"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Contra Kahan

The way we form opinions is not purely rational, as we’d like to suppose. That’s sadly obvious. Nor is it purely social and affinity-driven, as Kahan and his sort seem to imply. If it were, we would not collectively have come as far as we have.

The facts of climate change once accepted call into question a great deal about how whether how we have organized ourselves in the past can be successfully continued in the future. Some find these implications more threatening than others do. This maps somewhat onto ideology, personality, and culture.

Steve Marshall’s welcome assertion that “the vast majority of us are only likely to be convinced by good science well communicated and can accept that firm attribution may be impossible to find” may be overoptimistic, but surely there is some truth to it.

Under the (in my opinion pernicious) influence of political professionals and academics like Kahan who formalize their approach, many academics are being dissuaded from communicating good science well.

Communicating good science well is surely not sufficient to achieve a good policy result. But that is not to say it isn’t necessary. Unfortunately, that’s not far from the conclusion that some have reached, and that’s part of why so much scientific public outreach has been boiled down to rather gross oversimplifications and even outright sensationalism.

The short term political consequences of this neglect are small; they don’t register on polling data or in quick social science experimental setups. But the long term consequence of neglecting science communication at **every** level of sophistication other than journal articles on one hand and sound bites on the other seems to me likely to be profoundly disastrous.

Unfortunately, again somewhat under the influence of the Kahanites, the resources for such communication are limited. We ought to have more people communicating science than doing research, they need to approach a wide variety and range of prior knowledge and values in various audiences, and they need to be good at it. That is nowhere near the case.

(See here for more details on how this confused point of view emerged.)

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