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Opinion: Scientists’ Intuitive Failures

Much of what researchers believe about the public and effective communication is wrong.

By | July 23, 2012

image: Opinion: Scientists’ Intuitive Failures ISTOCKPHOTO, Peter Booth

Scientists in the United States and Europe have long been concerned with how well the public understands science, whether or not the media adequately covers science, and how the public reaches decisions on complex science-related policy issues. Given the norms of our profession, however, it is ironic that many of these debates about how to best communicate science with lay populations are driven by intuitive assumptions on the part of scientists rather than the growing body of social science research on the topic that has developed over the past 2 decades.

In May, more than 500 researchers, journalists, and policy professionals gathered at the National Academies in Washington, DC, for a 2-day forum on the “Science of Science Communication” to dispel some of these intuitive but persistent myths about science, the media, and the public. Here are five that relate closely to our own work in the area:

1. Americans no longer trust scientists.  Prominent scientists warn that we have entered a new “dark age,” where the public no longer trusts scientific expertise.  But while it’s true that many individual institutions have plummeted in public trust over the past few decades, confidence in the scientific community has remained relatively steady and well above levels of trust in politicians, journalists, and business leaders, according to survey data compiled by the National Science Foundation.

According to a different study, however, confidence in the scientific community has dropped among conservatives, findings that the author called evidence of a conservative “war on science.”  But possible causes of this decline are open to several different interpretations.  Reducing the phenomenon to a single narrative therefore only harms efforts to fully understand these complex trends.

2. Science journalism is dead.  Though scientists are often critical of the news media, calling attention to perceived bias on the part of journalists, they also fear that budget cuts at news organizations have meant the death of science journalism.  Rather than dying, however, the nature of science journalism is rapidly evolving.  As one of us (Nisbet) described in a recent co-authored study, journalists are often no longer the source for breaking news about science; scientist bloggers and university news services have taken a much larger role in that regard.  But science journalists do remain the main sources for synthesis and interpretation of complex areas of research, especially as science relates to policy.  Veteran journalists like the New York Times’ Andrew Revkin, for example, have begun to report as informed critics, evaluating the institution of science rather than just describing scientists’ work.

3. Entertainment media promote a culture of anti-science.  Since the 1970s, scientists have feared that entertainment TV and film undermine public trust in science.  Yet today, research shows that the image of scientists in popular culture is a strongly positive one.  Scientists often play the hero in blockbuster movies and top-rated TV series.

Indeed, some of our own research shows that while scientists remain relatively rare characters in the TV world, when they are shown, it is almost exclusively in a positive light. Of the scientist characters currently on primetime, 81 percent were characterized as good, 26 percent as both good and bad, and just 3 percent as bad.  Studies we have conducted also demonstrate that the impact of TV viewing on science attitudes is complex, varying by genre and the background of the audience member.  For example, rather than cultivating public reservations, the viewing of science fiction programs is correlated with greater support for controversial areas of science such as stem cell research and food biotechnology.

4. The problem is the public, not scientists or policymakers. Scientists have long believed that when the public disagreed with them on matters of policy, public ignorance was to blame.  Fill in the gaps in public knowledge, scientists assumed, and public agreement on issues such as climate change would follow.  But research shows that science literacy has only a limited connection to public attitudes.  Instead, trust, emotion, social identity, and how an issue is framed matter more, putting much of the burden of effective communication on scientists and their institutions.

Unfortunately, a popular preoccupation with a conservative “war on science” has distracted scientists from concentrating on knowledge gaps, instead driving them to focus on “ideological gaps.”  This new outlook defines the public in simplistic, binary terms, pitting liberals against conservatives, deniers against believers.  Such a perspective not only ignores large segments of the public who may be conflicted or ambivalent in their views on a topic, but can also keep academics and policy makers from exploring alternative policy approaches and communication strategies that are likely to appeal to conservatives.

5. Political views don’t influence the judgments of scientists. In debating science-related policy matters, we tend to assume that scientists are not influenced by their own political views.  Yet in a recent study co-authored by one of us (Scheufele), we find that even after controlling for their scientific judgments, scientists’ political ideologies significantly influence their preferences for potential regulatory policies.  As one of us (Nisbet) concluded in a second study, when turning to questions outside of their area of specialty, the role of ideology in shaping the views of scientists is likely to be magnified, especially when they try to make sense of the polarized politics surrounding issues like climate change.

The lesson is that many of the same background factors that shape the perceptions of the general public also influence the political judgments of scientists, explaining in part why several of the myths reviewed in this article linger on.

