How engaged should scientists be in policy?

I really hate this.

I really hate having to take a friend to task, but he leaves me little choice. You see, I actually like Chris Mooney. Back in the day, I even even hoisted a pint with him at the Toledo Lounge in D.C., round about the time of the commencement of the whole “framing” kerfuffle that has periodically flared up to engulf ScienceBlogs and the rest of the science blogosphere. We had great fun making fun of everyone’s favorite creationist neurosurgeon, particularly his claim that the “design inference” has been “of great value” to medicine and has been a great boon to medical research. Since then, I’ve even defended him on more than one occasion against what I considered to be overblown attacks, although when I disagree with him I don’t hesitate to say so, as when Chris actually proposed trying to build bridges to the leadrs of the anti-vaccine movement

Unfortunately, lately, despite his heart being in the right place and my appreciating it when he’s very good (such as the time when he wrote an excellent article on the anti-vaccine movement), I find myself disagreeing with Chris more often than I agree with him, at least when it comes to science communication and countering denialist attacks on science, particularly after I challenged Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet to apply their “framing” thesis to a problem every bit as intractable and much more immediate than the problem of anthropogenic global warming, namely the anti-vaccine movement, and tell us how to get through to parents that vaccines don’t cause autism and that vaccination is safe.

It looks like now is yet another one of those times to disagree. As I said, I hate this.

You see, Chris wrote another article, this time in the Washington Post entitled If scientists want to educate the public, they should start by listening. Sadly, Chris appears to have learned little since his misstep in thinking that it’s possible to “build bridges” to the anti-vaccine movement’s leaders. Although he doesn’t make a mistake as obvious as suggesting that we try to build bridges with the anti-vaccine movement, he’s pulling the same old “blame the scientists” game. For someone who’s so into framing, he sure does fall for the denialist frame of scientists as being tin-eared, arrogant, and not listening:

Whenever controversies arise that pit scientists against segments of the U.S. public — the evolution debate, say, or the fight over vaccination — a predictable dance seems to unfold. One the one hand, the nonscientists appear almost entirely impervious to scientific data that undermine their opinions and prone to arguing back with technical claims that are of dubious merit. In response, the scientists shake their heads and lament that if only the public weren’t so ignorant, these kinds of misunderstandings wouldn’t occur.

But what if the fault actually lies with both sides?

Oh, dear. I think you know what’s coming next, right? And it does. Chris seems to buy into the denialist frame of the clueless, out of touch scientist who just doesn’t “get” Joe Average and pontificates condescendingly from on high. As PalMD points out, I don’t buy that frame, at least not as a generalization that covers the majority of scientists. Yes, sometimes we scratch our heads about the ignorance of the public, but many of us go out of our way to try to refute such information. Many of us also understand that the reason the public is misled on several issues is because ideology trumps science all too often and that for some contentious issues there is an active campaign against the science. Examples include evolution, which is opposed by fundamentalist religion-inspired activists; vaccines, which are opposed by an anti-vaccine movement that is driven by distrust of government and big pharma and promotes the myth that vaccines cause autism; and the alternative medicine movement, which promotes various quack nostrums based on a similar basis, coupled with an exaggerated libertarian ideology of “health freedom” that really means nothing more than the freedom of quacks to peddle their wares without any pesky government interference.

At the risk of blowing my own horn, I’ve discussed these very issues time and time again on this very blog. So have many other bloggers who use their platform to combat pseudoscience. Among those of us, it is not news that the reason that the public rejects certain scientific findings is not always due to a lack of information but rather because those findings conflict with deeply held political, religious, or ideological beliefs. And, based on my experience, I would agree with Chris when he writes:

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences convened a series of workshops on this topic over the past year and a half, and many of the scientists and other experts who participated concluded that, as much as the public misunderstands science, scientists misunderstand the public. In particular, they often fail to realize that a more scientifically informed public is not necessarily a public that will more frequently side with scientists.

Take climate change. The battle over global warming has raged for more than a decade, with experts still stunned by the willingness of their political opponents to distort scientific conclusions. They conclude, not illogically, that they’re dealing with a problem of misinformation or downright ignorance — one that can be fixed only by setting the record straight.

Yes, there is a strain of thought among scientists where some really do think that more information and refuting bad science will result in the public changing their mind. It is naivete, of course, naïveté that is the mirror image of Chris Mooney’s naïveté when he proposed that scientists can get anywhere “building bridges” to anti-vaccine loons. In a way, it’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Mooney’s calling scientists naive while at the same time demonstrating an astonishing naïveté himself! You’ll see what I mean in a minute, and not from my referencing old articles of his but rather right in his own article:

With public health at stake, it’s no wonder medical experts get frustrated when they hear autism activists such as actress Jenny McCarthy attack vaccines. But once again, the skeptics aren’t simply ignorant people. If anything, they seem to be more voracious consumers of the relevant medical information than the nation as a whole. According to a 2009 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, children who go unvaccinated by parental choice (rather than because of inadequate access to vaccines) tend to be white, from well-to-do families and with married, college-educated mothers. Parents in such families are more likely to go onto the Internet (what McCarthy calls the “university of Google”) to research the health risks of inoculation than are other groups of parents.

I’m sorry, Chris. I really am. But I have to say this: “Well, duh!” Has Chris been paying atention? This is no revelation; those of us who have been trying to combat the anti-vaccine movement have known this right from the beginning. Can anyone recall how many times I’ve pointed out that the anti-vaccine movement is made up of predominantly white, upper middle class to wealthy people who are highly educated? Over the five years I’ve been writing this blog, I can’t recall how many times I’ve pointed this simple fact out. The anti-vaccine movement thinks itself to be speaking science, but it is not.

