Science and public relations

Occasionally, one sees an article scolding scientists for not doing a good job engaging the public. There is a public relations war going on and the science denialists are winning: Large groups of people believe vaccines cause autism, global warming is not a problem, and that evolution doesn’t happen.

The opinion expressed in the articles above is that scientists should stop showing people graphs and figures and instead adopt some of the weaponry of the science denialists:

  1. appeals to emotion

    Researchers need to tell personal stories, tug at the heartstrings of people who don’t have PhDs.

  2. Celebrity endorsements

    Assemble two groups of spokespeople, one made up of scientists and the other of celebrity ambassadors.

  3. Appealing to egotism

    They need to make people answer the questions, What’s in it for me?

  4. Truthiness

    Scientists are lousy communicators. They appeal to people’s heads, not their hearts or guts

  5. Now, I have no doubt that in the short term this would make scientists more appealing to the public, and would improve the public’s acceptance of scientific arguments. However, I am concerned about the long term consequences of this strategy.

    The reason scientists are so successful at gathering new knowledge is that they have powerful tools for seeing through bullshit. They know what is good evidence and what is bad evidence. They know what should be convincing and what should not be convincing. They are experts in fallacies of reasoning and in cognitive biases and how to avoid mental traps. The strategy outlined above undermines that valuable skill. Each of the points outlined above is a different brand of manipulative bullshit. Maybe we should call it ‘white bullshit’ because the intention behind it is honourable. But, it is not a respectable mode of argument.

    So what’s the harm in bullshitting to get people to believe in climate science/evolution/medicine/etc.? The damage comes in harming the public’s perception of what scientific values are. This strategy would send an unambiguous message from the scientific community that its good to listen to emotional appeals. Let celebrities and men in lab coats tell you what to think. Go with your gut. These would become scientist approved ways of making sense of your world!

    People have a hard enough time understanding what science is and how it works. The damage done to the public perception of science if scientists start telling people that the reason they should believe in climate change is celebrity testimonials is unacceptable. Scientists should stick to making logical arguments based on the best available evidence. That’s kind of the point of a scientist.

    I think the problem is not with scientists at all. If you notice that people are having trouble telling the difference between the manipulative bullshit of science denialists and reasonable arguments based on careful data, that’s a problem with the education system. It is not a problem with the people who are reasonable.


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