In defence of (some) science scepticism – a lawyer's view

By Guest Work 03/06/2014 10

by Dr Nicole Moreham

Since becoming a Rutherford Discovery Fellow in 2011, I have often found myself in the company of scientists. Not surprisingly, I regard them as a highly impressive bunch – intelligent, thoughtful and deeply committed to what they do. There is one area though where I quite often find myself disagreeing with what people in the wider science community say: that is in their treatment of science sceptics.

Dr Nicole Moreham
Dr Nicole Moreham

If you have devoted your career to the pursuit of scientific truth, it must be very frustrating to see that truth misrepresented in the media, rejected by policy makers, or superseded by junk science. Rigorous scientists are right, of course, to speak out against this. But I have on occasion, both at conferences and as a media consumer, detected a tendency for the science community to assume that “science scepticism” is always unintelligent, illogical and, perhaps, a bit crazy. But I would suggest that to dismiss the sceptical position without real analysis is to miss an opportunity – if you want to convince someone that you are right about something, as good scientists obviously do, it is a good idea first to work out why they disagree with you.

The loss of trust in science

In my observation, science sceptics are rarely unintelligent. On the contrary, many are highly intelligent critical thinkers who do not accept what they are told at face value. This is particularly the case when the message – about science or anything else – comes from a speaker with a strong vested interest in one side of the debate.

There is nothing irrational in this critical perspective. Sound scientific findings have often been suppressed, misrepresented and misused before. Indeed, there is a catalogue of situations where evidence of extreme toxicity has been kept from the public – think tobacco, asbestos, formaldehyde, mad cow disease. Industry has usually been primarily responsible but governments are often complicit – at best, they reject calls for industry regulation; at worst, they go into bat for the industry in question. The image of a government minister feeding a “safe” UK beef burger to his daughter just before the first mad cow disease fatality is etched on the public psyche in Britain, for example.

Obviously, this isn’t good scientists’ fault. But it might help explain why some people won’t take your word for it when you tell them something is safe. Who is to say – the argument would go – that fluoride, electromagnetic radiation, pesticides, BPA are not tomorrow’s asbestos?

 The precautionary principle and the concept of proof

All this is compounded by the fact that many people are intuitively drawn to the precautionary principle. Witness the end of BPA baby bottles. Despite industry and government assurances that they are safe, many parents simply won’t buy them.

This precautionary instinct means that appeals to a majority scientific view will often fail to reassure. If cautious people are told that there is “some evidence” that something is harmful, they will need a very good reason to disregard it. How do we know – the argument once again goes – that these fringe scientists aren’t like the discredited men and women who were fighting against big tobacco or the manufacture of formaldehyde? And what do scientists mean anyway when they say that something is proven? Lay people have limited ability to distinguish good science from bad, to know which information to trust, and as a result, will sometimes take a defensive position.

I am not putting forward these arguments as truth. I am sure you have been shouting valid counter-arguments at the screen. What I do say though is that these views are not stupid.

Nor are they necessarily naïve – people are right to be suspicious about the activities of lobbyists and the views expressed by people with vested interests. And some people are just a bit scared about the world that they find themselves living in; about the lack of control over what they’re exposed to in their day to day lives, about the unfamiliar, “unnatural” things which in their view are being are foisted upon them.

The challenge to science communicators, I would suggest, is not to dismiss or to patronise these people but to engage constructively with their sceptical viewpoints. Some scientists already do this; they explain the science clearly, articulate and interrogate their understanding of “proof”, show why some evidence is more valuable than others, admit what they do not yet know, and engage with the precautionary viewpoint. This is the way to win the hearts and minds of sceptics.

Postscript: Why climate change denial is different 

It should be acknowledged that climate change denial differs from the examples of scepticism set out above. With climate change, powerful vested interests lie on the side of denial.

Climate change sceptics tend to be aligned with the powerful, not with the little guy as with tobacco or asbestos. The precautionary instinct also plays out differently: since the cost of ignoring the risks are unimaginably high, cautious actors will clearly favour the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. But the exhortation still applies. In order to counter your opponents’ arguments, you need to work out who they are listening to and why – what are they scared of, what arguments persuade them, how is their world view threatened by the dominant scientific view? – and use that understanding to make your message that much more effective.

Dr Nicole Moreham is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law, Victoria University of Wellington

10 Responses to “In defence of (some) science scepticism – a lawyer's view”

  • “This is the way to win the hearts and minds of sceptics.” [citation needed]

    I’ve been around the intertubz for a long time now. And have been in many science policy discussions (on the biology side, this includes stem cells, vaccines, evolution, GMOs, and a few others). I’ve watched different scientists try different strategies. I’ve tried different strategies myself. But I don’t see any evidence that says which method has demonstrated any movement of the needle on any one of the hot issues.

    Increasingly I’m also finding that it’s not the average “sceptical” person who causes the drama. It is active misinformers. Some of them are aggressively misleading people, others are among the already misled but have been all riled up by the misinformers, and there’s no talking them down. They arrive underneath a pile of bad information that’s far to deep to unearth by the time they run into an actual scientist with the appropriate credentials and the credibility on an issue.

