching and education are part of the answer, I believe we are not going to just teach and educate the world out of this post-fact place.

To use a common metaphor for the making of a major societal decision, think of a table with decision makers sitting around it. This table has some politicians, some business people, some representatives of the general public, etc, and one scientist. The scientist was never the most powerful person at the table. The scientists often didn’t get their way. But when the scientist said “if you do X, then Y will happen”,  people accepted that the statement was true. They might often go against the recommendations of the scientist. Possibly because their priorities were different than the scientist (remember Maslow’s needs hierarchy and discount rates). And possibly because even accepting the fact as true, their thinking processes lead to a different place (e.g. social or emotional considerations trumped logical ones). But scientists (and doctors) always at least had the privilege of being assumed to tell the truth. This is now gone. In the minds of most others at the table, scientists are now just another interest group sitting at the table looking for funding and willing to bend the truth or lie to get it. Harsh, and I imagine very few of us recognize ourselves in that description, but I believe that is how most of the other people sitting at the decision making table now see us.

So now what? Well accepting the truth (if you accept my argued version of the truth) is the first step. Remember the five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and only then acceptance – I think you could make a good case the March for Science was the scientific community moving from stage 1 denial to stage 2 anger. But if we come to believe that our privileged position as scientists is a thing of the past, then we literally need to reinvent how scientists interact with society.

Here are my preliminary thoughts on what scientists really need to do instead of repeatedly falling into the knowledge deficit fallacy:

