Notes and Thoughts based on the content of Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science? A National Geographic article by Joel Achenbach

Man-made climate change. Vaccines and autism. GMO safety. Health information.  Pseudoscience debunking of all kinds. Contention and controversy on these studied issues and more cause roadblocks in our knowledge and societies. It is when willful ignorance becomes the jagged dividing rocks on which the waters of tested knowledge crash and break. This is especially true, and damning, when the issue is made political (whether it needs to be or not). “But why?” Achenbach’s article explores. “I see … so what to do about it?” I think aloud, in response.

This analysis was my attempt, given the Bill Nye the Science Guy - Consider the Followingcontent of the article, to develop some science communication strategies that can be used in discussions, classrooms, and communities.

Issue (as mentioned in the article)
People often find scientific claims non-intuitive, about things being in a way that does not seem to be so at first glance.
Possible Course of Action
Help people develop a scientific intuition, to think about things in ways that are not obvious.

Issue
People trust anecdotes and personal experience over data.
Possible Course of Action
Present data (and it must be data) in the guise of an anecdote or personal experience, rather than framing it as hard numbers. Make phenomenon and facts personal, about people.

Issue
People want to find patterns and meaning, often through correlation, in defiance of seeming randomness.
Possible Course of Action
Emphasize the rational causal forces in the world to appeal to people’s desire to find patterns and meaning in things. And of course, highlight the difference in correlation and causation.

Issue
When science conflicts with a person’s core beliefs, science looses.
Possible Course of Action
Find out and take into consideration what a person’s core beliefs may be, and how the ideas you are trying to inform them of may clash. This may involve study on a culture, faith or community, or one-on-one communication.

Issue
Confirmation bias.
Possible Course of Action
… There’s no silver bullet to this one.  Possible resource here, however.

Issue
In science nothing is absolute and everything is potentially uncertain; people love to depend on absolutes and hate uncertainty.
Possible Course of Action
Emphasize the few things which are practically absolute that science does have – things like long-standing basic math being true, obvious kinetic motion laws, and even cell theory. And uncertainty is not just a science problem, but one of living and all its occupations.

Issue
Because of its provisional/tentative nature of understanding, science can seem inconsistent when findings are over-simplified into seeming conflict.
Possible Course of Action
The video link, “Why we should all question science” gives an example of this issue in detail. In short, more research is always needed to come to a more complete understanding of the complex things in life.

Issue
The work of science, done incrementally by many unknown people, is counter to our idea of the heroic narrative of achievement, like the Great Man theory of history.
Possible Course of Action
This requires a shift to a more team-effort style culture in society. Perhaps thinking of it as a family or community rather than repeating personal versions of tales of lone mavericks would re-frame the story and its narrative conflict.

Issue
Disbelief is not because of illiteracy or ignorance – people use knowledge to reinforce their own belief systems. For example, if people want to find information that vaccines causing autism, it exists out there (even though it is incorrect), and they will cling to it (see confirmation bias).
Possible Course of Action
Cultivate and promote to others knowledge that reinforces an accurate understanding of how things are (including, at times, not having a complete picture of how things are), as well as knowledge that dispels misconceptions.

Issue
People decide what they believe based on what social groups they belong to, and will not risk changing their ideas, even in the face of new information, because of the risk of alienation.
Possible Course of Action
Create a social group/atmosphere for people to belong to where people can openly change their ideas in the face of new information without risk of alienation.

Issue
There appears (incorrectly) to be no downside to ignoring science; there is an immediate downside to have opposing views to one’s in-crowd.
Possible Course of Action
Communicate the downsides (and any real dangers) of ignoring science, and the moral, physical, and any economic benefits of being correct, even at the cost of popularity.

Issue
Facts do not change people’s minds, but hearing from believers they trust and who share their views matter; it’s the trust that matters, not the facts.
Possible Course of Action
Appeal to people based on their trust in you. If necessary, ask disbelievers why they trust someone else whose statements are not supported by facts or rationality.

Issue
To most people, the tribe is what matters; to science, the truth matters more instead.
Possible Course of Action
Belong, and invite others to belong, to the tribe of truth.

Issue
Science is a method, not just a collection of facts; focus on evidence.
Possible Course of Action
Teach and practice the scientific method in all thinking with your students, children, and peers.

These are all, of course, just my thoughts on the issue, and I have not rigorously tested even a fraction of these strategies myself. You may have other ways that you know that work (and we would love to hear what works, so feel free to share them widely).  Ultimately, it’s about know what’s real in this world, and acting as appropriate.

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