Talking about science at Netroots Nation: Fact versus fear


There were two things I learned watching the Netroots Nation panel on Science Policy in Unexpected Places.

First, more science communication is happening, in more ways. Scientists are taking initiative to talk to the public and to journalists, helping to make sense of the flood of information so that people come away educated, instead of overwhelmed. And advocates are finding fun ways to bring basic science—the stuff that isn't fresh news, but sure does help when you need to actually understand the news—to people who have traditionally been overlooked by science education programs. Sports fans, for instance. That's the good stuff.

The bad stuff: Turns out, it's frustratingly easy for science to become as polarized as politics, with a mentality that divides the world into the Smart People (who already know everything) and the Idiots (who won't ever know anything).

I don't normally go for political conventions. But I did choose to attend this year's Netroots, a gathering of capital-P Progressive bloggers and activists that took place in downtown Minneapolis between June 16 and 19. Josh Rosenau, a science blogger and the programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education invited me to watch the panel he'd put together, all about how to engage the public on science—especially the sort of science that intertwines with politics. I came away from the experience both charmed and frustrated.

I'll start with the charm, because, frankly, that made up the bulk of the experience. You know that special sort of glee you feel when it turns out that the issues you're concerned about are at the top of somebody else's radar, too? There was a lot of that.

For example, one of the things I love about writing for BoingBoing is that I'm able to reach the portion of our audience that isn't necessarily prone to picking up science magazines or regularly reading science news websites—the only places my work would otherwise turn up. Sure, there's a lot of overlap between readers of BoingBoing and readers of, say, Discover. But it's not a 100% overlap. Come for the cute cat videos, stay for deconstructions of the concept of "peer review." That's what I always say.

But here in the warm embrace of the Internet it's easy to forget how little science news makes its way to the general public. Dedicated science journalists were among the first people laid off at newspapers and TV channels. That's why I like what Dr. Heidi Cullen and Climate Central are trying to do. Most Americans get their news from local television, Cullen said, and they consider local news to be more honest than cable. So Climate Central works with TV meteorologists (often the closest thing to a science reporter or a scientist in an average American's life) to help them find ways to insert quality climate science into nightly newscasts.

King Context

Another thing I've been thinking a lot about lately is the problem of context. These politically contentious issues—climate change, vaccinations, stem cell research—we tend to talk about them primarily in the context of political tension. They come across as contests to be won, rather than as actual issues of science and average people end up unsure of who to trust. That's probably why Americans understand controversial science less well than they understand the basic stuff. In 2008, 44% of Americans could correctly define DNA, but only 20% could do the same for stem cells.

I don't necessarily think the key to solving this problem is more (bigger! harder!) repetition about the facts behind controversial science issues. Instead, I think the solution starts with the basics. If you help people understand why peer review is valuable in a context that doesn't press their political buttons, they're probably more likely to respond well when you call them back to that information later, in a more controversial context.

I love what panelist John Abraham and the Climate Science Rapid Response Team are doing—matching scientists with journalists to make sure that science gets its say on controversial topics. But I think that the work of another panelist, Darlene Cavalier, is just as important ... even though it might not seem so at first.

Cavalier is the brains behind the Science Cheerleaders, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. There are cheerleaders. They are talking about science. And you ought to resist the urge to brush this off as fluff. That's because Cavalier is using the concept as a way to get often-ignored populations excited about the basics of science. At Netroots, she told the audience about taking a team of Science Cheerleaders into a Philadelphia bar during a football game to talk about geometry. When you've got a drunk guy swiping your megaphone to yell about vectors, I actually think you're doing something right. (Plus, it was more than a little awesome to watch her video clip wherein several pro-sports cheerleaders discussed their other careers in medicine, biology, neuroscience, and math.)

If you assume cheerleaders are bimbos and bar patrons won't care about math, then you're never going to get those people thinking seriously about the science of climate.

A Bad Case of the Stupids

Which brings me to what I didn't like. Shawn Otto has done some good things, including promoting Science Debates for political candidates. But the perspective on science education that he presented at Netroots Nation was way off-base.

No discussion about how to reach the general public with science should start with a clip from Idiocracy.

Otto's message was basically this: Most of America is just stupid and they aren't capable of understanding science in any meaningful way. So we, the enlightened ones, are going to have to push them over to our side on science-based political issues by using fear and a good public shaming.

I might have agreed with that a year ago. But that's before I finished researching Before the Lights Go Out, my upcoming book about the future of energy in America. Along the way, I learned some pretty interesting things. First off, Americans have a lot of reasons to care about energy. One person's list of concerns might not match yours, but they might still be interested in the same solutions. The Climate and Energy Project, a Kansas-based non-profit, found this out when they did a series of focus groups. They expected to find a lot of people who thought climate change was a lie. What they didn't expect was that many of those people would be taking action on energy change, anyway. A guy can call environmentalists liars, and still choose to own a Prius and swap out his light bulbs for CFLs. So, maybe, instead of calling him stupid, we should ask him why he did that and try to find some common ground.

