Skeptics Say Science Has No Obligation to Communicate Clearly

    I was just alerted to an odd podcast called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe in which a panel of unpleasant people take things out of context and get angry about them. Apparently I was in their cross-hairs on Episode 502, about 16 minutes in. I can’t link to it directly but the main page is here.

    Keep in mind that this is a panel of rational, science-loving skeptics. That’s what makes observing the irrationality extra fun. The psychology of it is fascinating. I’ll walk you through it.

    [Updated 3/2/15 at end]

    If you feel bored enough to listen to the podcast, you’ll first hear a bunch of angry skeptics AGREEING with what I wrote in this post while pretending they are DISAGREEING with it by adding an angry and dismissive tone to it. As a hobbyist hypnotist, I recognize that as a “tell” for cognitive dissonance that will likely worsen. 

    And it does.

    At one point in the podcast they start imagining that I wrote about a conspiracy theory in which science and the media intentionally mislead the public. (Remember, these are rational, scientific, skeptical people. And they were ready to believe I wrote of a grand conspiracy between science and the media to mislead the public for…fun? Money? The motive was left off the conspiracy theory.)

    How do super-rational people turn into chimps in under a minute? The fields of hypnosis and psychology explain it. This is quite normal. You need the following set-up, which they had:

    Bias: The Internet has a persistent rumor that I don’t believe in science because I don’t understand how it works. The rumor started the usual way, with some acts of outragism in which stuff I wrote was taken out of context so I could be held up as an example of a dumb Creationists and (ironically) crucified for the benefit of science. Since I haven’t believed in God since I was eleven, the claim that I am a creationist supporter feels odd to me. But hey, this is the Internet. 

    Violation of the Bias: To generate cognitive dissonance you need a violation of bias. I provided that trigger when I wrote a critique of how science has communicated to the public, and how the media makes things worse. The skeptical panelists agreed with every point I made, and clearly said so.

    Now the skeptics had a dilemma. How could their opinions be identical to the opinions of the guy who famously (they think) holds exactly the OPPOSITE opinion? Opposites can’t be the same.

    So the brain punts. It cooks up a delusion to patch the break in mental cohesion. It makes the discomfort of misunderstanding go away. 

    My rational readers will be quick to point out that I might be the one experiencing cognitive dissonance, and I accept that possibility. I wouldn’t even be surprised if it turned out to be the case. 

    Shall we test it?

    And by we I mean you. If I’m in the grips of my own delusions, new data probably won’t change things for me. But you are relatively uninterested in this situation so your biases are probably less hardened than mine. See what you think.

    I offer this unscientific test of who is experiencing the bigger delusions – the angry skeptics or me. 

    If you were one of the skeptics on the panel, please paraphrase in your own words (in the comments below) what you think I said that is different from what you believe. And I will confirm whether your summary of my words is accurate or not. To keep things simple, please put my alleged point of contention in one sentence, as in:

    “You said the moon is made of cheese!”

    I predict there will be zero points of disagreement, at least about science. And I hope you find it interesting that an entire panel of skeptics thought I said a number of disagreeable things.

    Also, please let me know if my title to this post seems fair based on the podcast. It sounded to me as if they are saying science doesn’t have an obligation to communicate to the public. I agree with that, as there is technically no legal or professional obligation to do so. But if letting the media do the talking for science is leading to the end of the civilization (climate change, the Singularity, etc.) I think I would try to step up my game in communicating. But that’s just me.

    I wonder if they realize I’m trying to help.

    An interesting update:

    Here’s an example of how science’s lack of credibility with the general public has a big impact on the issue of gender discrimination in the workplace. 

    Business Insider has two different articles here and here that reference various studies showing substantial gender bias. The writers do a good job of clearly explaining the studies and their implications. But does the public believe the studies? Should they?

    Can it be said with any sort of statistical comfort that studies “like this” generally get confirmed over time by more studies? Or will we be laughing at these studies a generation from now? Personally, I put the odds between 10-90%. In other words, I have no idea. And I don’t think it is because I didn’t pay attention in science class. When did my science teacher tell me that initial study results in physics or medicine have X chance of confirmation over time whereas social science studies are Y?

    If I were a woman, and I experienced gender bias first-hand, the studies would be a confirmation of my experience. A two-point confirmation passes most people’s B.S. filter. It certainly would for me.

    But men often don’t recognize gender bias even while committing it. As the Business Insider article suggests, much of the bias is subconscious. So it is no surprise that men probably dismiss the studies on gender bias as not matching their experience.

    Consider the study in which a man or woman’s first name determined how the applicant was treated. Does that study result translate into the real world as the reporting implies? If I work in HR for a Fortune 500 company, I am probably actively looking for more diversity, because my pay depends on it. So the laws and practices already in place give applicants with sub-optimal first names a winning strategy if they pick their targets. And the targets are easy to identify.

    Omitting that strategy from stories about bias seems like a political statement and not news. So the communication method in this case worked against credibility. A basic strategy for credibility is that you acknowledge the weakness in your own point.

    So how do you convince men that gender bias is an important issue worthy of their time when they can not see it with their own eyes (usually) and science has a credibility problem? Here’s an idea:

    Try this thought experiment

    If you are a man, imagine yourself at a business meeting with about eight women at the table and no other males. Can you imagine your opinions being fully valued? It is actually hard to imagine, in the literal sense. Now replace the women with Elbonians or anyone else. Same problem. Common sense and experience says the like-minded majority will usually dominate any group dynamics. And they won’t necessarily know they are steamrolling anyone. 

    Gender bias in the workplace looks like a big problem to me. There is way too much smoke for there to be no fires. But I don’t think we have a clue how to properly measure it. And without proper measurement it is far harder to know the best solutions. You would approach the first-name bias problem differently than you would approach a solution to other bias problems. So measuring matters.

    The credibility of science is critically important to gender bias issues. But as many skeptics and scientists have told me in the past few days, science has no obligation to do a good job informing the general public. And evidently the media is incapable.


    [Update: So far, as predicted, nothing but cricket noises from my challenge to present even one sentence, in your own words, that is something I said that is disagreeable to science. And yes, I do have the skeptics’ attention.]


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