Here’s the problem with Chris’ observations. As he clearly points out, denialists, be they anti-vaccine, creationist, deniers of anthropogenic global warming, or whatever, are indeed highly motivated “consumers of science.” That’s part of the problem. They are consumers of science, but do not understand (or necessarily accept) the scientific method or how science works. While no one expects the average lay person to be versed in the details, at least as much as he can be given his knowledge base, of a complicated and technical subject such as climate change or vaccine science, it is not unreasonable to expect our educational system to instill a basic understanding of science as a process. That is perhaps one reason why so many people view science is an apparent means to and end, and then only that subset of science that they perceive as supporting their viewpoint. It’s also one reason why so many people are expert cherry pickers of scientific findings to use to support their view of reality. So the question, as Evil Monkey points out, is to do more than just “listen,” which is apparently all that Chris thinks that supporters of science should be doing.

That leaves a big question. What makes Chris think that “listening” will work better than anything else we’ve tried? After all, as Chris himself showed in his book, The Republican War on Science and wrote in this very article, denialists are not supporting or doing science. They are using it as a tool to support their ideology. They are not concerned about science per se, regardless of what part of the political spectrum they hale from, other than how it can be used to suit their purposes. Chris assumes honesty and a genuine desire for dialog on both sides. While such a faith in humanity is admirable on some level, it is also disappointing to see such a willingness, in essence, to ignore all the known distortions, cherry picking, and attacks on science.

There’s no arguing that it’s necessary in public relations to interact with your opponents if you’re ever to hope to bring any of them around, even a little, to your way of thinking, but Chris’ examples are fuzzy and not all even necessarily purely scientific, for example:

For this reason, initiatives that engage the public about science policy in a two-way conversation — before controversies explode — show great promise. In Canada, for instance, the national Nuclear Waste Management Organization spent three years listening to the public’s views about how to handle nuclear waste disposal and promised that no dump or repository would be sprung on a community without its consent. Throughout the process, even critics of waste storage efforts remained engaged and supportive of attempts to come up with the best possible solution.

While the question of where to store nuclear waste does have technology and science as two of the factors driving any decisions, there are far more political and economic factors than scientific. Certainly, any site that is chosen must be found to be safe based on sound science, but after that all bets are off. Curiously lacking from Chris’ article is a description of how the Canadian process turned out. Did it actually result in new storage facilities? How did the public near the sites end up accepting them? In other words, is there any data to support Chris’ vague claims? I’m not arguing that it’s a bad thing to engage the public in decisions; that is the very heart of our democracy. What I’m wondering is whether Chris’ proposals are so vague as to represent little more than sitting down with opponents and singing Kumbaya.

Chris is also painfully off base when he buys into the denialist frame of scientists being out of touch and arrogant:

Experts aren’t wrong in thinking that Americans don’t know much about science, but given how little they themselves often know about the public, they should be careful not to throw stones. Rather than simply crusading against ignorance, the defenders of science should also work closely with social scientists and specialists in public opinion to determine how to defuse controversies by addressing their fundamental causes.

So while Chris is admitting that Americans don’t know much about science, once again he has trouble coming up with anything concrete. Kumbaya indeed.

PalMD also pointed out the conflict inherent in applying science to policy in a democracy. Our nation is a democratic republic, where elected officials are accountable to the voters. Science, however, is not a democracy. Unfortunately, all too often it’s treated like one, particularly in the press. Whenever, for example, climate change science is discussed, almost inevitably the “skeptics” are interviewed because the press likes controversy and because there always have to be two sides to a story. Ditto vaccines. Until he was stripped of his U.K. medical license, rare was the vaccine story, particularly in the U.K., that didn’t mention Andrew Wakefield. In fact, Andrew Wakefield couldn’t have caused the damage he did without willing accomplices in the press. In any rational world, he would have disappeared from any stories about vaccines by no later than 2004, which is when Brian Deer first started exposing his conflicts of interest adn shoddy science. He didn’t. He remained in the limelight for six more years, and it took disciplinary action against him in the form of stripping him of his medical license before the press finally started viewing him as the disgrace that he is.

From my perspective, Chris seems to be demanding more of scientists than we should be. He also dances around a question that PalMD also nailed exactly. What happens when the best scientific solution to a problem is politically unpopular? The reason that the people of Nevada oppose having nuclear waste stored in their state is, as Chris points out, because they perceive it as unfair. Will they perceive it as any less unfair if scientists persuade them it’s safe? I doubt it. It’s a political issue, and Chris seems to be demanding that scientists become politicians and advertisers right in the thick of such policy fights. He’s right about one thing. We’re not too good at that. But should we try to become as good at it as Chris thinks we should become?

I’m not so sure.

Personally, I tend to agree with PalMD that scientists and physicians should hew more closely to the science in public debates about policies that are primarily driven by science. Our job is to provide the best science-based assessment of options for these important policy debates and to try to convince legislators to insulate science policy from the vagaries of the election cycle. The NIH is an excellent example of how this can be achieved. Congress controls its budget and general structure, but the NIH decides how research dollars are spent, and support for NIH funding remains high. Ditto the National Science Foundation. There’s also a distinct risk for scientists in becoming too active. That real risk is the erosion of the high level of respect that scientists in general enjoy from the public, who could easily come to view them as just another interest group if scientists associate themselves too closely with various political policies. That is exactly the sort of attack that climate scientists frequently endure from AGW denialists, and it works because it resonates.

Contrary to Chris’ seeming belief that scientists don’t understand that we’re fighting ideology rather than necessarily ignorance, scientists by and large do realize it. I don’t know that defeating those ideologies should be a job that scientists should primarily take on. Engaging the public about the science behind important policy decisions is critically important, but we have to be very careful not to become the mirror image of the denialist ideologues whose misinformation we’re trying to combat.