Skepticism is essential to science, and to a strong public understanding of science. But when does healthy skepticism veer into irrational denialism?
This question was the subject of a workshop held at the University of Wisconsin last spring. I wasn't able to attend, but a reader sent me this detailed summary of the event published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
Here’s an excerpt:
By many counts the level of science education and the general understanding of science in the United States, particularly relative to other nations, has stagnated or declined, and some denial results from a lack of knowledge about the scientific process. The public may not grasp the difference between the results of a single study, a handful of studies, and a scientific consensus, and such distinctions are not always communicated clearly by the media.
In other cases, industries and interest groups may drum up “organized doubt” in order to achieve a goal—for example, continued production and sale of a product, or advancement of a political agenda. Such campaigns have targeted the demonstrated health hazards of agents such as tobacco, lead, and DDT.
The ensuing misinformation trickles down through the media to the public, resulting in confusion, exasperation, and distrust. “Science, for various reasons, has become more politicized,” says Terry Devitt, director of research communications at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “Science, twenty years ago, used to have more cachet with the public, and that trust has been seriously eroded by coordinated attacks on science.” Devitt helped organize “Science Writing in the Age of Denial Conference,” one of the first conferences focusing exclusively on science denial, which was held at the university 23–24 April 2012.
"Distinguishing fact from spin and scientific debate from organized doubt is challenging in a rapidly changing media environment where, essentially, everyone has a printing press. If the public better understood how the media worked, it could help, says Gerald Markowitz, distinguished professor of history at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. “Most journalists and establishment media want to show both sides of an issue,” Markowitz says, “and so the fact that there’s controversy means they feel they’ve got to show what both sides are, whereas in fact, they’ve got to do a better job of investigating whether it’s a legitimate or a created controversy.”"
Well, when we reporters debunk pseudoscience we have to explain what the bunk is at some point. Intelligent Design is a created controversy in that it's not taken seriously in the scientific community. But when people fight to insert it into biology classrooms, journalists can't just sit back and ignore it. We have to explain what it is in order to show why it's not science and how it would degrade science education.
I’m sorry I missed Naomi Oreskes, co-author of the excellent book, The Merchants of Doubt, which details disinformation campaigns past and present.
“I’m here with the very depressing conclusion that knowledge isn’t power,” said Naomi Oreskes, a professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego, during her keynote address at the April conference. “If people don’t like the implications of your knowledge, they will resist, reject, and even attack it,” she says today. “Knowledge alone does not yield appropriate action.” But how do scientists and journalists educate a public who may be denying a particular scientific consensus?
This is interesting, but don’t think the situation is quite so dire. We journalists still have an obligation to write for those people who don’t think they already know everything. Such readers may be less vocal than the know-it-alls but I suspect they are still in the majority.