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Scientagonism: The Problem of Antagonistic Science Communication

A recent column by Daniel Sarewitz in Nature on bridging the “partisan divide” with respect to public perception of science inspired some spirited debate over on my twitter feed yesterday. The short version goes something like this: scientists are often perceived as being in the thrall of Democrats, exposing the greater scientific enterprise to being undermined as simply another partisan front (or, alternatively factionalizing, wherein partisan camps each bring in their own “experts” an accuse the other side of “junk science). None of this is helped by scientists who go out of their way to bring on their antagonism – see, for example, the letter signed by 68 Nobel laureates endorsing President Obama over Mitt Romney in the last election (in which Sarewitz notes that of the 68, 43 have a record of public donations to candidates, and of these, only five have ever donated to Republican candidates, and none in the last election cycle). It goes without saying that, well-meaning as it may be, openly partisan activities like this aren’t helping with the whole “not being perceived as a lockstep Democratic constituency” thing. (Note that I am explicitly not advocating mass abdication of scientists from the political discourse, which a genuinely terrible idea – but rather, a caution that lending one’s scientific credibility to openly partisan ventures may not be in the best strategic interests of science…)

Dueling PhD banjos

Sarewitz recommends bringing together scientists with less monolithic political views together to demonstrate overall scientific consensus on key issues such as global climate change and the like, along with ensuring greater ideological balance in high-profile scientific advisory panels. The overall of goal of such an enterprise would be in restoring a public perception of science as a bipartisan enterprise – and in particular, inoculating policies based on scientific recommendations as simply being based upon “partisan science” – or to use a favorite expression – bringing in the “dueling PhD’s.” Unfortunately, while Sarewitz correctly diagnoses the problem, his solution falls far short.

The deeper problem here antagonism – both perceived and real. Dan Kahan (of the Yale Cultural Cognition Project) has prolifically written about the issue of “Cultural Cognition” – in other words, how our individual values can (unconsciously) conspire to shape perceptions of risk to accommodate our pre-existing worldviews (something I’ve discussed prior in how this relates to public perception of risk and nuclear energy) – also known as motivated reasoning. In essence, the mind rebels against cognitive dissonance and will do what it takes to ensure such is resolved – namely by shaping our perceptions to confirm previously-held beliefs. Ideology, as it turns out, is an extremely effective marker for predicting risk perception – and more distressingly, these differences in perception grow more pronounced with “high-information” individuals, strongly pointing to the existence of motivated reasoning.

So what does all of this have to do with antagonism? Quite simply: everything. People will by nature rebel against information perceived to be antagonistic to their worldviews – downplaying evidence of phenomena that threatens their worldviews. (Kahan notes how this cuts several ways – both in how the threat of global climate change threatens market-oriented views of individualists and hierachists, and how the associations of nuclear power with “big business” and highly concentrated capital raises the hackles of those of more egalitarian and communitarian mindsets.) These associations are particularly acute when said scientific issues are charged with a single solution – such as in the case of climate, direct government intervention into the economy to regular carbon dioxide emissions.

One of the more interesting outcomes of some of Kahan’s experimental work has been in strategies toward de-polarization – science communication strategies which seek to minimize these perception gaps, namely by presenting scientific information in a way which seeks to minimize antagonism toward deeply-held values.  An example of this depolarization with respect to climate change is of course nuclear energy (along with geo-engineering); when communication of climate risks is presented with policy prescriptions of increased use of nuclear energy or new technologies such as geoengineering, individuals oriented toward skepticism of climate risks become more receptive – in other words, the use of framing has a demonstrable de-polarizing effect. Why? Namely because the science is now presented in a context where it is no longer threatening to the worldview of the listener.

And yet too often in science communication (and at times among nuclear advocates as well) there is the very opposite at work – science is presented as antagonistically as possible to the audience – as if somehow dismissing climate skeptics and religious fundamentalists as stupid and venal will cow them into belief. (Once again, to my horror I have seen the same phenomenon at work in certain discussions over nuclear energy – where those representing the house will shout down any who dare trespass in their domain instead of making any attempt at reasonable engagement.)

The same goes as well for the policies that from the science – absolutist arguments that inherently tie science to one favored set of policies – rather than a panoply of potential solutions. Such strategies are practically an open invitation to partisanship and motivated reasoning, and yet all too often are the standard for how high-profile science communication on controversial issues gets done. (Similarly, attempts to reconcile the idea of science as not being fundamentally incompatible or at odds with various political and religious values are frequently dismissed as at best naive and at worst “selling out” science.) It is in these cases where members of the scientific community in fact become their own worst enemies – namely in hardening an opposition predicated on the idea that certain scientific findings are fundamentally antagonistic to their values (and thus we return to the realm of “dueling PhD’s…”)

To put it on a meta level for a moment – getting the public to accept the scientific process as a means of understanding the natural world is in essence getting them to agree upon a common source for facts. But the role of science communication is not and should not be a platform for antagonizing whatever misguided metaphysical or theological beliefs the speaker believes the audience has. In other words, science can and should speak to facts and leave issues of metaphysics to others. (Or, to put it yet another way as I did on Twitter – is your goal to change beliefs over scientific facts or religious theology?)