Matthew C. Nisbet is an associate professor of communication at American University and an expert panelist at the National Academies’ Sackler Colloquium on “Science of Science Communication,” held in Washington, DC, May 21 & 22.  Dietram A. Scheufele is the John E. Ross Chair in Science Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and DAAD Visiting Professor at the Technische Universität Dresden, Germany.  He is a co-organizer of the Colloquium.

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Avatar of: Joe Blo

Joe Blo

Posts: 1

July 24, 2012

Conservatives against science?  Could it be:

1. Religion fighting back against theories of evolution that discredit their 7-day theory?
2. Fear that public response to climate change will end the blind consumerism that fills their pockets?
3. Generally, they will lose control over their herd of lemmings if they are too informed?

July 24, 2012

The public is losing its trust in science? Wow, what a mystery. Surely it has nothing to do with scientists selling out to big Pharma and allowing their names and institutions to appear on ghost-written shill pieces. Nah, couldn't be THAT.

Avatar of: GlobalistOne

GlobalistOne

Posts: 1

July 24, 2012

We have both high quality and entertaining TV networks from PBS and BBC to the History Channels.  Science is more popular than ever, and technology is known to often improve our lives significantly.  It is past time for sensible people to combine their understanding of science and analysis with their personal, social, and political beliefs and actions.
Each of us should make an effort to provide a clear guiding light when we can.  Scientists should not simply be passengers, at the very least we can help navigate, and reduce the propagation of overly simplistic thinking.  And if there is a war against science we damn well better win, or we are all going down with the others on a ship of fools.

Avatar of: Michael

Michael

Posts: 1457

July 24, 2012

Maybe a question should be "Why haven't scientists gained trust from liberals and moderates?"  There isn't a "great deal" of trust in any group according to that one study (.47, .42, and .43 for liberal, moderate, and conservative respectively), and trust from liberals hasn't inclined, despite growing numbers of scientists aligning themselves with liberal policies.  Maybe this partly has to do with animal research - conservatives are much more supportive of animal research than liberal; a recent survey showed 74% vs 57% support Republican vs Democrat.

Avatar of: James Kohl

James Kohl

Posts: 53

July 24, 2012

Even among scientists, adaptive evolution via ecological, social, neurogenic, and socio-cognitive niche construction does not seem to suggest to all that the FDA Critical Path Initiative should be used to model the epigenetic effects of nutrient chemicals, pheromones, endocrine disruptors, drugs -- including therapeutic drugs. What then can we expect of journalists and their lay audience interpretations?

Why not begin with known facts, like the fact that sensory input from the environment must be directly linked (e.g., epigenetically) to changes in intracellular signaling and stochastic gene expression before it can be linked to the biology of behavior? Instead, we have claims that a gene does this, a hormone does that... ad infinitum.

When that story line clearly doesn't fit, it's on to another story line. For example, the gene for sex determination does this to the brain and behavior (except in homosexuals), or the hormone oxytocin does this to behavior (except when it doesn't).

Is there a model for that? No. Is there a model organism? No! But people have a short attention span, and they can be told something new by the social scientists next week.

No need to start with the epigenetic effect of sensory stimuli on genes in hormone-secreting cells of brain tissue, as is required in biologically based models of invertebrate (honeybee) and vertebrate (mammals, like us) behavior.  Isn't that the real problem?

Most people don't understand what the biologists have to say, but they can identify with what the social scientists tell them about cause and effect. Since they are more comfortable not learning about biology, especially given the new knowledge of epigenetics and molecular biology, the story telling by social scientists wins out over the legitimacy of biology. And how can anyone trust social science to explain anything about the biology of behavior, or expect journalists to get their story straight when they try to tell others about genes, hormones, and behavior sans the epigenetic influence of the sensory environment?  

Avatar of: GregGold

GregGold

Posts: 3

July 24, 2012

What I see as a "scientist" (Analytical Chemistry and Microbiology), is the general public seeing some of the instances of "Cherry Picking", while I don't believe it's the rule, it has happened when one group or another has a cause.  Peer review doesn't necessarily mean what it used to.  Several of those instances have come to light lately in this publication.  Time to clean the house, consider all of the data, make certain there is thorough and comprehensive review and earn the trust back.

It also doesn't help when the media reports something in hysteria or the sky is falling mode and later it amounts to nothing.  People begin to ignore it after so many times.

Avatar of: James Kohl

James Kohl

Posts: 53

July 24, 2012

The timing of our messages may have been as coincidental as the fact that I am a medical laboratory 'scientist', who also has expertise in Analytical Chemistry and Microbiology.

