talking past each other?

By Alison Campbell 06/03/2011 13


I’ve spent a bit of time over the weekend, reading through the various posts related to Ken Ring’s attempts to predict future events: here, here, & here, for example. (Yes, really. For once I had a bit of time on my hands & no particular need to do anything else.) I found this a rather chastening experience. Here’s why.

This particular topic (whether or not Mr Ring can do what he claims, and the responses by the media & the scientific community) has generated a fair bit of heat, & it would be fair to say that the heat is on both sides. Scientists & science communicators (often one & the same, at least here on Sciblogs) are concerned that Mr Ring’s ideas get so much air time & are accepted by many. Others, speaking for ‘the public’ (which is an unfortunate term for a highly heterogeneous group whose one common feature is that they are not scientists), feel that the science community is trying to force their views on people & not give opposing views a fair hearing. (And then there are those who come across as ‘anti-science, but I’m not going to address that cohort here.)

And this is what bothers me most. The members of that second group (the ‘others’, above) are not ‘anti-science’. They are doing their level best to tell ‘us’ (the scientists/sci.comms. folk commenting on those threads) how this issue, & our handling of it, is perceived by ‘the public’. The fact that they’ve continued to raise obviously deeply-held objections to ‘our’ point(s) of view means that we’re not really doing a particularly good job of establishing true two-way communication here, & in fact more than once I couldn’t help feeling that I was with two groups of people who, with the best will in the world, were talking past rather than to each other. I worry that we run a real risk of alienating people who are generally supportive of science by giving the impression of dismissing/not listening to their views, at a time when good communication of and about science is probably more important than ever before. Maybe we (i.e. members of both these groups) need to establish the views and understandings we have in common, and then begin to take things further from there?

I shall now duck briefly below the parapet  :-) ….

 

 

…. & emerge again to try to start a discussion here by addressing a point made by Markj on (I think) this thread of Ken Perrott’s. Markj, I think you said that people should be free to make use of all available information to make up their own minds on a problem or topical issue. I agree with you 100% on this. But this raises an immediate question: how do we get all available information out there? There really are issues with getting science into the public sphere (at least some of which relate to existing conceptions about what science is and how it works).  As Sir Peter Gluckman said, how can we ensure that the public has the information necessary to reach a consensus on matters where science has something to contribute? What can all parties do, to get us headed in this direction?

Over to you, folks :-)


13 Responses to “talking past each other?”

  • Hi Alison

    I too have some time on my hands (for a completely different reason I suspect) and have been reflecting on the last week of posts. Hindsight is such a wonderful thing!

    One of the first things that becomes obvious to me is that many people argue that “science is not always right” when in fact it is SCIENTISTS who make statements not science, and sometimes these statements can be wrong. In fact this time, people seem to have equated an aggressive interview by a journalist as meaning there is something wrong with science.
    Perhaps the wisest thing to have happened would have been for several well known scientists (if we have any the public would recognise) to come out and say “yes, that was a terrible interview. Even though I don’t believe Ken RIng’s theory are scientifically valid, on one should be treated that rudely!
    Instead the challenging of Ken Ring’s ideas has been mentally tied in to this rudeness.
    The next thing that seems to have offended people of here is Peter Griffin’s comments trying to restrict media interest in Ken RIng. While I don’t agree Peter on this point I think in his work as a journalist he has seen how the media can be used to promote pseudoscience and was justifiably wary of this happening. But perhaps the better option would be for more scientists to be ready to step forward and challenge Mr Ring’s ideas on a scientific basis. As has been pointed out this can takes a lot of skill but perhaps that is something we need to start working on. There is a lot of information around on how to communicate effective check out my two recent posts.
    http://sciblogs.co.nz/molecular-matters/2011/03/06/science-communication-conference-2011-%E2%80%93-hearing-from-the-experts-glenn-elliot-and-dr-john-watt/
    http://sciblogs.co.nz/molecular-matters/2011/03/05/science-communication-conference-2011-%E2%80%93-hearing-from-the-experts-professor-funk/
    We have some great expertise on here, for example Chris’s brilliant visualisation skills, and some very articulate teachers.

