I listened to one of Andy Revkin’s Twitter broadcasts with Randy Olson which discussed if science communication was worse now than it was 100 years ago. I’ve actually read most of Randy Olson’s book, where he introduces his 3-step model for science communication.
I found the discussion quite interesting, and I think he makes some good points about the importance of narrative. The argument seems to be that there is a huge problem with misinformation and that scientists missed a great opportunity, in the past, to engage with those who had expertise is creating appealing narratives.
His prime example was Michael Crichton, a very successful author and filmmaker, who had a scientific background. He acknowledged that Crichton later started promoting science denial, which he suggested was partly a response to being ignored by the scientific community. What he doesn’t seem to consider is that this is a classic example of the power of motivated reasoning and illustrates why it is so challenging to effectively communicate contentious scientific topics.
My issue with this whole kind of narrative is the idea that if only scientists had done something different, we wouldn’t be in this current mess. I have no doubt that there are many things that scientists could have done better, but that’s true for almost anything. What I’m yet to be convinced of is that there was some relatively simple thing that could have been done that would have substantively changed where we are today. I don’t really think that there was.
It’s not even clear that scholars in relevant disciplines even agree about what misinformation is being spread and who is doing it. There are prominent, and well-regarded, scholars in some disciplines who are regarded, in other disciplines, as associating positively with those who promote misinformation and potentially even spreading it themselves. How are we meant to counter this when there is this kind of disconnect between disciplines?
I highlighted this disconnect on Twitter and was basically told by another scholar that I was in a Twitter echo chamber and that most of the vocal people in my circle are not engaged with or trusted by governments (which was a bit odd, given who I would regard this as including). Even if this was a valid criticism, it still seems to highlight the problem with trying to counter misinformation.
To be clear, I don’t really have some simple solution to this conundrum. I think effectively countering misinformation is very challenging, and I do agree that scientists who engage publically could learn from those with expertise in creating appealing narratives. I don’t, though, think that there is some simple way for scientists to engage that would somehow solve this problem, especially given that it seems that those who try, can end up in conflict with scholars from other relevant disciplines.