    The aggressive misinformers are a different group, and I think they need to be challenged differently and publicly. And some of that has to be harshly. And this includes representatives and supporters of NGOs, who have paid staff to gin up fear and talk to the media all day long–they have much bigger budgets and resources for media than any lab scientist ever will. And they have no accountability for any misinfo they spread.

    Cranks are running the social media table, unfortunately. And nobody is asking them to change their behavior. It’s always scientists who are failing, no matter how many of them have tried your recommended methods. I’m getting really tired of this tut-tutting.

  • Having just been the subject of three, in my opinion pretty, vexatious Press Council complaints over stories I wrote about a fairly controversial subject – electromagnetic fields and the supposed link to brain cancers, hypersensitivity etc, I’ve been reflecting on the best way to engage with groups who reject science.

    On one level, the interaction was successful – I forcefully presented my case and none of the complaints were upheld. But I suspect I have only hardened the resolve of the anti-Wifi lobby to make an even bigger issue of this.

    Having been close to a number of these issues now, I’m fully convinced, as the American writer Chris Mooney points out in oner of the best pieces I read on the issue (, that the big deciding factor in whether you can change someone’s mind based on presenting scientific evidence, is who the message is coming from.

    Does the source – whether a person in your community, a politician or a media outlet reflect your sense of identity, values etc. If it does, you are much more likely to accept what that person/outlet is saying. As Mooney puts it:

    “If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction.” ie: write off the message as coming from the ivory tower, biased media or vested interests.

  • I’m not convinced of the identity/values thing. I spent years on a liberal politics US site, where I had full cred in the community, talking about science. These were the same exact people I had been aligned with previously on stem cells, creationism, research funding, and some of them on vaccines/alt-med. But on GMOs, there was a complete 180. And I didn’t change. I’ve heard this from many other scientists too.

    And the difference is the misinformation they already had programmed before I got to the conversation.

    My favorite description of this problem is Mike the Mad Biologist’s “The Asymmetric Advantage of Bullsh-t”.

    I read about your Press Council appearance on WiFi, Peter (and yay you–I’m so glad someone set out the facts. Thank you.). And the hard core anti-wifi are unreachable, I’m sure. We saw that in the recent vaccine study too. But what’s the alternative? To let their BS go unchallenged? Wait for some community member who is acceptable (whatever this means) to pick up the gauntlet? Who will do this? Do they have the skills? Do they have the data? Do they have the reach? Do they have the fortitude? It’s thankless.

    I don’t think the charlatans should go unchallenged publicly. What if you saw Andrew Wakefield coming today? We had the scientific facts on vaccines before. We had the data. We had public health folks telling people the right things. It didn’t stop the fear factory from stealing the ball.

    Can we say now that it would have been better to wait for a trusted community member to pick this up? We don’t know. But I often wonder if that had been actively challenged more effectively and aggressively in the early days if we’d be in a different place now.

  • The social study of science is a fascinating field, an especially topical today, as we rely more and more on science to navigate in the world. Increasingly we are finding the world to be more complex than we thought, at the same time as we are making it more so. Our intuitive responses are increasingly unreliable – what seems right, often isn’t, and what looks bad can be fine. So science plays a crucial central role in all of this – and scepticism just one expression.

    To me, science is like one of our senses – one which has become highly attuned. As such it provides us with invaluable information, rather like our eyesight does. Yet, like our eyesight, it does not provide complete information, although at times it can be easy to forget that (e.g. “seeing is believing”).

    Does this analogy apply though when deciding what to do with the information though? There is a clear demarcation between the eyes and the brain, but is there such a demarcation between science and wider society, especially politics? Some, such as Daniel Sarewitz, propose that scientific discussions should be separated artificially from values based debates, so that the values debate can remain transparent, and not devolve into a proxy science war. Many discuss the importance of boundary work in science as a constantly renegotiated and permeable one.

    Brian Wynne argues that public deficit arguments of mistrust of science (i.e. lack of knowledge leading to misunderstanding) is due to a lack of self-awareness of scientific institutions of their own internal culture. Often scientific issues are framed in scientific terms, but as Nicole suggests, often there are wider social and cultural perspectives, such as trust and ethics, that are beyond the scientific frame, but equally valid and well considered.

    But in the middle of all of this are scientists, the vast majority doing their best to provide illumination on the world, but under pressure from all sides. Undermined by powerful vested interests on one side trying to hide their truth, and their ‘truth’ mistrusted by others on the other.

    There is nothing simple about how we incorporate science into our wider lives. The only thing that is certain about it is that it is 100% a social issue, not a scientific one. We need to get better at the ‘boundary work’ between science and everything else – knowing how to apply science to life. In the meantime though, we also need to respect the scientists as messengers and avoid trying to hide political battles behind science. I think I have some sympathy for Daniel Sarewitz’ ideas to avoid projecting wider battles on to unsuspecting scientists.