    In looking at some of the arguments that have occurred there are a number of things that are obvious. Some people will challenge science/scientists on one thing, then when answered switch to another challenge then another. This may be the nature of blogs with many different people contributing but then perhaps it is up to some of us to try and guide people back to a single thread?

    As a experiment, my blog on Sue Webber’s comments about predicting the earthquake which was written very neutrally has not attracted the same sort of arguments. In fact it has accumulated very little traffic at all – lol.
    http://sciblogs.co.nz/molecular-matters/2011/03/06/and-then-came-the-psychic/

    Professor Gluckman at the recent science communicators conference talked about scientists need to be very careful about drawing a line between where science ends and people’s values begin (which I may post about soon, as I don’t think it is as cut and dried as it sounds making this differentiation and I suspect this is where the Ken RIng issue has arisen)

    Anyway that’s my 2 cents worth.

    In life I think everything is a learning opportunity, and we should be making the most of this to better prepare for communicating science in the future.

  • Hi again. Thanks for this post Alison, I think it nicely crystallizes the various arguments that have occurred here in recent days. I certainly agree that as this discussion has wound on, we have ended up talking past one another. With respect to moving forward, and getting all the necessary information out there, your question: What can all parties do, to get us headed in this direction? my thoughts are as follows:

    Firstly, I think it is important for science and scientists to make a conscious decision to recognise that it is OK for people to hold the views they hold, and that they hold them based on what they know. Science should not overtly try to change their views, but to contribute to what they know. This is an important distinction, because it is not the science itself, but the hand wringing and consternation at the public’s support of alternative theories, and proposed censorship of these views, that is coming across as arrogant and objectionable.

    There are those who are supportive of science, those who are not, those who are agnostic in their views, and those who just don’t have a clue. Understanding your audience is critical, and perhaps an incremental approach to the average knowledge base will have more success over time, than an intermittent reactive blitzkrieg. I also wonder whether this constant and incessant need to debunk, is actually counterproductive. To use politics as an analogy, a party in opposition can fall into the trap of just pulling apart any government strategy, without promoting their own policy. This often leads to a public perception of negativity and lack of constructive input. Not that I am suggesting politics and science are alike, but the rules of public engagement are probably not that different.

    When the layman is confronted by an opinion that their belief is not valid, or that it is rubbish spouted by a crackpot or a loony, the natural reaction is defensiveness and a rapidly closing mind to the alternative (or scientific) viewpoint. Perhaps a softening of the approach is required, including an information campaign, to educate people that science is a slowly incrementing base of tested information that can be relied on, and is relied on every day in every field, all around the world. I know its an unpopular approach on here, but I would also refrain where possible from even discussing the alternative theories, except as required to put your presence in the debate in context.

    I’m sure this is all very general and misses many of the nuances and intricacies of a vexing issue. But I genuinely believe that if the desired outcome is a overall increase in the average understanding of the merits of science in these matters, then a more constructive and respectful communication strategy is required. I get the impression that scientists find it frustrating and niggly to have to factor in the lowest common denominator in the public perception game, and even more distasteful that they may have to bother with the mass media to be effective in this goal, but these are the rules of engagement when seeking to change and influence the public’s thinking.

    Apologies for continuing to use the words ‘public’ and ‘science’ as catchall terms to describe the parties involved. I’m sure you know what I mean.

  • Hi Markj – nice to see you again :) And thank you for your very considered comments. I think we have to continue using ‘public’ & ‘science’ as catch-alls in this sort of discussion, because there aren’t really any alternatives. And perhaps that’s part of the problem, because such generalisations may blind us to the fact that in fact there’s no such animal as ‘the public’ – there is instead the sort of variation that you describe here. You could probably say the same thing for science as well – there are nuances that a single label doesn’t capture.

    I’ve just finished reading the final comments in David Winter’s recent post (http://sciblogs.co.nz/the-atavism/2011/03/01/ken-ring-cant-predict-earthquakes-either/#comment-296) & I think that at the end we were moving towards that respectful & constructive communication that is so much needed in this area.

    Wearing my science hat, I think that there’s a lot of sheer frustration** bubbling through from ‘our’ side; what we have to careful about (as I think Michael & Luckey both talked about) is not to let this get in the way of careful, reasoned, open & respectful communication.