  • Listen – now there is a really radical idea. Instead of just assuming the world will be a better place if we get in front of a room of people and talk, maybe we should listen to people! In fact, a good null model is probably that since we can either talk or listen, we should probably spend half of all the time we spend on outreach and advocacy listening. A nice paper by Pouliot and Godbout highlights three models of engagement: knowledge deficit (scientist does all the talking and thinking), public debate (public gives input and scientists listen and then go act), and co-production (scientists and public are co-equal throughout the process arriving at knowledge production and policy recommendations). I’ve pretty much already argued that we don’t run the world and those that do have decided we are at best co-equals. So maybe we should start figuring out what that looks like. To be honest – it is not necessarily going to be easy. Very few of us have job descriptions that involve spending a lot of time at public hearings and setting up one-on-one meetings listening to others. And that rare scientific personality I described last post, is innately weaker on some of the public engagement dimensions*. But then again those of us in academia get to manage our own time far more than most so we can do it if we really want to. Here’s a couple of thoughts:
    1. Businesses are pretty clear what they want – as much as I painted earlier a story of business being opposed to ecological science with environmentalism implications, businesses know they live in a world with environmental laws. While some businesses would love to see these laws disappear if possible, all of them mostly just care that it is a level playing field (laws apply equally to all) and the uncertainty is eliminated. There are wins to be had in working with business. Did you know that a list of ecological research questions businesses want answered  (all interesting and unanswered) was published seven years ago (Armsworth et al 2010)? or a list of the top conservation policy relevant research questions (Fleishman 2011)? Although inspired by application, there is plenty of basic research needed on the questions in these lists. How many people have even read these lists let alone thought about whether they could find interesting research in these areas. And if you don’t care what others want to know, is it surprising they don’t care what you find out?
    2. Microtarget – Marketing is increasingly turning into finding the exact right message for very small groups of people. And of course that involves knowing (i.e. listening) to others. Science advocacy is unlikely to be different.. Just as an example, I have found that almost everybody I’ve ever talked to has some hot button that I can link to climate change. It may be when the mayflies are hatching for a fisherman, or how diseases are going to increase for lobsters, or when the crocuses bloom, or how long the snowmobiling season will be. It takes some work to find the hot button, most of it listening.
    3. Acknowledge validity of other perspectives – I think one of the biggest reasons scientists have been written off as elitist and ignored is that we haven’t put very much energy into seeing things through other people’s lenses. Yes climate change is important but so are today’s jobs. We have to acknowledge that, care about that, and move to a consensus solution, not just blow by it like people are crazy to care about it. We might be listened to more by others at that decision making table if we acknowledge the validity of their concerns too.
  • Act more like other interest groups at the decision making table – other people sitting at the table strongly advocate for their point of view through established mechanisms for changing policy outcomes. Now that we’re no longer being accorded a special seat, we should sharpen our elbows and advocate strongly. Here’s a few thoughts on what this looks like:
    1. More Marches for Science and similar events – scientists need to raise our voice and public profile and advocate just like others at the table too. Scientists should be visible.
    2. In the US one of the single most effective things you can do to influence national policy is to call your Senators and Representatives. They won’t answer the phone of course, it will likely be an unpaid intern. But they keep tallies of pro and con callers on bills currently being debated. And they pay a lot of attention to those tallies (much more than email or social media). I imagine it is very similar in most other democracies. It only takes 5 minutes to call.
    3. Public health officials have been very good at learning from social scientists about what actually changes people’s behaviors. It is a mix of emotional appeals, social appeals,  just-right levels of complexity of the right information, and above all else an empirical question that can be evaluated by testing the effectiveness of different approaches. Why aren’t we doing this to communicate on topics we care about?
    4. And what about running for office? In the US, the debates over health care have caused medical professionals (doctors and nurses primarily) to go from nearly absent in the US congress to a nontrivial fraction of congressional members. And because of their expertise and being in the place where power resides, they have had an enormous impact (on both sides). Scientists need to be sitting at the decision making tables that really matter
  • Build relationships with other people sitting at the decision making table – in a world where scientists are not automatically accorded trust because they are a scientist, trust (and ultimately influence) comes the old fashioned way. People have to get to know you. In short you have to build relationships. If you want to know how many people you have influence with in a setting, ask yourself how many people in the room where you know the name of their spouse, whether they have kids or their favorite hobby. That’s how many people you have influence with. I’ll never forget teaching a course in the area of science policy. We had 20 practitioners come in through a series of panels. 20 out of 20 said the single most important thing was to build personal relationships. If you want to have influence in the natural resource committee of the state legislature, you need to start spending enough time there to build relationships with some of the people there, not just waltz in with a well-prepared, scientifically justified  speech because the latter is not going to carry the moment in this day and age.
  • Find and support allies  – many scientists will be uncomfortable with the notion of forceful public advocacy or building relationships with policy makers and maybe even with the notion of devoting time to listen. That’s OK. Not everybody needs to do all of these. Show up in the private citizen contexts (e.g. calling representatives). And then leave the friend-making and elbowing  at the decision making table to experts. There are plenty of people who actually want to be at the boundary rather than doing research or being in congress. And my sense is the number of such people is growing in each ensuing generation. As per the last bullet point, this job often involves a lot of time on building relationships and other “non-sciency” things. So we can’t just take people doing these jobs for granted. Scientists need to spend time working with and supporting these boundary spanners. Universities might need to hire more of them. And maybe instead of looking down our noses at NGOs and government scientists (and dare I say it, wildlife and forestry and fisheries departments) for their different research approaches and their willingness to mix communication and advocacy with science, we should be actively supporting and appreciating these boundary spanners.
  • Work locally – I personally think one of the biggest mistakes intellectuals of all stripes make is to assume that government power is a rational process that flows from the top. In the US this looks like over focusing on who is president even though the president actually has quite limited powers (in the US 1/3 of the people who show up to vote for president sit out the elections when the president isn’t on the ballot). As Nobel prize winning economist, Eleanor Ostrom, and her husband Vincent Ostrom argued, decisions that matter to scientists, like conservation and funding, are made by polycentric power structures. Polycentrism means that there are multiple centers of decision making power, and often organized at many hierarchical levels (town, county, state, federal, international). Focusing only on one place, even on the top, is a mistake. Most decisions of import are taken at other levels. Local school boards and town councils and state legislatures make a lot of decisions that matter. And they are offices that a scientists can run for (or lobby) and still retain their day job as a scientist. Just in the past month my school board was debating whether to prioritize adding an additional STEM teacher in a time of tight budgets. A neighboring town has a climate-skeptic teaching earth science. Local decisions matter and are highly accessible to individuals willing to spend just a little time. Don’t overlook them!
  • Teach how science works – if I were to summarize in a few sentences all the signs I saw at the March for Science, it is that it is easy to talk about cool things we do (dinosaurs, Mars Rovers) and to highlight past accomplishments (no more polio) but really hard to make a focused pitch about why science is a powerful way of knowing. We as scientists feel that science has a method to get to a more objective truth, and I personally believe pretty strongly we do. But we apparently cannot communicate why that is very well. To be fair, I think that is a hard thing to communicate. But we need to start spending energy on it. And we need to be honest – its not because of some cheesy 4 step scientific method that we never really use (good piece on this at Small Pond), or because individual scientists are more objective than regular people. It is much more complex and messy, involving 2 steps forward 1 step back, clashes of egos, etc. But in the end collective wisdom moves towards objective truth in science in a way better than other methods. We need to capture why and how that is and teach that. Note there is a distinction between teaching how science works well (few people do it) and teaching the content of my scientific topic (many of us do it to some degree). As part of this, we definitely need to radically increase the levels of data literacy out there. I used to teach a medium large undergraduate class that had climate skeptics every year – until I handed them the data on the last 400 years of temperature, sun spots, volcanoes and CO2 and taught them regression. And then every single student walked away realizing that we entered a regime change in the late 1800s where we moved from volcanoes and sunspots dominating climate variability to CO2 emissions dominating. How can we expect people to take our empirical approach seriously when they cannot even read a basic graph?
  • Humility – this idea ties back to several previous ideas. But scientists often still enter the public debate with a stern don’t ever question me attitude. This air of perfection can be highly successful if you can get away with it. And if we’re honest, we kind of train it into academics – a confident, I’ll tolerate the conversation but I know I’m right and you’re wrong manner works well for an academic career. And this might have worked in the public arena 30 years ago. But not only doesn’t it work today, it alienates people. I think we will get much further if we acknowledge that science does make mistakes (but we correct hem faster than most). And we really need to expose our uncertainties – whether science knows things with high confidence or not. The reality around climate change is we have pretty high certainty around the changes in global temperature for a given increase in CO2. But we have much lower certainty around changes in regional temperature or changes in precipitation and even lower certainty around sea level rise or extreme events. This will increase our credibility to acknowledge our strengths and weaknesses. Abraham Lincoln in his days as a trial lawyer supposedly used this tactic to devastating effect. He would right up front concede all kinds of things (which he knew were the less important points), and then turn around use that gain in being perceived as overly honest to hammer home the really important points. In this post-modern world scientists are perceived as people, not as superheroes. So we need to act with the humility that all flawed human beings are expected to show.