This problem of “dueling PhD’s” – or to put it another way, competing certifications on science, and in turn what experts we trust inherently come back to these kinds of issues. Kahan recently posted an interesting four-part essay (drawing heavily on the ideas of Karl Popper) on the notion of a “Liberal Republic of Science” (IIIIIIIV) – discussing how a key issue which arises even in societies which broadly accept science as a foundation of knowledge is in the inevitable conflicts of how we certify these sources of facts – in other words, the dueling PhDs. (Kahan stresses that in his view, much of the current wrangling over hot-button issues like climate, nuclear power, and vaccines is not even a question of who accepts science as a source of knowledge as it is the process of how our values shape whose information we certify as credible – which again, comes back to how this information validates existing value systems. Kahan’s argument is thus for a science of science communication.) Ultimately this once again returns to the issue of antagonism – science presented in a way which is directly antagonistic to the values of the listener will be stripped of credibility in favor of information from sources which does not antagonize values. (Thus we get to Kahan’s argument for a science of science communication – determining the best means of ensuring the best and most accurate scientific information is received and accepted by the overall public.)

Growing a consensus on science as a source of knowledge (or further, developing a common understanding on the same core set of scientific facts) does not imply unanimity in policy ends (and nor should it!), namely because policy is inherently a normative process. More importantly, dropping an explicitly antagonistic communication strategy in favor of one more easily accommodating to diverse values doesn’t it in any way imply “giving in” or “selling out” science (as my position has been rather uncharitably characterized). Above all else, the goal here is to get people recognize a common starting point for facts, and letting the implications – both policy and metaphysical – flow from this common starting point. Getting people to agree to the reality of climate change does not imply unanimity about what to do about it, namely because this inherently involves value judgments over the required trade-offs – and of course the same is true for nuclear energy as well. What it does do however is to ensure a more honest, reasoned, and productive discussion of the available options.

Again, however – this requires a strategy for science communication that inherently puts aside antagonism and focuses upon compatibility with existing values. Two recent posts – one by +Suzanne Hobbs Baker at the ANS Nuclear Cafe and one by +Rod Adams at Atomic Insights fit well into what I’m proposing. Both discuss the role of communicating the value of nuclear energy as a strategy for combating climate change – Suzy within the context of framing nuclear as an ally of environmentalism in the face of climate change, and Rod in regards to how because discussions of climate are often so charged even within pro-nuclear communities that such debates become toxic (and thus are often placed strictly off-limits), thus depriving the nuclear community of a key message in communicating with the public. Both of them are focusing on how presenting nuclear as explicitly compatible with concerns with the environment can perhaps help to potentially forge partnerships from communities skeptical (and even at times adversarial) to one another. (And again, to emphasize – a deep concern over how to rectify doing something about climate change while maintaining our present standard of living is one of the fundamental reasons I decided to change careers…)

This is something that I myself have tried to embrace myself when dealing with audiences hostile to nuclear (such as the NNSA hearing on disposing of surplus weapons plutonium in MOX fuel in Chattanooga, back in September). The very first thing I acknowledged to the audience is that we clearly have disparate opinions about nuclear energy (ones unlikely to be resolved in the span of a single evening) but that everyone in the room shared common concerns over peace and security – our preferred means of achieving this (“…to MOX or not to MOX, that is the question…”) simply differed. I’m not so fantastically egotistical as to believe this changed the entire tone of the meeting (there were still certainly rancorous and loud comments by the opposition), but I do sincerely believe starting from a position of common values and as much as possible eschewing antagonism helped to provoke thoughtful discussions which occurred afterwards (and at least some civility during).

None of this implies stepping down antagonism in science communication is a magic-bullet or a panacea, nor will it necessarily work in all cases (such as dealing with perhaps the most hardened zealots – be they of the anti-nuclear or fundamentalist variety…) But what it can do (in fact, what folks like Kahan have explicitly demonstrated when it comes to “compatabalist” communication strategies), is that it can help to detoxify these kinds of discussions, namely by pulling people away from the brink by not threatening their deeper values. That in itself would be progress.