    ** have a look at Darcy’s “lemon” post for an example of what generates this. Plus, of course, the perception that it’s far easier for the lemon-purveyors to get their message out & accepted, than seems to be the case for science… (The reason that we do discuss the alternatives is that – particularly for things impacting on human health & well-being – they have the potential to do real harm, & I don’t think any of us here are willing, or indeed able, to let that slide.)

    Let’s talk some more about this :-)

  • Markj said…
    Firstly, I think it is important for science and scientists to make a conscious decision to recognise that it is OK for people to hold the views they hold, and that they hold them based on what they know.

    That’s perfectly fine with people to hold their own views on any topics. However it is dangerous to see people hold on to views that is damaging to their well-being. When this happens, the person who is holding/clinging to dangerous views needs help from those with the knowledge to convince such person.

    I remembered a case from late 1990s, where a boy named Liam from the South Island (if I recalled correctly) who suffered cancer and his parents decided to take him off from his chemo treatment. The health authority’s complaint to the police under medical negligence (I think) and the parents took a run (with Liam). I recalled that when they were in hiding (different places up & down the country), they went to some mystic quantum treatment expert in Rotorua where supposedly, this quantum vibrating machine can re-align someone’s DNA (whatever that means) if the patient is hooked up to it ( the quantum machine) for a period of time (an hour, 2 hours, etc…).

    That treatment didn’t help Liam’s cancer at all. In fact he was deteriorating. The parents finally took Liam to Mexico for (non-medical or alternative) treatments in some of those mystic run clinics over there. It was a sad story because Liam finally succumbed to cancer and died. The parents’ views should have been changed by science, if they were willing to listen but they didn’t.

    That example above is a clear case of holding views that is fatal as a result.

    Markj said…
    …an important distinction, because it is not the science itself, but the hand wringing and consternation at the public’s support of alternative theories.

    This is where I get itchy. Can you differentiate between:

    #1) a mainstream scientific theories versus alternative scientific theories

    and

    #2) scientific theories versus delusional/crackpots’ propositions?

    Case #1 & Case #2 are not the same thing. Obviously, you’re talking about Case #2 as somehow it is the same as Case #1.

    In Case #2 delusional proposition is not alternative to a scientific theory. Ken Ring is in Case #2. Ken doesn’t have a theory and this is what irritates me, that some posters here at Sciblog keep calling Ken Ring’s theory as a theory. GET THIS STRAIGHT. Ken Ring doesn’t have a theory to start with. He thinks he can explain the frequency/magnitude of earthquakes, but obviously not. Ken Ring proposition is no difference to a Christian blog site (it was brought up at Kiwiblog), that put up a post just after the earthquake in Christchurch, claiming that it was God’s punishment because there are too many gays in Christchurch. Is this an alternative theory? No, it is not. How about Ken Ring, did he propose an alternative theory? No, not at all. Arbitrary proposal is not a theory and that’s what Ken Ring is doing.

    Here is an example of Case #1. In physics, its 2 pillars are “General Relativity” (GR) and “Quantum Mechanics” (QM). These 2 are incompatible. Is there an alternative? Yep, it is called “String Theory” (ST). Proponents of ST, believe that the incompatibility between GR & QM is solved by ST. This means that ST can explain the physics of the large scale domain (GR) as well as the physics of the small scale domain (QM). According to String Theory’s proponents, the theory itself is more universal than either the GR on its own or QM on its own.

    Now, can you see that Case #1 is different from Case #2 ? I sense that you probably confuse between the 2. Case #1 is what scientists should keep an open mind about. In Case #2, it must be dismissed on the very ground that it is not a theory to start with in the first place. Ken Ring’s alternative proposition is an example of Case #2.

    So, it is clear that you have a misunderstanding of scientists being close minded to alternative theories which you meant Case #2 and not Case #1. In Case #1, physicists are not close minded to alternative theories such as ST. However, they are close minded to crackpot as in Case #2. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been any example of Case #2, where a crackpot theory that moved mainstream after it was found out that it has been valid all along, NEVER. However, in Case #1, there were many examples. Well known example, was when Einstein first proposed “Special Relativity” (SR), it was an alternative to Newtonian Mechanics, which It did finally supersede it. Most physicists at the time thought that Einstein’s theory was absurd.

