Thursday, August 30, 2007

Framing science, atheism, and the world's oldest profesion

No, not that, the OTHER oldest profession: fishing.

Ever try to talk to a fisherman about scientific studies that show how fishing is harmful? It’s about as easy as talking to religious people about atheism.

So maybe I’ll offer a fish story to all those people arguing about evolution, intelligent design, atheism, global warming, and the larger topic of how to inject some science into severely inflamed public debates that could use a dose.

It ain’t easy to catch fish that are worth catching, and people who are good at fishing are smart. Most of them place a high value on fishing. So they listen with skepticism when some whippersnapper with a lab coat starts lecturing them about how fishing is harmful.

Enter me, whippersnapper. I have a set of facts about harm caused by fishing. I offer my facts to fishermen and hear a lot about the uncertainty of the data (true) and a few words that I will print here as @#$($(#$

Is this effective science communication? Is it useful to “let the facts speak for themselves?” Is anyone hearing the facts?

Now let’s try again with a different approach.

Let’s suppose we start by bonding over the magnificence of whales, which we both like, and how important it is to conserve small fish for big fish too eat. We get a read on each other’s values and see that, in fact, we both want to conserve fish. After an introduction like this, we can talk for real about scientific studies on how to conserve fish.

Is this spin? Is it somehow wrong? Is anyone lying? No. What’s happening is that we’re anchoring ourselves in shared values, trying to sniff out biases, which is necessary before we can communicate with each other (since we don’t know each other and might look different).

Scientists do this too. The level of professional skepticism over new research reports varies with the identity of the authors. The work of trusted allies is welcomed, but the work of archrivals is received with skepticism. People with reputations for careful work get less scrutiny. It’s not just the printed data and analysis that matter, because there’s always the opportunity for subtle bias or shortcuts in methods to undermine the value of printed results and conclusions, in ways that are hard to detect in the published paper.

It’s a simple truth that trust is important in communication, even communication about facts.

Framing science can be as simple as building some trust prior to talking about facts, so that the facts get a fair hearing. Why is that hard for some to swallow? Maybe because they don’t want to be bothered with the messy business of building trust among the great unwashed.

Of course, framing isn't magic. Some people won't listen to facts no matter what, and shared values won't help. There's a time and a place for simply firing away with science and letting the chips fall where they may.

Any movement worth it's salt needs diversity, and that includes fact throwers and careful trust builders, and lawyers who litigate over facts, etc. The really hard part is the judgement of knowing where and when to use which approach.

1 comment:

Brad said...

Here is my comment: Commercial fishermen have destroyed more life on this planet than all other industries combined. They claim to be feeding a hungry world, but here in the US they sell their fish at gourmet prices, well beyond what hungry people can afford...

I've spoken to commercial fishermen about this, they just don't get it. Their faith in easy money is too powerful~

Brad