So there you have my thoughts to date. On what role scientists need to fill and how they need to act in public engagement and impacting policy. It is a direct response to this post-modern, non-authority, subjective world. We need to start acting more like humans, more like your neighbors, and less like the absolutely error-free authority in a white lab coat. We need to abandon the fairly elitist and judgmental (and empirically rejected) knowledge deficit approach to engagement. We need to communicate better how science really works and teach data literacy, not just get our most recent discovery in the press. We need to listen and be humble and acknowledge our imperfections. And we need to advocate for our views in the same way and through the same channels others advocate (that recognize what really changes human behavior and by getting “dirty” ourselves in the political process).

What do you think? I’m sure that this set of views is controversial enough almost everybody will disagree with something I said. What do you disagree with? What do you agree with? Do you accept the basic premise that the world has changed in such a fundamental way that the role of scientists needs to change in a fundamental way?

* Politician is not one of the 16 categories on the Myers-Brigg’s scale, but the opposite of the scientist INTJ is an ESFP which is called a “Performer” and sure sounds like it could include politicians!

41 thoughts on “A post-fact world: Part III -what is a scientist to do?

  1. Note that a few of your links are broken (e.g. the ones pointing to the previous posts).

    I also hesitate to agree with statements like “Act more like other interest groups at the decision making table” but I do agree with the broad point that things have fundamentally changed, and ergo science and scientists should fundamentally change. It is not at all obvious to me the optimal solution-we spend a lot of time discussing problems, and sometimes we locally make changes in one way or another, but it can be difficult to see where those changes lead. Even if we publish relatively obscure papers, we can see an immediate impact of publishing our results (in addition to having fun actually doing the science and the writing). But advocating for funding or for decision making seems important, but far harder to gauge impact in any substantive way.

    As a mathematician I chat with people about projects/grants/research statements that “justify my existence,” but even these typically contain lots of interesting ideas, and connect much of what I do to other areas. Public policy advocacy is harder to find internal motivation to even consider, although that likely varies by person.

    • Thanks for the thoughts. Its the discussion that is important at the moment.

      Sorry about the links 3 of the first 4 were broken, but now are fixed.

  2. An interesting essay and one with which I can agree, almost entirely. But when we begin to convert science into advocacy and use Lincolnesque methods to win arguments, not by being right but by being persuasive, we lose objectivity. And objectivity is all that science ever really had going for it from the beginning. Science, especially ecological science, has already lost much objectivity and thus credibility in the name of advocacy both explicit and implicit. This will only steepen the losses. Sadly, I cannot even pretend to have a solution to the problem.

    • I know exactly what you’re saying. And I am a big fan of Pielke jr’s book on the role of scientists as honest brokers: https://www.amazon.com/Honest-Broker-Making-Science-Politics/dp/0521694817. And you will note that one of my bullet points above was being more honest about our uncertainties. I do think that honest objectivity is part of the solution.

      But increasingly few people perceive scientists as objective regardless of how they perceive themselves.

      I think the real problem is when one’s science is bent by advocacy (which certainly happens). It is the mixing of the two that is a problem. I don’t say its necessarily easy to compartmentalize these two actions. But I also don’t think its impossible. Nobody has confused the doctors in congress talking about health care policy as practicing medicine.

      This is a complex topic and my own position has evolved a lot from emphasizing honest broker to what I suggest in this post (and it may evolve again). But I think we have to start having this conversation.

  3. Dear Brian, Many thanks. I truly enjoyed the reading.
    At one point in this post you said: “But scientists (and doctors) always at least had the privilege of being assumed to tell the truth. This is now gone. In the minds of most others at the table, scientists are now just another interest group sitting at the table looking for funding and willing to bend the truth … .” We should at least acknowledge our responsibility in that trend. We are in such a hurry of pushing our scientific agendas into the public sphere that we have lost credibility. For instance, take the positive Biodiversity-Ecosystem Functioning (BEF) relationship, which regularly makes it into top journals and gets high visibility. It is nearly impossible to publish a paper saying just the opposite, because it would be morally wrong. What now if people come at me because they want to save their ill-functioning lake from eutrophication by regularly pouring a cocktail of phytoplankton species in their water? I would have to explain that BEF is not that simple; being in this uneasy position where I have to turn down the mainstream, overly simplified, scientific discourse. I’m afraid that by acting like interest groups, not only are we going to lose credibility, but we will only be adding up to the noise.

    • I quite agree with you. Going back to a comment I made above, it is very bad for science’s reputation when we mix our advocacy with our science.

  4. I agree with your points above. I think there will be an added bonus if we start to approach science in this way, especially the emphasis on listening to others: This will certainly increase diversity in science. Many of these issues become barriers that prevent individuals from even being interested in the first place. By being more open, we will be able to engage a more diverse set of future scientists.

  5. Very interesting stuff Brian, you’ve given us lots to chew on this week! A few brief comments:

    1. I’m interested to hear more about why your thinking on this has changed over the past few years. Why you’ve given up on the view that scientists only get a “seat at the policy table” if they’re seen as honest brokers, in favor of the view that we’re just another interest group (or at least that we’re widely seen as one, which amounts to the same thing) so we’d better start acting like one. In particular, has your thinking changed because of the election of Trump? And if so, do you worry that you’re overreacting to a short-term, one-off event? Do you worry that your feelings about that one-off event are coloring your interpretation of the history?

