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:
- Our current post-fact world has been coming for half a century and is part of broad brush societal trends
- 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:
- 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?
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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!