Messengers Matter: Overcoming the Age of Denial

, former deputy director, Center for Science & Democracy | August 22, 2013, 1:36 pm EDT
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The Internet is abuzz with University of Rochester Professor Adam Frank’s op-ed provocatively titled “Welcome to the Age of Denial.” It’s the most e-mailed piece on the New York Times right now, and it’s all over social media. It’s an interesting critique, and a great call to action. Many scientists and science communicators share his frustration, and believe that science and scientific thinking are increasingly marginalized in a time when so many of the challenges we face are science-based. Of equal importance, however, is how we frame and contextualize science—and how we deliver its messages.

More to it than just the science

What has been lost,” Professor Frank opines, “Is an understanding that science’s open-ended, evidence-based processes — rather than just its results — are essential to meeting those challenges.” I believe we need to go beyond being champions for the scientific method and figure out how we can come together around a common base of evidence. This means talking about more than just science.


Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment, immortalized in this Benjamin West painting, was only the most famous episode in his prolific career as a citizen-scientist. Image Source: UCS.

To be sure, we are where we are today because the people of the United States used scientific approaches to tackle society’s problems and raise our standard of living. This dates back to the beginning of our republic. The Founding Fathers used scientific concepts to design our system of government. The pursuit and application of scientific knowledge is a main driver in developing our economy and improving our quality of life. Science is in our cultural DNA.

We need to recognize that respect for science and scientific thinking in America is still strong on many issues. Scientists are still among the most respected and most trusted people in our culture.

Yet any backlash against science and scientists occurs where a narrative is created that pits scientific findings against closely-held values. We should be watchful for when these narratives are intentionally propagated and exploited, and push back against those who are gumming up the works.

Yet what the writer misses is that science is much more than a tradition. It’s a means of improving our way of life. Science has provided us with significant benefits. We can’t afford to think of it as something to be revered and put on a pedestal. We need to employ scientific thinking and scientific output to address the challenges we face.

The reasons people reject evolution, vaccines, and climate change are all based on very different values. When people reject evolution, they use a religious frame. When people reject vaccines, they exhibit a distrust of pharmaceutical companies and a lack of confidence in government to protect them. When people reject climate science, they generally show a propensity to trust big business and fear government control.

In other words, scientific thinking doesn’t necessarily erode our values; it can complement them.

The message matters—and so does the messenger

Armed with this knowledge, there are ways we know we can overcome rejection of science. Scientists and others who communicate science have to think critically about their audiences and the values they hold. They can use this information to figure out how to best share scientific information.

Both the message and the messengers matter. And we can use what we learn to inform new communications strategies. For a religious audience, we can partner with science-supportive pastors. For the anti-vaccine crowd, we can focus on the real harm of diseases. For climate change, we can be conversant in solutions that also involve big business and financial opportunity. More and more lessons from the science of science communication are now being utilized.

Where Professor Frank really hits the nail on the head regards the need for scientists to engage. He calls on his students to become “fierce champions of science in the marketplace of ideas.” Indeed, he says they have no other choice.

I’d go even further: science provides us with a unique way of understanding the world. Evidence-based analysis offers us ways not only to address problems but to overcome divisions, potentially allowing people with completely different perspectives and values to work successfully together.

Science is rarely the only factor that drives personal and policy decisions. Nor should it be. But science should be fully considered when decisions are made.

For this to truly happen, people from all walks of life must be part of the dialogue. Scientists and non-scientists must develop stronger relationships to understand different bases of knowledge, perspectives and values. Our new experiment, the Center for Science and Democracy, is attempting to do just that. We don’t have all the answers yet. But with conversations like these, we’re making progress.

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  • Another consideration is that those of us comfortable with scientific information are used to employing science based knowledge to drive our behavior. We tend to assume that this holds true for the general population, that all we have to do is tell them the “facts” and they will see the logic and come on side.

    But experience tells a different story. For example 65% of Canadians know that climate change is a serious man made threat to our civilization and yet only 5% act on that knowledge. Experience tells us that actions are driven by emotions, culture and countless other factors that have nothing to do with information.

    We are not a rational species but rather a rationalizing species. We make our decisions and then we look for information to support our actions. Instead of fighting this basic human tendency should we think about how we can reconstruct our message to the masses to stimulate a more limbic response or do we continue to try and raise the bar so that more people can engage in rational action?

    • Michael Halpern

      I don’t even think people who are comfortable with scientific information are used to employing science-based knowledge to drive their behavior. This morning, I ate two donuts because a colleague brought in a couple dozen (thanks, Nick). I know that public health experts would disapprove. But I did it anyway, because the donuts tasted good and I had a few minutes to socialize with co-workers. I know I would have been less likely to have upped my cholesterol had I been in an environment where consumption was frowned upon. And donuts don’t (yet) come with significant baggage of politics and identity.

      We act on knowledge that reinforces our values and identity, or that we see as advantageous to ourselves or society. Scientists who work on contentious issues where there are manufactured controversies such as those mentioned by Professor Frank – climate change, vaccines, etc. – are turning to social science to figure out how to bring their research to bear in the most effective way.

      If you’re interested in exploring this more, check out some of the suggested readings for a discussion I recently moderated.

  • Yes, scientists must learn how to engage and how to communicate. But a “call to action” directed where, with what information, in what form? Before anything is done, we must understand the causes, motivations and forces at work. What are the religious, political and corporate interests, and what are their strategies and tactics? And, we must know our target audiences, and their issues and concerns. What does it take to be persuasive? We know it’s not just the facts – otherwise, everyone would accept global warming and evolution, and all motorcyclists would wear helmets. Scientists need to marry specific, emotionally-based messages with the factual.

    • Michael Halpern

      I agree. Running off in all directions is not productive. At any meeting where I here these issues discussed, I hear dismissal of the information deficit model – the idea that if we just provide people with the right information, people will accept it and incorporate it into the decisions they make. This can be counterintuitive to the scientist. But scientists are learning. Witness the upcoming National Academy of Sciences meeting on the science of science communication.

      We also need to unpack how narratives that counter scientific consensus are developed and by whom. Many are engaged in this. At UCS, we’ve looked at the influence of corporations on public and policymaker dialogue on scientific issues, and have specifically tackled how companies (and their trade associations) talk about climate change science and policy. More has to be done.

      That said, the marriage can’t be so complete that we cannot distinguish between what is factual and what is the opinion based on knowledge. And ultimately, the approach that is most effective is multi-modal.

      That said, I also would caution against needing a 100% complete understanding of all the forces at work before we act. We do need to know what direction we are heading, but we can’t just continue to navel-gaze. I’m not saying you are suggesting this, but scientists have a different understanding of what uncertainty means.

      • Michael, thanks very much for the thoughtful reply (and blog article, of course). You bring up an important point about the level of certainty that some in the community require. Analysis paralysis is a real concern. Instead, we need to think like entreprenuers. As Peter Drucker said (paraphrasing), we should move ahead with 80% of what we need to know, otherwise the “competition” will overtake us. And thanks for the links – I’ll look forward to learning more about what UCS and NAS are doing (and maybe how I can contribute).