    2. I’ll throw out a link to a new book I confess I haven’t yet read, covering much of the same territory and reaching some (not all) of the same conclusions: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-death-of-expertise-9780190469412?cc=us&lang=en&. I’ll note in passing that the author is a national security expert (Naval War College prof) and conservative (#neverTrump variety), so is coming to the topic from a different background.

    3. I confess I find today’s post depressing because, if you’re right, then the sort of fundamental research I do is dead. Or if it still lives, it’s only insofar as we manage to bullshit that it’s really “use-inspired” (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/12/10/ecological-forecasting-why-im-a-hypocrite-and-you-may-be-one-too/). The honest arguments for doing fundamental research ((https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/03/16/why-do-fundamental-research-in-a-world-with-pressing-applied-problems/) are no longer convincing to anyone, if they ever were.

    4. Curious if you see the recent Canadian experience as an exception to your argument, or as a transient blip, or as reinforcing your argument, or what. You had a federal government that really was systematically and deliberately hostile to publicly-funded information gathering of any sort (not just on politically-salient issues like climate change). But that government got broad pushback on that front and subsequently lost the election.

  6. Here’s one more thing scientists can do in a post-fact world: don’t try to be public intellectuals, be “thought leaders”:


    Which I confess I find depressing, since I agree with Drezner that the world needs more public intellectuals and fewer “thought leaders” just now.

  7. Ok, had one more thought: do you think it’d be good for basic research, and for the scientists interested in doing it (like me!) to be obliged to think more seriously about its purported practical implications? Not just so that we can do more and better “use-inspired” research, but so that we can do better “pure” basic research?

    Here’s my thought: Perhaps sometimes when we basic ecology researchers bullshit about the purported relevance of our work to mitigating the effects of climate change or managing insect pests or whatever, we’re only fooling ourselves? Recalling again that old Peter Adler post, Peter certainly doesn’t believe his own bullshit–but do you think some fundamental researchers do? If so, maybe we basic researchers would make better decisions about what “pure” basic research is most worth doing if we stopped believing our own bullshit? For instance, maybe we don’t all throw so much effort into studying biodiversity-ecosystem function relationships, because if you strip away the debatable practical implications of BEF, it doesn’t look all *that* interesting as “pure” basic research.

  8. Hi Jeremy,

    All thoughtful questions.

    On as to why I evolved from emphasizing the Honest Broker role to just another seat at the table that needs to sharpen elbows. I don’t think I realized how much I had changed until I wrote this post. So I definitely don’t have that meta-story in clear in my mind yet. But, definitely no, I don’t think its just a reaction to Trump. The last president may not have appointed a climate-denier to head the EPA, but 6 months ago congress was finely balanced between climate deniers and those who are worried. And I still have’t given up on the honest broker role. As Raphael pointed out, I still think advocacy driven science is really, really bad. I personally trace at least one substantial thread of the polarization of climate discussions to the IPCC report where I felt like the IPCC slipped from honest broker to advocate (publishing stories of glacial melts, etc that were completely unsubstantiated). I still think there it is possible to do honest science and be a science advocate. It may be at the very highest levels (e.g. science adviser to the president) one has to choose. But I think most of us in our daily lives can still do both. And a lot of that involves advocating but acknowledging science’s limitations more than we do. I still have more thinking to do in this whole area. But I do now think that if the large majority of scientists only embrace the honest broker role, things will get worse rather than better.

    No – I don’t think Canada is a fundamental different narrative. Yes in terms of who is president or prime-minister they are the mirror image of the US in the last two leaders, which makes it look like there is a progress back to science in Canada. But I think that is stochastic. Personally, I find it more compelling/depressing that Canada re-elected a fundamentally anti-science prime minister. Canada is a special place with special values and if even they can go there …

    As for basic research, no I don’t see it as dead at all. First off on those lists, there are tons of challenges to basic research. I personally think basic research would thrive if many chose to tackle the often really hard basic questions on those lists instead of skating on the surface to the next obvious incremental basic research question. Second, the lines are never clear, we will always need basic research, I don’t see NSF going away (and would certainly fight it), and generally I think research is a big smear – anybody who tried to partition it neatly in two would fail.

    • Scientists still have the “freedom” to do basic research, but have to accept that this freedom comes at the cost of less funding. I personally feel “happier” (whatever it means) when I do something closer to basic research because then I know that the end does not justify the means. I know it may not attract more funds. I know it may end up published in a topic journal. I know that most researchers will not share my enthusiasm. Yet, it feels like searching uncharted areas.

      • I believe the “bench to bedside” model that Bush II imposed upon NIH funding was a great compromise. It allowed basic research to continue, but insisted upon the inclusion of potential practical applications. My belief is that added requirement simply forced investigators to do what they should have been doing all along: to ask if their work was ‘useful’. It also gave way to many new approaches in medicine, e.g., individualized chemotherapy.

        If your work does not have any practical application, then honestly anyone outside your vastly minimal group of colleagues is not ever going to care.

  9. Thanks for writing the posts Brian. I wasn’t sure where the series was going and I can appreciate the summation. I’ve also wondered about the credibility of science in the age of misinformation. I don’t have a similar historical perspective but I can draw a cultural link to the America centric perspective. For instance, America has been a major player in the advancement of science and technology and in fostering individual freedom and free market. However, the complexity of its unimpeachable social-cultural and economic ideals is vulnerable to perpetuating misinformation. For instance, a willful misinformation is covered to a large degree by the first amendment regardless of whether it is perpetrated by an accredited media outlet or a crazy person. We all know that what happens in America permeates the rest of the world. Scientists are held to a different standard and many scientists are disinclined and rightly so, to engage on a platform where fact is secondary.