Politicians may have manipulated climate change into becoming a straw man for partisan slap fights, but that doesn't mean Americans are stupid. You can see this reflected in the polls. Between 2006 and 2010, American concern about climate change fell. But during the same years, American interest in alternative energy and sustainable lifestyle choices remained strong.

Today, somewhere on the order of 60% of us believe that climate change is a serious threat supported by evidence. But, depending on the poll and the specific questions being asked, between 70% and 90% of us support things like increasing funding for alternative energy and mass transit, raising fuel efficiency standards for cars, instituting tougher energy efficiency standards on other areas of our lives, and requiring utility companies to get more of their energy from renewable sources. Even a majority of self-described Republicans support alternative energy and energy-change policies that you might suspect they'd be against.

My point here is that writing the majority of Americas off as idiots isn't going to solve your political problems, and it doesn't even reflect the political reality that those Americans profess to believe in. The lack of political action on climate change is a big a problem, but we're more likely to get that solved using the ideas of Heidi Cullen, Darlene Cavalier, and John Abraham, than those of Shawn Otto.

Image: Earth Egg, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from azrainman's photostream


  1. In the UK, when efforts to reduce water consumption gave rise to hosepipe bans, one guy starting selling the “Ban Beater”, which was a siphon pump for using bathwater to water your garden. “Ha ha! I’m beating your silly ban and watering my lawn anyway!” “Thanks, that’s what we wanted you to do”. You could see people buying CFLs and Priuses in the same way.

    1. Hear here!

      Sometimes the best way to get people to do something is to engineer a situation that exploits their defiance.

      In this case, it’s all good.

      I am heartened by the fact that the western world has overwhelmingly accepted that less pollution and more renewables are the best solution, in spite of cynical political attempts to reframe arguments more narrowly.

  2. Yet that approach (“writing the majority of Americans off as idiots”) is exactly the path many scientists have taken with evolution education. Climate change is for real-serious, so we need to get it right this time, if it’s not too late.

    Love the Science Cheerleaders idea!

  3. Point 1: Good science journalists are severely undervalued. My brother in law was one, but now he does something else (that actually pays the bills).

    Point 2a: “The Stupids”. The public is very smart about issues that affect them directly. On other issues, they are perfectly happy to repeat the last or most interesting / outrageous thing they heard, maybe from the guy on his 5th bourbon at the bar. Polling on “theoretical” issues is utterly meaningless. Most replies are some variant on “F U”.

    Point 2b: (again on “The Stupids”): The absolute worst thing you can say on such an issue is “trust us, we’re smarter than you”. Guarantees an “F U” response. See the entire thimerosal debate.

    The average citizen was an average student and still resents those that got As and high Bs. (The average politician is even worse, since he got through school by schmoozing.)

    1. 2A: Actually, the public isn’t very smart about issues that affect them directly either. That’s the whole point of books like “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” — that politicians have manipulated the working class into voting against their own best interests.

      2B: The simple fact is that not everyone’s opinion of science counts equally. To really understand science really does require the appropriate education. People can’t just make scientific decisions on their gut feelings or learn enough science to do so from watching NOVA, reading a few newspaper articles or attending a few public lectures. I think there certainly is a place for scientific communication, but it is naive to expect that it can educate people to truly understand the issues for themselves. But if it serves to show the public that scientists aren’t just pulling results out of their asses, that might be good enough.

      1. People are smart about the things that affect them directly. They are not necessarily smart about what to do about them, or why they’re happening. I’ll rephrase: people are quite perceptive about things that affect them directly. The problem comes when asked to reason about causes and cures.

        Yes, you need an education to understand science (and sometimes even that doesn’t help). But you do not win the vaccine debate or the climate change debate by saying “you’re ignorant”. That’s how you lose.

  4. I don’t know how you win for science, but the best and fastest way to lose is to assume that the people you’re trying to convert are idiots.

  5. It’s not about ‘fear vs facts’. The fearful use facts. It’s about not accepting a life of fear. Convince the fearful to not be afraid and you’ve got someone to carry your water.

  6. As a Republican conservationist, I have to say thank you very much for saying so clearly something I’ve been trying to articulate for ages.

    Any country boy who saw his boyhood holler clearcut by International Paper will be receptive to conservation, alternative energy, and care for the environment no matter his politics. You don’t have to sell them on the idea that a 4 degree average temp increase will erase Florida to get these folks to support green energy.

    1. Cheers!

      I’ve seen that in my own family as well, although for different reasons. My step-father is into clean energy because he’s into self-sufficiency and he’s a mechanic who digs the DIY aspect.

      Another thing that Cullen and Abraham brought up, and that I know the Climate and Energy Project has had good luck with, is the concept of Creation Care. Basically, your heavenly father wants you to clean up after yourself.