    The difference here was that Einstein proposed his theory in the framework of science (theory formulation/postulation/derivation, etc,…). It was an alternative theory when it was first proposed but it did fall in within the framework of scientific methods. In Ken Ring’s case, he doesn’t use any science at all. All he does is getting a hunch that an earthquake of magnitude X may occur at some location Y at a specific time T ? Getting a hunch about some future events is not science and not even a theory.

    Can you see now of where scientists should be open-minded to (Case #1) and where they should be close minded to (Case #2)?

  • Not very helpful this, but I just wanted to say that it’s good to see this conversation going again. I might join in later—if I can find time!

  • Falafulu, you said: That’s perfectly fine with people to hold their own views on any topics. However it is dangerous to see people hold on to views that is damaging to their well-being. When this happens, the person who is holding/clinging to dangerous views needs help from those with the knowledge to convince such person.
    And this is true. But where we need to be careful is how that help is offered. It doesn’t matter if the help is well-meant, if it’s presented in such a way that the presenter comes across as arrogant & know-all. (This is a general statement; it’s not in any way intended as a dig at commenters here!) It’s how we do the convincing that’s important, & I think this is where Markj was coming from in that previous thread of David’s. Yes, people need the information, but they don’t need it in a way that belittles them, or gives them impression that the other person thinks they’re thick/stupid. It’s all too easy to give that impression, completely unintentionally, & once we’ve done that then the damage is done.

    For example, while using a phrase like “scientific theories versus delusional/crackpots’ propositions” certainly expresses a scientist’s frustration at seeing both the air-time that the latter might get & also any credence given to them by a non-scientist, if the person we’re using them ‘at’ is sort of inclining to those non-scientific propositions then they could view the words as a criticism of themselves. Then they may get defensive, & once that happens we’re back to talking past each other rather than having a dialogue where both sides are informed. If we, as scientists, want to communicate successfully about our perspectives on the world, we have to listen to what those with differing perspectives have to say. If we know what informs those perspectives, then it makes the communication process much easier &, I’d like to think, less fraught.

    Case #1 & Case #2 are not the same thing. Obviously, you’re talking about Case #2 as somehow it is the same as Case #1.
    I have to disagree, it’s not actually all that obvious. My own reading of the statement by Markj that you’ve commented on here, is that he was comparing ‘mainstream’ with ‘complementary & alternative’, where ‘alternative’ would mean ‘not what we’d regard as science, but given the same weight in the public mind’. Markj, please do correct me if this is misinterpreting your views. (It’s actually jolly easy to mis-read people’s intentions on the internet, cos all we have are words – & the occasional smiley! No tone, expression, or gesture to help give weight & other meaningful cues…)

    I’ve got other thoughts I’d like to put down while they’re still at the front of my brain, but this comment is long enough already so I’ll come back in another one :)

  • I was thinking about Darcy’s & Michael’s recent posts on the ‘lemon’ cure & the claimed evils of warfarin. Unfortunately, once you start looking, this sort of thing is all too common (I’ve had a go at debunking some of this stuff myself). And equally unfortunately, if you read the comments threads (for as long as you can manage), a lot of people do seem to give a fair bit of credence to the views espoused by such sites.

    As I said earlier, I don’t think I can simply ignore this stuff – I know, for example, that there are an awful lot of ‘lurkers’ on my blog who read but don’t post, & I really really hope that by modelling the sort of critical questions that can be asked about such sites/products, I might spur some of them to do the same & so become a bit more informed on the ‘science’ perspective. This is not the same as saying (loudly & repeatedly) ‘this stuff is crap’ – it’s saying, ‘OK, does this really work in the way that’s claimed for it? Do these claims stack up’ (the sort of thing I tried to do in my last post on Ken Ring’s claims.)