    I particularly like this…“In the minds of most others at the table, scientists are now just another interest group sitting at the table looking for funding and willing to bend the truth or lie to get it…I imagine very few of us recognize ourselves in that description”

    But I’m less inclined to be gentle in acknowledging the role of scientists in weakening the credibility of science. Scientists are people, which means that they have needs and therefore fallible–we are a victim of our ambition and fear. There are scientists working against science or at least complacent. It is even difficult to know who is a “scientist” these days. For instance, given their approach to dealing with climate change information following the regime change, are most folks at the EPA scientists or careerists? We also have an epidemic of “group think” that we call collaborative science where folks come together in an unjustifiable number to put their weights behind a grant application and therefore the findings resulting from it. A corollary is that funding of proposals by individuals are not as common. I will argue that the new norm undermines individuality and the inherent force of intuition that has driven science through the ages. I challenge anyone to produce a substantial evidence of a major invention, theory or discovery that justifies this epidemic. I’m not talking about partnership. Scientists should stop acting like a bunch of careerists or perhaps I’m just naïve in believing that science is not being run by careerists. To your question: Is the changing relationship of science with business a key part of the story? Are post-modernist trends, enabled by media trends, a key part of the story? Media, business or not, science is vulnerable to those unimpeachable social-cultural and economic tenets and the scientific community would have to own its part in this mess.

    • A few quibbles:

      It’s a myth that NSF favors proposals from large collaborative teams:

      “I challenge anyone to produce a substantial evidence of a major invention, theory or discovery that justifies this epidemic.”

      Discovery of the Higgs boson was the product of a coordinated effort by thousands of people.

      More broadly, major breakthroughs have always been rare, idiosyncratic, and unpredictable, almost by definition. Insofar as they’re getting rarer, or at least failing to become more common, I doubt it’s because scientists now work more collaboratively, or because our authorship practices are becoming more inclusive. Insofar as big breakthroughs are getting rarer, it’s probably because the low hanging fruit has been picked.

    • I guess I would hate to call the EPA scientists careerist or criticize them for not acting differently. That feels a bit like blaming the victim. They have done nothing wrong – its not like I hear about them actively recanting what they believe. They’re just ducking their heads for a while. And in a job that is supposed to be for life (unless you screw up badly) staying quiet and waiting for the macrocontext to change (as it has many times if you have been at a government agency for 20 years) seems better to me than having good people leave and hollowing out an important agency.

  10. At the Canadian Society for Ecology & Evolution meeting (which kept me from seeing these posts until now), we had a symposium yesterday on “The tension between science and advocacy”, with some really interesting perspectives on dealings with the forest industry (Sally Aitken), fisheries (Jeff Hutchings), the federal government in general (Jeremy Kerr), and species at risk policy (Jeannette Whitton), in addition to the more general question of where the advocacy line gets crossed. Anyway, I was also surprised to read that you (Brian) are more in favour of shifting from honest broker to full-on advocate. It sounds like we’ve been reading many of the same books on the human mind, and I’m not optimistic that our brains are capable of compartmentalizing the two roles of scientist and advocate so easily. In my view, committing strongly to an advocacy position makes it _extremely_ difficult (impossible?) to then view different kinds of scientific results in an equally (un)critical way, which makes it inevitable that bias will creep in, feeding the distrust that’s out there.

    Check out Fig. 5.3 here (which I showed in my own presentation):

    • That figure is eye-opening and disturbing. Will link to that in the linkfest.

      Any chance of getting a guest post from you on what was said at that very interesting-sounding symposium, and your thoughts on it?

    • I expect CSEE is good – it always is – wish I was there but I cannot make every meeting.

      That figure is impressive (and as an aside, how many more sacred cows are you planning to take on in your career?).

      But I think you could have a good discussion about how much agenda-driven science is really created by people who truly are engaged in advocacy (sensu my post) vs. people who are basic scientists trying to gain a little applied-science cloaking and pushing an agenda. I would argue the latter.* At a minimum, if you want to claim some of the examples of agenda-driven science brought up by you and others in these comments is tainted by advocacy, you would have to explain why such a large fraction of the basic scientists not doing advocacy buy so strongly into the agenda as well. To me the culprit is not a scientist being involved in advocacy – it is agenda driven science.

      *The response to the controversial claim I made with colleagues in the Dornelas et al 2014 paper (and paralleling your 2013 PNAS paper) has primarily been from people I think of as basic scientists pretty far removed from strong advocacy, and indeed most conservationists I talk to about it shrug their shoulders and say the results in those papers sound about right.

      • Good points. I was mixing in the same category (i) direct advocacy and (ii) commitment to certain conclusions in the hope that they will support causes promoted by advocates. One might think of the latter as indirect advocacy. Worth distinguishing. And I’m not sure it’s always “agenda driven”. It can be unconscious confirmation bias present in many people, with positive feedbacks among like-minded people leading to a skewed apparent consensus. Just in case it wasn’t clear, that link is to a book chapter by Lenore Fahrig (so, not me going after a sacred cow this time!). Guest post? Need to think about that – not sure there’s enough new points to add to those in the past few posts + comments.