The FDA Critical Path Initiative attempted to clean the house, consider all of the data, make certain there is thorough and comprehensive review and earn the trust back in the context of therapeutic drug development. The ASAM policy statement on addiction took the neuroscientific approach even further.

So far as I can tell, both the FDA Critical Path Initative and the ASAM policy statement have been largely ignored. The media continues to report something that's nothing, and people have no choice to ignore messages from biologists or learn more about what we're saying.

Avatar of: GregGold

GregGold

Posts: 3

July 25, 2012

Exactly!

Avatar of: Jack Brooks

Jack Brooks

Posts: 1457

July 25, 2012

Speaking as one of those silly, uneducated creationists (albeit with dual M.A. from an accredited graduate school) who continues to believe that nothing comes from nothing: I think your guild has been undermined by your own fanboys in the media. After decades of their hysteria-mongering, dating to my thinking at least back to the late 1960s, I just assume the latest thing is another exaggeration, or more likely a lie driven by some sort of political agenda. And, also speaking as one of those foolish people who don't believe that reason, personhood, or morals can arise from randomly vibrating atoms, your guild's incessant sneering at us doesn't make you at all appealing.

Avatar of: James Kohl

James Kohl

Posts: 53

July 25, 2012

Who are you attacking, Jack? Who said anything about silly, uneducated creationists? What guild; what fanboys; what hysteria-mongering / exaggeration? 

Avatar of: GregGold

GregGold

Posts: 3

July 25, 2012

With all due respect Mr. Brooks, I don't think I even came near that subject!

Avatar of: Hyptiotes

Hyptiotes

Posts: 1

July 25, 2012

Just a reminder that there are biologists that study behavior but not on a mechanistic but rather functional level. They are called behavioral ecologists and ethologists. I understand why you are interested in examining the cascade of events starting at a biochemical level that lead up to behavior, but there is still much to be learned even from (gasp) correlational studies of behavior and gene presence/absence. I agree with you that headlines that read "the god gene is found" aren't all that helpful and that epigenetic phenomena are probably universally important in understanding the nature of gene-environment interactions, but let's not assume every biologist that studies behavior is a biochemist, neuroendocrinologist, or cellular biologist. In fact it is primarily the behavioral ecologists that have been upsetting the creationist "scientists" since they study the evolution of behavior and also the evolutionary origins of morality and even the fitness benefits of religious belief.

Avatar of: James Kohl

James Kohl

Posts: 53

July 25, 2012

As I have supported with my publication history, it is not possible to study behavior unless you begin from the current perspective on how the cascade of events that starts with gene activation (i.e., at the biochemical level) leads to behavior. In that context, I've repeatedly stressed that the epigenetic effects of nutrient chemicals and pheromones are the same in species from microbes to man. Yet, despite this shared molecular biology (e.g., at the biochemical level) I've seen dozens of research reports that argue against the involvement of human pheromones in the development of our behavior. To me, that's like saying that "in my opinion food odors don't affect our behavior."

The evolutionary origins of morality and fitness benefits of religious belief do not fall outside the requirements to share food in an ecological niche that establishes the social niche responsible for our 'take' on morality. But that's not just an unsubstantiated opinion. With ethologists I published "Human pheromones: integrating
neuroendocrinology and ethology" in 2001, which I followed recently with a
monograph: "Human pheromones and food odors: epigenetic influences on
the socioaffective nature of evolved behaviors."

The FDA's recommendation to include examination at every level of the gene, cell, tissue, organ, organ system pathway that links sensory input directly to epigenetic effects on genetically predisposed behaviors is no longer an option so far as I'm concerned. Biologists must start somewhere to avoid presentation of one correlate after another as if it were an established fact based on what's known about molecular biology and model organisms. It is the correlations that are problematic, as when oxytocin is correlated with social behavior in the absence of a model (or model organism) that details cause and effect of sensory input on a hormone that then somehow affects behavior.

Researchers now advocate use of the hormone, oxytocin, in attempts to correct social deficits -- as in autism spectrum disorders. Is there a model for that? All I've seen is the correlational data linked largely to rodent studies.

Avatar of: bkj001

bkj001

Posts: 1

July 25, 2012

The authors state that "we tend to assume that scientists are not influenced by their own political views," and argue that in fact they are.  Have you considered the possibility that the scientists' understanding of science influences their political view, instead?  I believe that is true in at least some cases.