    And we always have to remember that we are having to climb some pretty steep stairs on this one (I’m trying to avoid ‘fighting’ or ‘battling’ metaphors here!). Most people, I think, like certainty. They find scientists’ tendency to talk in terms of probabilities a bit unsettling. If you’re not particularly clear on why (say) an oncologist won’t give the definitive ‘yes, this’ll cure you’ when discussing a treatment option, how much more attractive it must be when someone else offers you a ‘natural, non-toxic, 100% guaranteed cure’ (provided you follow their directions 110% & don’t think any impure thoughts…)

    It’s late & I’m not sure how clearly that comes across – no doubt I’ll find out when you’ve all had a chance to read it & comment :-)

  • Just briefly as it is getting late here ..
    Falafulu, you are referring to the case of Liam Williams-Holloway. As you say, his parents refused conventional treatment and went into hiding to avoid it. They went to Tijuana, Mexico to try some variety of snake oil. Sadly the little boy died. I saw a copy of an alt-health magazine with a picture of Liam on the cover and an unfortunate headline claiming that he was ‘alive and well and living in Mexico’. It made me really .. angry.
    There was huge public interest in the case – mostly related to the fact that the parents had denied the child treatment which would have improved his chances of survival. His doctor got a court order to have him treated, but the parents went into hiding to avoid it. There’s an excellent analysis of the media’s role in this (and other) stories by Poneke (before he went a bit weird). Note the less than honourable role played by Paul Holmes.
    http://poneke.wordpress.com/2008/04/20/skepsoc/

    Anyway, what I meant to say was that the point of this case was about who had the right to make the decision for the child – the state or his parents? (clearly the state has a duty to protect children in cases of neglect, which it could be argued that this was, it seems to me).

    But where you lose me is when you assert that “However it is dangerous to see people hold on to views that is damaging to their well-being.” Surely, sir, you are not advocating nanny-statism? (meant ironically). By all means try to ensure that people are well informed about risks to their well-being but ultimately adults are autonomous beings and are responsible for making their own decisions.

  • Alison,

    “If you’re not particularly clear on why (say) an oncologist won’t give the definitive ‘yes, this’ll cure you’ when discussing a treatment option, how much more attractive it must be when someone else offers you a ‘natural, non-toxic, 100% guaranteed cure’”

    That’s another good point that probably needs to be pursued more. Although many alternative “cures” often claim to be highly effective, they always seem to have an out clause as you suggest “provided you follow their directions 110% & don’t think any impure thoughts”
    I think a lot of these “products” are very adeptly marketed and perhaps one of the things we need to do is continually point out some of the techniques.

    Over the last couple of years I’ve been trying to work out how to test a hypothesis of mine – that a decrease in interest in science might correlate to an increase in aggressive advertising and marketing in society. This is based on the idea that science seems to have been most popular in the 60’s during which period the advertising industry started to take off.
    As marketing has become more pervasive and more emotionally manipulative, I wonder if society has become more cynical about what is factual?
    Just some random pondering after a poor nights sleep :-)

  • Michael, a few hours ago you said In looking at some of the arguments that have occurred there are a number of things that are obvious. Some people will challenge science/scientists on one thing, then when answered switch to another challenge then another. This may be the nature of blogs with many different people contributing but then perhaps it is up to some of us to try and guide people back to a single thread?
    It may be partly due to the nature of blogs; it may also be something of a Gish Gallop :-) I agree, though, that maybe we need to be more active in trying to steer the direction of a discussion. (Perhaps with the Gish Gallopers, all we can do is ignore them?)

  • There’s an excellent analysis of the media’s role in this (and other) stories by Poneke (before he went a bit weird).

    That’s really below the belt Carol. If I am weird now, I must always have been weird.

    You can’t pick and choose between what you think are my “on-message Group Think” articles and say they are correct, while attacking my “off-message” articles as being “weird.”

    I have never followed a party line, I look at the facts. If the facts don’t fit the media message (such as with poor wee Liam) I present the facts and say very loudly that what the media is saying is unadulterated bullshit.

  • I have found most of your writings (including your recent travel writings) excellent, David, but there is a certain blind spot that I am reluctant to even mention lest it provoke a frenzied attack. I wouldn’t use on-message GroupThink to describe any of your work. I just happened to like some of it.

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