    • Damaging bias in science may not be all that much about agendas.

      IMO there’s room for a much larger problem with people who don’t think they have an agenda. in some situations, it’s easy for one’s beliefs to take over without the person recognizing it’s happening.

      First, the determinative model is slowly disappearing and being replaced by statistical models. y=mx+b is dead. Unfortunately, if one’s training is y=mx+b, and ones data is stochastic and ones data set is small, its easy to “recognize” trends in the data that aren’t there – especially trends in the data that one might already expect to find or believe are there.

      Second, while geologists and paleontologists have long been familiar with highly variable time scales, many other disciplines are just starting to work with pre-historic data. If one doesn’t recognize or understand just how small a segment the modern period is on the geologic timeline, it would be easy for one’s deeply held views to influence how much weight to give recent events and how data are projected forward.

      Third, even when working on human time scales it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the current trend is the most important part of the dataset and forget or not know the long-term variation in the data, especially if the recent trend is what one expects. IMO this is often the case when people talk about prices – they weight the most recent price trend far more heavily than is appropriate and assume it will continue forever. The current debate about coal production is a great example. Some people are claiming that coal is dead but resource prices fluctuate strongly and it’s highly likely that coal is no where near dead (it’s not clear if this is “present bias,” \motivated reasoning or both), but instead in a cyclic low associated with anemic economic growth.

      I think these are the really difficult kinds of bias to detect because they’re both unintentional and unrecognized and may be widely shared among people with similar world views.

  11. Jeremy, I expect that someone would mention the Higgs boson experiment. But it starts from an individual. Also, I want to believe that it’s a success that they think it is. But mind you, we are constantly revisiting something as basic as human phylogeny. The point being, I’m humble in the face of uncertainty.

    True, major breakthroughs are unpredictable but the common denominator is that they often do not emerge from the main stream?

    • It is certainly the mythos of the lone renegade scientist doing all the creative work. Newton sitting alone in a garden. Einstein publishing 3-nobel worthy papers while working as a patent clerk. But the older I get as a scientist, the less I believe it. Ideas are in the air, and if one person doesn’t get there, somebody else will. Leibniz independently invented calculus. Another famous scientist (I forget, maybe Hooke) asked Newton over lunch if perhaps an inverse square law of attraction would lead to Kepler’s orbits before Newton published (albeit he did already have the answer in a file drawer). Einstein tied together several threads and his main math for special relativity had already been published just with less palatable interpretations (the Lorenz contractions). The monumental human genome sequencing turned out to be a tied race between two groups. Pauling was poking around with notions of helices at same time Watson & Crick worked on DNA (and Franklin & Wilkins were attacking the problem from an empirical angle). Darwin and Wallace ended in a tie as well. Not to deny any of these people’s genius, but I truly believe the most they did was accelerate the discovery by 5 years or a decade or two (more in old times, less in modern).

    • Re: breakthroughs mostly coming from singular geniuses, vs. being “in the air”, Darwin and Wallace is of course an example that gets brought up a lot. Historian of science Peter Bowler has a very interesting take on this, arguing that Darwin really was a genius–but that precisely because Darwin was a genius, he didn’t actually much alter the course of science in his time. Rather, the effect of the Origin of Species was like that of tossing a big rock into a pond–you make a big splash but the ripples eventually die away and leave the pond unchanged:


      Bowler actually argues that the Modern Synthesis would’ve arrived *earlier* had Darwin never published the Origin! I don’t find that argument convincing–but it’s not implausible either.

      Also, scientist’s interactions aren’t limited to formal collaborations and never have been. Part of why Darwin made as big a splash as he did (and why Wallace couldn’t have stepped into his shoes) was that Darwin was well-connected. The Silwood Circle is a good book on how a network of very influential ecologists advanced the field in a big way. Bob May, Mike Hassell, et al. weren’t working solo, but they weren’t collaborators either.


      This isn’t to say that every scientist matters equally to driving scientific progress (they don’t), or that there’s no such thing as a “breakthrough” (there is). But I think the simple picture of breakthroughs mostly coming from lone geniuses who are outside the mainstream is too simple. I think that the simple opposing picture, that big advances are always “in the air” or a “product of their times” also is too simple.

  12. @Brian
    Again, maybe I’m just being naive. The label “scientist” should not be a job description but rather a purveyor of facts. It’s fine to say that those scientists at EPA are powerless but I don’t see a serious push back from them.

    @Jeremy, I missed this:

    “It’s a myth that NSF favors proposals from large collaborative teams:

    I don’t take this at a face value because the current pattern of publication tells a different story. But may be symptom of something else. The point is noted.

    I certainly don’t believe in the myth of a lone scientist. That was not my point. In fact Newton, Einstein etc, acknowledged building on previous scientific efforts and contributions of others. And every solo paper ever published cited some previous work. But to insinuate that a great decline in sole author paper (relative to increasing number of scientists) or that such increase in co-authorship is not artificial is troubling. But look at most postings either for postdocs or faculty positions. There are adjectives such as “collaborative”, “team player” etc being thrown around. By pointing to the fact the fact that previous breakthroughs came from a group or could have been done by someone else and ignoring the fact that none started from “group think” and that most can be traced to an individual, suggests that we might have successfully convinced ourselves that individual intuition is of little benefit to science.