Avatar of: dehdeh

dehdeh

Posts: 28

July 25, 2012

Carrie Millerman Elsass accuses scientists
selling out to big Pharma and allowing their names and institutions to appear
on ghost-written shill pieces.  No one
condemns such behavior more than the scientific community.  AND when people lie in science they get caught - their results cannot be replicated.  How often do liars get caught in business, religion? the legal system?  politics? etc.  Only science has a systematic way to catch false reports.  
BUT like with anyone reporting anything, check how they are supported. Objective drug reports are far more likely to come from scientists supported by the NIH, and NOT those who may profit from the drug. 

Avatar of: alexandru

alexandru

Posts: 1457

July 25, 2012

It is a very interesting point of view!

For example, to better
communicate my recent discoveries to the public (see http://cititordeproza.ning.com...,
I used the title "the atheist cell" for the cell with less three
centriolles pairs.

I used this title
because the cancerous cell has a disoriented spindle pole body.
 

Avatar of: mightythor

mightythor

Posts: 1457

July 25, 2012

If I had to choose between "myths" and the results of trendy social science research, I would be hard pressed to make a choice.  Does that make me anti-science?

Avatar of: cos14mopolitan

cos14mopolitan

Posts: 3

July 27, 2012

Of course scientists believed that their lack of communication was to blame. That was what the public kept telling them. The  German Greens' anti-gene technology drive kept telling them; while the committee reports, special commission reports, experts reports, science book publication and public science education went on accumulating for years, involving thousands of scientist man-years. Finally the truth came out, for example in 1984 when the Green's female party delegation declared in Berlin that gene-technology was misogynous and the parole came out 'no communication with the enemy'. Having spent years trying (wasting my time?) to deal with such blind political party-line prejudice I wonder what data the sociologists are basing their propositions on.

Avatar of: Michael Kenward

Michael Kenward

Posts: 1

July 27, 2012

What is this "guild" that you refer to?

Or have you just churned out a bit of boilerplate text that you use whenever you want to peddle your medieval views?

I suspect that, like me, most of the people here are grateful that you do not find them appealing.

Avatar of: James Kohl

James Kohl

Posts: 53

July 28, 2012

Genetically predisposed behavior (i.e., all behavior) must first be examined by linking sensory input from the environment directly to the evolved gene, cell, tissues, organ, organ system pathway that links adaptive evolution to ecological, social, neurogenic, and socio-cognitive niche construction. The epigenetic effects of nutrient chemicals and pheromones are clear in all animal models, and no correlates are required to link the epigenetic effects directly to hormones that affect human behavioral development.

Biologists who study behavior who are not biochemists, neuroendocrinologists, or molecular biologists must still keep the basic principles of biology and levels of biological organization in mind (as indicated in the FDA Critical Path Initiative) lest they become more like social scientists who think that correlates can be meaningfully interpreted as evidence of anything (e.g., including the evolution of morality or fitness benefits of religious belief).

The early ethologists, for example, thought birds had poor olfactory abilities, so the use of olfactory cues was ruled out a priori. The resulting correlates with behavior associated only with audiovisual input in birds brought us to our current failure to understand much of anything in the context of nutrient dependent and pheromone-dependent neurogenic niche and socio-cognitive niche construction, which means everything to anyone studying the behavior of any species.

No neurogenic niche does not mean no behavior, and no socio-cognitive niche only means that the unconscious affects of sensory stimuli on hormones and behavior will predominate. In context, however, 1) ecological, 2) social, 3) neurogenic, and 4) socio-cognitive niche construction explain the adaptive evolution of behavioral development in species from microbes to man.

July 29, 2012

It's funny the author talks about, "Scientists have long believed that when the public disagreed with them on matters of policy, public ignorance was to blame." Ignorance is most certainly part of the problem, however "blame" is the MISTAKE. After having worked with scientists for over 25 years, it's evident that many are "shame-blame" based. Blaming others for ignorance doesn't help "win them over," instead it pushes them further and further away. Scientists have ALWAYS had the choice of educating the public with empathy and patience, however very few have chosen to act upon this strategy.

Furthermore, when pharma giants such as Merck hold back hERG data on compounds such as Vioxx, resulting in the MURDER of more Americans than were killed in the Viet Nam War, then people have every right to be suspicious. What happens, Merck and cronies push "feel good for pharma" marketing strategies on the public, adding insult to injury, and hence further antagonize the ill sentiment.

If scientists, collectively as a group, wish to improve relations with the American public, it must be done in a humanitarian effort to inform and educate with absolutely NO ulterior motives other than to impart "non-marketing" knowledge.