Steve Skutnik's picture

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John Miller's picture
John Miller on Jan 8, 2013

Steve, interesting and informative posting.  I agree that nuclear energy is a ‘required’ part of the solution to reducing carbon emissions and possibly mitigating climate change (Re. summary of my recent analysis).  Besides the problem caused by antagonizing those who do understand how science does or should work and have unanswered questions concerning the confidence levels of politically popular studies-positions on climate, the general public has continuously been subjected to conflicting-miss leading information on the solutions to reducing carbon emissions.

As you are probably aware the confusion and political opposition to nuclear power goes back to the 1950’s ‘Atoms for Peace’ program initiated by President Eisenhower.  The ‘Three Mile Island’ incident proceeded coincidentally by the Hollywood anti-nuclear movie ‘China Syndrome, had an amazing impact on public opinion.  Anti-nuclear special interests very successfully stopped the expansion of U.S. nuclear power in 1990 a few years following the Chernobyl disaster.  Despite the Chernobyl technology being extremely crude (no containment), the Media has frequently referenced this incident as a future threat to expanded U.S. nuclear power.  With the recent Fukushima incident the public alarm has been raised again.

What nuclear scientists and advocates need to accomplish is overcoming the opposition to nuclear power and educating the public that nuclear power is reasonably safe and a critical part of a low carbon economy and solution to possible climate change.  The wind/solar lobbies have successfully convinced many Politicians and the Media that these variable-renewable power energy sources are the primary solution to replacing fossil fuels power carbon emissions.  They unfortunately have almost totally ignored or are ignorant to the impacts of wind/solar on power grid stabilities and reliabilities.  Many ‘smart grid’ advocates believe that improved controls are the solution.  The reality is quite different.  As you are aware, when uninterruptable power demand exceeds available supply, the future will see increasing brown- and black-outs.  Nuclear power is a large part of the solution to adequately balancing future lower carbon supplied power grids.

Besides stopping the antagonism towards climate non-believers, scientists need to begin better educating the general public on the requirement of minimum reliable-baseload power generation capacity such as nuclear, to mitigate future power grid instabilities and outages.

John Miller

Steven Scannell's picture
Steven Scannell on Jan 8, 2013

I would differ with the main premise of the article and say that there is too little antagonism in science. I'm a fisherman.  As one commentary went in response to the Daniel Sarewitz article, if we do not undress preposterous statements, from both parties, then we are guilty by default of collusion with the same.  I have quite often encountered the fishery "scientist" engaged in a worship based philosophy, worshiping "the fishermen" as a central theme.  This was a funding mandate, and now read the front page of the Cape Cod Times today where fishermen can't catch even close to their allowed quota of cod or haddock, because the fish aren't there.  Probably the worst science of all has been fishery science, for this reason.  This was my chosen field, and a more toxic or polarized and dysfunctional field of endeavor you shall not find.   Partisanship in science is in fact a standard of funding. If people vote wrong, then the politician will fund their misguided will, and science will attend this performance.  Real science will confront this, and then not be paid, obsolete but right.  So the political science of a vacuum filled comes into play.  What law is this?  The law of political supply and demand?  By definition anyone employed in our fishless fisheries is at best suspect.  My work in fisheries led to offshore wind systems.  I hope energy people have more sense.  I design comprehensive complex systems for the public trust.  One of these is the Market Quota System:  The Ultimate in Public Resource Management (IIFET 2000)   The system is big on sound logic, and so not big in being a social program department, which failed us.  So now we have no cod, and fisheries are in collapse.   For years I tried to talk sense to "the scientist" but they are paid by a political system, and they have their orders. For years I have tried to advocate for quantitative pie charts to describe bio-system problems, but no. I've tried to tie prices for commonly externalized positives and negatives and tried to teach this as proper economics science.  Common sense and systems designed by a fisherman, with fishing method prices tied to "good and bad" in fishery production mechanisms. No takers in science.   And for a while worked with a Harvard Economics professor, as good cop bad cop, on fishfolk an MIT chat room,  but no, there is just no logic where politics pays the freight.  In search of the divine truth about where the cod went, refer to a politician.  I could tell you it was all patronage systems thinking, but I've been on a fact based kick, and would not be much help.  

There's no law that says a scientist has to be rational or recognize facts or entertain logic.  The above the fray people, scientist or not,  need to get some mud on them, and use emotion and use theater and use all of the mind and body to the cause.  Call that a mix of what-not.  Our sense of urgency must dictate we break free of some of the old ways.  It's rare to see a science debate in politics. Let's change this fault.  The un-science in science is more than just a tinge.  We need science debaters.  People who can do some research and flip a coin to see which side of the debate they will take.  It's not politics and it's not science it's just argument, and just for it's own sake? no.  It's purposeful argument, and it should separate the men from the boys, but we don't have it.  Well, do we need it?  I would call that some partial antagonism, but I would say we need it.  The opportunity is to make America and the world whole, and not to hide in an emotionless bubble of purity. Just pretend you're fishermen arguing with each other, in a points based debate format.  Facts, theory, and opinion are all cool, so let's lighten up here, and just get the job done. 


Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on Jan 8, 2013

Scientists, real ones, that don't endorse republican "there is no human generated global warming" claptrap.  Go figure.  This isn't partisanship it's simple common sense.  Scientists are put through political ringers by people that have to take their shoes off to count above 10, figuratively speaking, and have no real understanding of the actual science involved.  They are told that it is they who don't understand what is going on and have their very lives threatened because someone see's a threat to their job or belief system.  For many years scientists tried to let the data speak for itself but when the very minor but highly vocal naysayers got more play in media for the common person it was time to call a spade a spade.  Antagonism wasn't the scientific agenda, it was the only way to be heard over the screams of ignorance!

Paul Ebert's picture
Paul Ebert on Jan 8, 2013

I'm inclined to agree with both of you.  Perhaps what we need is constructive antagonism.  As someone who is trying hard to become a "high(er) information" individual (at least, if I understand that properly) while also attempting to work very hard against my own proclivity to "motivated reasoning" I often wish for some way, some venue, where the "controversy" would be put to rest.  This becomes almost unbearable when I find myself contemplating the point that Bill McKibben made recently; that being that the physics have no inclination to wait while we argue and have to deal with obstruction.

Geoff Sherrington's picture
Geoff Sherrington on Jan 11, 2013

Here's an early letter (under a pseudonym of mine) that states my stance.

One of the main causes of antagonism has been the delay in the adoption and development of nuclear energy as side tracked by the CO2 global warming camp. They have wasted much funding, for very little result except wads of paper that are poorly researched, poorly written, written prematurely, not properly reviewed, contribute little new knowledge, are replete with elementary errors and have some near-criminal irregularities as shown in Climategate and later releases.

If we could choose a theme for the next decade, I wish it could be “accelerate nuclear”. I’m sick of the delays, the excuses, the distorted logic, the fibs, the zealotry.


Steven Scannell's picture
Steven Scannell on Jan 11, 2013

Is anyone working on Wind to CAES  (Compressed Air Energy Storage) using pipes for storage and shipment, as a booster system to augment nuclear?   All I hear is CAES and natural gas systems. A company called SustainX is doing research using CAES from wind.   All, except hydro produce steam, so can in theory wind CAES help boost nuclear output?  Supplies of compressed air can be limitless from offshore wind and wave systems. The depths compress the air and not piston machines, so it's cheaper and simpler and it's wind to hydraulics to air conveyors.    It sure would help to grease the skids here if only nuclear can be hybridized with wind.   I think it's possible to supercharge a nuclear plant with CAES, but am I the only one?    Let's say 1,000 windmills augment on nuclear plant, and how would this work, IF the transshipment were not an issue and IF storage and intermittancy were no longer issues due to pipage capacity.  I think in theory we can have standardized nuclear plants producing steam, with a little help from the wind, in the form of very high pressure compressed air. Also importantly, the cost of wind to electric in many different ways are very high, whereas the costs to produce wind to CAES are dirt cheap by comparison.  I would say for the same money you could have five CAES wind mills, but that's off the top of my head.   The marriage of wind and nuclear ...   Any thoughts? anyone, Geoff thanks. 

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jan 10, 2015


I often get antagonistic, not caring whether or not how anti-nuclear proponents accept the message (kindalike, they should just know I’m right about the concepts of advanced nuclear). However, I believe that a strong point, though causing a direct retalitary response, may still provide a seed which grows as they (hopefully will) grow in understanding. I used to believe nuclear was bad, too.

I like to imagine how a win – win solution to the real challenges that historically caused so much antagonism would be taken by the hard headed. If an oil guy (which also doesn’t believe in the science behind excess CO2 caused warming and acidification) found out that his oil can save the biosphere, surely he would not indulge his ideological belief to the point of not selling oil.

In this example, the biosphere can be saved – unless the small carbon tax necessary to grow an olivine extraction industry, is too much. With such a tax comes more use of oil (in the meantime) by necessitating diesel for large volumes of olivine extraction for the actual reversal of atmospheric CO2 content via mineral sequestration.

The following is an exerpt from the Shuiling report.

   “The total CO2 expenditure of the whole olivine operation (mining, milling and transport) has been calculated to be 4% of the amount of CO2 that is captured by that olivine (Koornneef & Nieuwlaar, in prep.). The cost of mining, milling and grinding of 1 ton of rock in large scale mining is estimated by Steen and Borg (2002) to be about 6 Euro/ton. If average transport costs can be limited to a similar amount, the price per ton of CO2 will drop to 10 Euro or slightly less.”

I do not yet understand a win-win for the RE verses nuclear debate, but I’m sure there is a way for integration, somehow.

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