  13. “In the minds of most others at the table, scientists are now just another interest group sitting at the table looking for funding and willing to bend the truth or lie to get it”

    And THAT, as I mentioned in a response the other day, is THE PROBLEM facing not only science, but any field that is intimately associated with academia. For many years I engaged in fierce debate with any number of conservatives- from David Horowitz to Mike Rosen to College Republicans and beyond- that the notion of “liberal bias” in American universities was farcical. I honestly thought they were the ones who were delusional… and, I was dead wrong. I thought that way because I had been sequestered away in science departments and not paying any attention to the rest of the campus universe.

    I believe in recent years the more reasoned voice of Greg Lukianoff has communicated to the general public just how awful uber-liberal politics has become on the lion’s share of our campuses. While I consider myself more of a centrist politically, there certainly was a time when I leaned very far left. But the point I am really trying to drive home here is that the word on the street about our academic institutions is not good. It is not at all good. It stinks, and it is getting worse, not better.

    Our universities are now perceived as boot camps for liberal indoctrination by the majority of US citizens. Academia has by and large forgotten that the majority of Americans (likely around 80%) are conservative-leaning Christians. Just look at any electoral map and you will see a sea of red for roughly 3/4 of the US geography. This is not any secret, and yet, academia proudly displays it’s garishly colored blinders and continues to hammer on a distinctly far left political agenda. Decades of this behavior have for the most part excluded conservatives from academia. They are not welcome, and believe you me, that is made loud and clear by one university after another.

    Yeah- scientists have trust issues with the public. Major trust issues, and it is not getting any better. Sadly, I do not see it getting any better any time soon.

    • “Our universities are now perceived as boot camps for liberal indoctrination by the majority of US citizens. Academia has by and large forgotten that the majority of Americans (likely around 80%) are conservative-leaning Christians. ”

      Links to survey and demographic data please. Which you won’t be able to provide because you’re wrong.

      We welcome the sharing of opinions, including those based on anecdotal experience. But it doesn’t advance the discussion, even a discussion of opinions, to make incorrect claims about the demography or opinions of “the majority of US citizens” or “80% of Americans”.

      “Just look at any electoral map and you will see a sea of red for roughly 3/4 of the US geography.”

      Land doesn’t vote. Those huge swaths of red have few people in them. C’mon Eliot you’re better than this.

      “academia proudly displays it’s garishly colored blinders and continues to hammer on a distinctly far left political agenda.”

      With respect, you are mixing up “academia” as a whole with a small and vocal subset of it.

      • I stand corrected on the Christian percentage- it was 80% in 2008, but was down the 75% in 2015 (gallup.com/poll/187955/percentage-christians-drifting-down-high.aspx).

        That data seems also to hold up for political ideology. About 24% of Americans identify as liberal- the remaining as moderate or conservative (gallup.com/poll/180452/liberals-record-trail-conservatives.aspx).

        I tend to lump moderates as “conservative-leaning” because of their religious identification- i.e., Christianity I think tends more toward conservative than liberal politics. Although I concede that might be over-generalizing.

        I do however stand by my assertion that academia is WAY out of step with mainstream America. The visceral reaction you had to my dialogue is precisely the reaction I used to have. I am only suggesting that academia open its doors.

        Many fell left out, and I think rightly so.

      • Elliot, you said that 80% of Americans are “conservative-leaning Christians”. By definition, that’s a subset of all Christians. So no, 75% is not the correct number. Not even if you define “conservative leaning” as “anyone who doesn’t identify as liberal”, which frankly is a bad definition. By your definition of “conservative-leaning”, a substantial fraction of all people who consistently vote Democratic must be “conservative-leaning”.

        For reference, here are Pew’s data on the political party identification of US adults, broken down by religious affiliation: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/02/23/u-s-religious-groups-and-their-political-leanings/. It also includes current data on the political leanings of US adults as a whole.

        “The visceral reaction you had to my dialogue is precisely the reaction I used to have.”

        Yes, I have a visceral negative reaction when somebody bases an argument on statements that are demonstrably and seriously false.

        Look, you want to say that “academia is way out of step with mainstream America”, fine. But if you’re going to elaborate and defend that claim with precise statements that are either demonstrably false, or that are based on unconventional and silly definitions of terms like “conservative”, I’m sorry, but it’s going to be difficult for anyone (academic or not) to engage with you productively.

      • Well, OK, I think it is best to concede the points you are making. Perhaps I did not articulate the points I had hoped to make by not being more definitive in my use of terminology.

        I think the link (below) to the chronicle of higher ed article better portrays what I had hoped to communicate:


        I believe that the points made in the article have had the effect of vastly reducing the prestige academia once enjoyed with society, although I admit this is only my opinion.

  14. Just tons and tons of stuff to say, without near the time or energy to say it. But for now…

    …what Tobi said, in various places, pretty much all of it.

    And If I were going to pick one field of science from which to exemplify why “anti-science” stances are aggravatingly problematic to us scientists, it would most definitely *NOT* be climate science. That’s the one I’d pick to demonstrate why justifiable anger and distrust of science/scientists exists. And you can still see why on a daily basis on Twitter.

  15. Hi Brian,

    Thanks for setting out your thoughts on this issue, it’s something that really needs a lot of attention. FYI, I just returned from a visit to hardcore Trump country and IMO science itself is *not* under threat. Trump country embraces science and recognizes the need for basic research. The problem of science credibility lies mostly with environmental issues. There are many great comments but I think there’s room for more progress in the direction that science needs to go if it wants to retain its credibility on environmental issues.