      1. The Creation Care concept is great. My dad is a former-hippie who has gotten somewhat religious as he gets older. He still calls himself a treehugger and makes a good argument that the creation story means not that we have dominion over the earth, but that we are to be STEWARDS of the earth. We have a responsibility to keep God’s creation in good shape.

        I don’t need religion to convince me of that personally, but it does seem like it would resonate with the nicer kind of Christian.

  7. Otto’s message was basically this: Most of America is just stupid and they aren’t capable of understanding science in any meaningful way. So we, the enlightened ones, are going to have to push them over to our side on science-based political issues by using fear and a good public shaming.

    So to sum up his approach:

    Step 1) Use fear and insults to push your viewpoint.

    Step 2) Act flabbergasted when people think you’re a partisan hack.

    The problem with enlightened people is that nobody is enlightened about everything. Even if someone’s climate research is perfect, their proposed solution could be technically unworkable. Or politically naive. Or economically disastrous.

  8. re: “You don’t have to sell them on the idea that a 4 degree average temp increase will erase Florida….”

    You say that like it’s a bad thing.

    As for the topic – same as it ever was?

    I think through out history people haven’t been very receptive to new ideas, especially ones that require a paradigm shift.

  9. There has always been a problem with effective communication from the scientific community. And when politicians and journalists go out of their way to depict scientists as incompetent, the result is that the scientist usually gives up on trying to educate people and goes back to the lab to do “real work.” The average american does not understand the true meaning of what a theory is, thinking that it is little more than a guess to explain things. That’s how the work is used in day to day context, and so the problems begin. Germ Theory? It’s only a theory. Evolutionary Theory? It’s only a theory. Theory of Gravity? It’s only a theory.

    I suspect (though I don’t know with any certainty) that the average American may not feel that global warming is as pressing as many in the science community do. But at the same time, they won’t object to cleaner rivers, reduced pollution, etc. So there is passive acceptance right there. The way you convince people to start helping is when you talk money. CFLs are a little bit more expensive than traditional incandescent. On the other hand, they use a fraction of the power and have much longer lifetimes, saving the user money. Now the government is stepping in and banning incandescents (which most people are apparently unaware of) but at least they waited until CFLs became pretty widely accepted. LED-based lighting is all well and good, but they are expensive and tend to be highly directional, when people want a wide, diffuse light source. Good quality LED bulbs can cost around $75, which is just unreasonably high for the average consumer, when CFLs cost $0.99-$2.99.

    The Science Cheerleaders are utterly brilliant, and I’m happy to have read about them. Then again, I take away another message from them- see? Science chicks *can* be sexy.

  10. This seems like the natural perspective of an author trying to convince laypeople of the scope of global energy woes (including production, distribution, climate change, food, water, and population).

    The main problem with this approach? We don’t have the time. The whole love and understanding bit – pride of generations of liberals – might work in a vacuum, but not in a market with fear, propaganda, and 23% of the world’s GDP solidly aligned against you.

    In the last decade, the general population *may* have grown somewhat cognizant of the existence of a problem, meanwhile this is happening:

    Pretending that anything remotely similar to our natural world will exist in a generation or two must be some kind of cosmic joke for the LuLz.

  11. Coincidentally, I stayed up all night last night writing about Bisphenol A ( ), and how at least for health related issues, laypeople can go straight to Pubmed and fact check the so called experts. Any reasonably literate person can take advantage of the abstracts of review articles, which summarize research findings for different levels of expertise on any subject matter. I think if you don’t make yourself feel bad about skipping irrelevant articles, highly technical ones, or those focusing on minutiae, the the remainder of Pubmed review search can still yield a good feel for what the scientific consensus is for a particular topic, and how much debate there remains. It’s also good for people outside the field to see how science is built up from individual primary research papers to some kind of consensus to general public dissemination.

    Of course, our perspective may be skewed bc my partner and I both have biology undergrad degrees, and I can only imagine what the abstracts might look like to someone without a biology background.

  12. You guys are way too optimistic. Most people just believe what they want to believe; you can fool yourselves by going to talks, cons, and blogs frequented by other progressives, but that won’t change human nature. People (especially Americans) are incredibly good at making excuses for their behavior and writing off criticism as elitism or meaningless nose-buttery.

    Sorry, guys, what’s going to “solve” climate change is slowly increasing petroleum prices pushing up the price of fertilizer (and therefore food) and breaking down our brittle, “efficient”, just-in-time supply chains. At that point, we either consign ourselves to a time of penitential luxury-fasting in the land of Nod or we panic and remove what few environmental protections are left to hopefully drop the fuel price and buy a few more years of the good life.

    From what I’ve seen of human nature, I’m betting on option “B”. People would much rather have air conditioning today than 80 years of breathable air for their grandchildren.

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