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To Defend Science, We Need to Depolarize It

We need to fight for science without attacking people’s deeply held political and religious loyalties.

By Michael White


NASA technicians in Virginia. (Photo: gsfc/Flickr)

People are worried about how science will fare under the Trump administration. We just came through a disorienting election in which millions of people accepted fake news as truth, and we now have an administration whose spokespeople defend “alternative facts.” Trump has discussed vaccine safety with a believer in the disproven claim that vaccines cause autism, floated candidates for Food and Drug Administration commissioner who’ve proposed lowering science standards for drug approvals, and has put the Environmental Protection Agency in the hands of highly ideologicalopponents of the scientific consensus on climate change.

These actions have left many worried that science—which is produced, funded, and used by key government agencies—will need to be defended in the coming years. Scientists are planning their own march on Washington this spring, and, more generally, an engaged community of scientists is gearing up for a fight. As Chris Mooney reported in the Washington Post last week, organized groups of scientists are ready to push back against any effort by Trump administration officials to interfere with the science on which our federal government and our society relies.

If we force people to choose between science and their political or religious loyalties, science will lose.

A more politically engaged scientific community, Mooney writes, “is the consequence of scientists experimenting for more than a decade with blogging and social media, of their focus on scientific communications to the public, and of their growing awareness of political attacks on science and the need to counter them.” I know what Mooney is talking about because I’m one of those scientists — I started my first science blog just over 11 years ago, and have been writing about science ever since. And here is the most important lesson I’ve learned: If we force people to choose between science and their political or religious loyalties, science will lose. Partisan polarization is powerful. To defend science effectively, we have to depolarize it.

For me, this lesson took some time to sink in. Like many science bloggers in the mid-aughts, I came to science blogging as a culture warrior. In the fall of 2005, having just submitted my Ph.D. thesis, I had time on my hands and arguments to dole out. What drew me in was an important federal court case underway in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, involving a perennial science-related controversy: teaching creationism in public schools. On my blog, I attacked the creationist Intelligent Design movement as nothing more than a disinformation campaign, one which distorted science for the obvious purpose of presenting the religious beliefs of one particular strain of Christianity to a captive audience of school children. I spent much of my effort debunking false claims and skewering flawed arguments. My attitude — and that of many science bloggers at the time — was aptly captured by a slogan on one of my T-shirts: “SCIENCE doesn’t care what you believe.”

While intelligent design needs to be strongly challenged, it’s not hard to see that I was doing it wrong. I was trying to defend science by defeating the arguments of others. But challenging bad arguments isn’t enough, as those who’ve studied science communication and education could have told me. Because evolution has remained socially controversial science for more than a century, researchers and educators have learned few things about how to communicate and teach evolution — and other controversial science topics — effectively.

Brian Alters, a professor at Chapman University in California and director of the Evolution Education Research Centre, has studied how students learn evolution. In the book Defending Evolution: A Guide to the Evolution/Creation Controversy, Alters and his wife, biologist Sandra Alters, argue that all students come to science with misconceptions that have been shaped by their experiences and culture. It’s those misconceptions that often drive resistance to evolution, and not the mere fact that a student is part of a particular religious group. Importantly, these misconceptions are not easily changed — you don’t fix them simply by explaining why they’re wrong. To get students to replace their misconceptions with scientifically accurate ones, it’s critical to help them discover for themselves how their misconceptions fail, and why correct scientific ideas succeed. As Alters and Alters write, to replace a misconception with a scientifically accurate one “[students] must understand these scientifically valid conceptions, think that they make sense, and find them useful in solving problems.” In other words, people accept controversial science when we help them convince themselves that the science is right.

As a socially controversial science, evolution has receded in recent years, giving way to climate change as the urgency for action to reduce global warming has grown. Acceptance of climate change in America is highly polarized by political affiliation. A study published last fall shows the challenge that partisan polarization poses to science communication. Researchers at University College London and Harvard Law School found that people tend to discount new information that doesn’t match their previous climate change beliefs. Among the study subjects, those who doubted that humans are driving climate change became more confident in their beliefs when presented with good news about the climate (for example, a statement that scientists had lowered their estimate of future warming), but they did not change their beliefs when presented with bad news. The opposite was true for those who believed strongly in human-caused climate change: They ignored good news, but became more confident in their beliefs when presented with bad news.

How do you defend science when people ignore information they don’t like? One answer, according to a study published last month, is to emphasize the consensus of scientists, and explicitly “inoculate” people against deliberate misinformation campaigns. Researchers at the Yale Program on Climate Change Information presented study subjects with a simple statement of the scientific consensus — that 97 percent of climate scientists agree human-caused climate change is occurring. They followed that statement with an “inoculation” message that “some politically motivated groups use misleading tactics to try to convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists.” Compared to other messaging strategies, this combination of a consensus statement and a warning against misleading information was more effective at persuading people to accept the reality of climate change and reject disinformation. Remarkably, the strategy worked across political lines. These results, argue the authors, show that “communicating a social fact, such as the high level of agreement among experts about the reality of human-caused climate change, can be an effective and depolarizing public engagement strategy.”

Such a conclusion may sound surprising given the prevailing narrative that our society is hopelessly polarized between red and blue America. But it’s critical for would-be science defenders to recognize that the public, across the political spectrum, places a lot of trust in scientists. One sign of this trust is that most of the public does not view scientists as politically polarized. A 2015 Pew study found that the majority of people in both political parties don’t think that scientists as a group skew either liberal or conservative. This public trust in scientists is a major opportunity for progress, and it suggests that people are willing to listen — as long as we fight for science without attacking people’s deeply held political and religious loyalties.

An effort to depolarize science as we defend it is a not a call to be naive — we don’t need to deny the existence of well-funded disinformation campaigns that attack the science of climate change, vaccines, or evolution, and we shouldn’t shy away from criticizing government officials who behave badly. Nor should we pretend that scientists aren’t citizens and human beings who hold political views.

But if we’re going to successfully defend science, we need to do more than push back against flawed arguments and bad policy. We need to engage the public, and, even more, invite the public, across the political spectrum, to engage with science.