    So much has been said already that’s really good that I want to focus on one aspect that hasn’t been covered by anyone: economics. I feel like a strong economy is critical to the American way of life and to basic research. We have to find a way to preserve that amidst our efforts to maintain livable environment. I apologize for the length of this thing but man this is a very, very difficult topic.

    In my state, the major cities are growing like mad and the demand for housing is off the charts. Increasing rent is pushing people to the streets. Homeless camp trash is spilling onto the freeways. Meanwhile, the environmental lobby – backed by many scientist advocates – has dramatically curtailed lumber production across the state. Production has dropped from 8 billion board-feet in 1973 to less than 3 billion board-feet in 2015. Production is being lost by two means: environmental regulation and land acquisition by public agencies and conservation groups for the purposes of “conservation.”

    The consequences of lost timber production? New expenditures and revenue losses at every level of government and pressure on housing prices:

    (1) taxpayers pay for the land acquired by public agencies for conservation (both the state and the most populated county are acquiring timberlands).

    (2) public agencies pay to manage the land.

    (3) Jobs disappear – lost personal and company income equates to lost tax revenue via both sales and income tax. (Green groups claim job losses are driven by automation but the production declines prove that argument false).

    (4) Government or non-profit owned land doesn’t pay property taxes.

    (5) Public agencies lose royalty and sales revenue from timberlands.

    (6) land acquisitions reduce the available land base and drive up land prices and therefore rent prices.

    (7) Job losses drive people out of rural areas and into cities, multiplying housing demand and price effects.

    Most of these factors apply to other resource industries too. Environmental groups claim that regulations either: (a) don’t cost jobs; or (b) the jobs are made up by Wonderful Tourism Jobs! We’ve already seen (a) is wrong. The high unemployment rates in rural counties and plummeting middle class employment nationwide argue that (b) is probably wrong too.

    Implementation of new regulations is *frequently* expressed by both scientists and environmental groups as imperative. But is it? Almost certainly not. My state already has 10% of its land base (roughly 20% of its forest) preserved as wilderness, and more preserved in national, state and local parks and wildlife refuges. Preventing logging on the remainder of the public forest lands is hardly necessary to the survival of humanity. I suspect that the clean water regs proposed by Obama and now being reviewed(?) by the current administration would have eliminated more logging on *private* land and cost more jobs and tax revenue.

    Much of the environmental regulation that’s billed as essential is not essential at all. Its *desirable* to *some* people. And the negative economic effects of regulation are real. Resource jobs are an essential component of a strong economy that produces middle class jobs. Killing them through environmental regulations is killing the golden goose that allows publically funded science – and many other public benefits – to exist in the first place.

    When scientists lobby for causes, if they want to retain their credibility on environmental issues, they need to think **much** harder than they are now about the overall effect of what they’re advocating for and whether it’s absolutely necessary. Saving the local population of Wierdus creaturii might seem imperative to you, but it’s *not imperative to humanity*. Claiming that it is damages the credibility of science. Science is going to have to get its head around that, or its struggles at the environmental table – including on issues like climate change – will grow, not shrink.

    Thanks again for airing this issue.

    • I agree it is when science and economy (or I could it science and business before) clash that these issues arise.

      As to what that means we should do about environmental regulations that have negative economic consequences, that is about 10 books worth of discussion! But I agree the part scientists specifically need to own is ensuring that such regulations actually have evidence-based, measurable environmental benefits.

      • Yes, it’s a pretty hefty topic.

        But it’s not just a question of providing *some* environmental benefits. It’s a question of providing *more* environmental benefits than one takes with the costs. It means accepting that there *is* a trade off rather than claiming the environmental benefit is priceless on every issue.

        I listed the kinds of lost tax revenue above because I think it’s important to get out of the abstract. I’ll do it again:

        Could we live without the reintroduction of wolves and grizzlies in the lower 48? It seems obvious that we can. I doubt that a) it’s possible to restore pre-human ecosystem function; b) we even know what pre-human ecosystem function was; c) even if we knew what it was and could restore it, it doesn’t matter – restoration doesn’t provide benefits that are greater than the costs. Especially since there is a substantial population of both wolves and grizzlies across Alaska and Canada. These species aren’t the least bit endangered.

        Can scientists accept that it’s not *essential* to restore these populations? I think that’s what it will take to gain credibility on environmental issues: recognize that it’s a trade off, that what they want isn’t necessarily essential, that it comes at a cost and it has to be balanced against that cost.

    • Any chance you live in Portland OR (I do…). Yeah man, very very sad homeless issues here. Sounds to me like your comments, and Brian’s thoughtful guidance over these several days are maybe steering us toward thinking about defining a new land/ conservation ethic. I think it is long overdue, but also have seen signs in my work that perhaps it is already beginning to take shape.

      • Seattle. The homeless issue has really exploded in the last two years. Homeless people are camping in every freeway interchange near downtown and garbage is everywhere.

        I hope a more realistic conservation ethos emerges in combination with a more realistic economic one. A prescription of economic abstinence probably isn’t going to win the day.

        Was just down your way on a tour through the Columbia gorge. Had a great time.

  16. Pingback: Responding to “a post-fact world”: In defense of the honest broker | Dynamic Ecology

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