We're currently reaping what we've sown.

Ph.D. American Scientist

Avatar of: Khail Lozano

Khail Lozano

Posts: 1

August 7, 2012

It is so sad that in this day & age of technological progress, that there still exists a belief in wizardry & the supernatural. I realize that one man's 'mumbo-jumbo' is another man's religion & still a third's science and it's important to keep an open mind. Indeed, a technology that is sufficiently advanced may be perceived to be 'magic' to those not familiar with it. I think our technical & scientific wisdom has by far exceeded our sociological wisdom.

Avatar of: James Kohl

James Kohl

Posts: 53

August 7, 2012

I'm sure that I can use my technical & scientific wisdom to model adaptive evolution using only what is currently known about chemical ecology and its relevance to integrated ecological, social, neurogenic, and socio-cognitive niche construction. I start with microbial species, incorporate the honeybee model organism to exemplify eusocial behavior, and move forward through vertebrates via 400 million years of conservation of gonadotropin releasing hormone, which controls individual survival via nutient chemical acquisition and also controls reproduction. This links the epigenetic effects of nutrient chemicals to intracellular signaling and stochastic gene expression, and links the metabolism of nutrient chemicals to species specific chemicals called pheromones that control reproduction in species from microbes to man.

Is there another model for that - one that does not incorporate the 'wizardry' of random mutations theory or supernatural effects on species diversification?  If not, what good is our current knowledge of molecular biology and neuroscience?

Avatar of: David Talaga

David Talaga

Posts: 1457

August 17, 2012

Scientists are almost always shown in a positive light? Your own study states that according to the television shows scientists commit more crimes and are victims of crimes more than other professions. Your own work shows that scientists are portrayed more negatively than other professions. The portrayal of scientists in the shows I've seen is often incredibly stereotypical and usually completely unrealistic.

Avatar of: Don Margolis

Don Margolis

Posts: 1457

August 17, 2012

No matter how the writer leans to "still
respected," and no matter how much you ignore the real truths, scientists
are intentionally overvalued by a controlled media which is interested only in
profits....something the majority of scientists fully concur with.

The charlatans who call themselves "stem
cell researchers" are overwhelmingly pro embryonic stem cells and lie
consistently about the only stem cells which work, adult stem cells (ASC). But Pharma spends hundreds of millions to keep ASC away from dying
patients in order to protect profits and has convinced the public that ASC do
not work. Those thousands of charlatans play along while patients die
unnecessarily by the thousands, constantly "researching" embryonics
which they all know can never be injected safely into humans, while they and
their academic institutions earn billions to make absolutely sure that NO
CHRONIC DISEASE CAN EVER BE CURED---for cures kill profits.

Other scientists write phony papers
about drugs so Pharma can advertise their "findings." while
colleagues convince gullible MDs to prescribe them for “everythingâ€쳌 under
"off label" rules. Billions in FDA fines for this intentionally
fraudulent advertising are laughed at by Pharma's shareholders.

An army of scientists pretend that mercury-loaded
poisonous vaccines are safe, joining with Pharma's executives and their
controlled media to kill thousands more while pretending that some vaccines actually
work as the never-closely-inspected trial data has “proven.â€쳌 Take a look at what happened in Brussels when
the EEU attacked the ridiculous swine flu vaccine. Out came tens of millions in euro-bribes. The political protests disappeared, the media
continued to do their fool-the-public jobs, and the kindergarten-educated MDs cheerfully earned their commissions (in
the tens of millions).

No matter
how many meetings you hold, Pharma profits a quarter billion a day, while other
billions are gathered by HMOs, Health Insurers, Medical Device Mfrs, and Hospitals. No laughable group of scientists, too few of whom
have the guts to write the absolute truth, will ever overcome the worst, most
corrupt medical system the world has ever seen.

Don
Margolis, Chairman

Repair
Stem Cell Institute

Avatar of: Michael Ho

Michael Ho

Posts: 1

August 26, 2012

Oooh, Jack, so are you one of the extremes from within the
public that the scientists (and maybe social workers) REALLY need to work
on...there must be some underlying reason to your vitriolic ranting.... pray
tell...

Science and Religion CAN go hand-in-hand and have a happy
marriage; it's only when one party totally cannot except the views of the
other, or refuses to make sense of facts from the other party, that the
marriage fails; It's like instead of seeing the rose bush as beautiful flowers
with thorns, I'd rather like to see it as a thorny bush with beautiful flowers.
It makes my world a more beautiful place, and justifies the reason that there
is a God.

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