    There’s no elegant, reductive scientific answer here, only many messy social and cultural ones, and even more questions.

  • Also, science is not at all separate from what we believe. The traditional Mertonian norms of science, that it can be objective, disinterested and somehow make a claim to a universal truth, is an entirely social and cultural position and expression of values. Every discipline has different lens, emphasising different aspects, that can completely contradict those of another discipline. So there can be no claim to absolute truth.

    Arguments such as wifi, GMOs, vaccination, fluoride, all tend to be argued in the domain of science, as if the argument is purely one of scientific method. I think that Nicole’s point, as a lawyer, is that this is incomplete problem framing. The issue in those cases is about trust and vested interests, that are often highly rational concerns when looking at who funds the research, as well as the interests of the researchers themselves (as per Brian Wynne’s work). That is a social framing, not a scientific one, and therefore scientific arguments are incomplete.

    Nothing is clear-cut and obvious in science – especially in areas of society, nature or public health. I know that making conclusions on the science of water quality is like herding cats, so why are the others any different? They all rely on extensive interpretation, which is always values based.

    Again, science is a social actor, and any doubt or sceptical position that’s based on a reasonable assessment of social and political influences is far more rational assessment than looking at the science alone. We cannot discount the human factor in any of this – as lawyers know only too well.

  • My Physics teacher from school told us you never prove anything in science. You can only show. The use of the word “Truth” here is difficult to accept. Some would say that there is no “Truth” in science. There are levels of reliability, of sureness, of acceptance. But Truth?? And therein lies a problem. The Law wants a decision. There is no grey. “Either you are with us or you agin us” as GB told us. Thus, when it comes to drunkenness or speeding, a line has to be crossed. When it gets crossed, you are drunk or you get a ticket. Science would say that there is a good probability you are drunk or speeding.

    Let’s get it straight. Science is about testing your world with numbers, with data, with the magic word: reasoning. If something is found to move in the heavens when authority tells you it doesn’t, then it takes a very very brave individual to convince the rest of the world. This has happened in the past where the first guy who suggested the heavens move got burnt at the stake, the second guy got off. Just. But he had the time before hand to go around convincing others of his – magic word here – “evidence” and they accepted it.

    My answer is to ensure all our kids are educated in the scientific method before they get hit with the religious hammer. The world will not only be a safer place, but there is a good chance that “truth” might prevail.

    They might make better lawyers as well!!!

  • Nicole,

    “they explain the science clearly, articulate and interrogate their understanding of “proof”, show why some evidence is more valuable than others, admit what they do not yet know, and engage with the precautionary viewpoint. This is the way to win the hearts and minds of sceptics.”

    This is the way I discuss science with anyone who doesn’t seem to understand a particular area of science I am familiar with. I also use questions establish why they believe what they believe, and to show I am genuinely interested in what they think and why.
    However, it has been my experience that anyone who self identifies as being “sceptical*” of a particular area of science is often too locked into their views to change
    So why would I bother to question and challenge them? Two reasons
    1) Occasionally they do start to question their position
    2) For anyone listening to the conversation, if your explanations are calmer and clearer then you will win another “convert” to science. Without your intervention, they could simply accept what the “sceptic*” is telling them

    (One of the best things you can do when discussing things with someone with unusual views is to remain calm. When you get angry it give the impression that they have won)

    * Note, it is incredibly frustrating that the word “sceptic” is used to describe these people when their views do not typically relate to the skepticism which is an integral part of science.

  • Great post this so applies to LENR and all the real scientific data gathered. When intelligent people post rehashed dribble to discredit legitimate science, instead of looking at the data.
    Climate change, politics and energy science are intertwined.
    There is hope away from the greed of oil companies
    “June 3, 2014 – “”The world owes Fleischmann and Pons a huge apology: The cold fusion technology they announced in 1989 — which was blasted by arrogant hot fusion scientists as a fraud — has been proven true once again by U.S. Navy Researchers … cold fusion has been proven true in literally thousands of experiments conducted over the past two decades. …. Cold fusion isn’t some magical free energy machine. It produces excess heat, but slowly. So don’t go thinking this is some kind of Mr. Fusion device that you can feed some banana peels and expect to get clean electricity out the other end. Rather, cold fusion converts mass to heat energy, slowly losing a bit of mass through very low-energy nuclear reactions (hence the LENR name) that generate excess heat. In practical terms, cold fusion produces hot water.
    And why is hot water useful? Because with hot water, you can produce steam. Steam turns turbines that generate electricity. This is how coal power plants work, too, except they’re burning coal to heat water instead of using cold fusion. Conventional nuke plants work the same way, too, using much higher-energy nuclear reactions to heat vast amounts of water that drive electricity-generating turbines.
    So heating water with cold fusion is a big deal. … Whether you recognize the reality of global warming or not, cold fusion technology could reduce air pollution due to coal power plant emissions. ”
    Still you wont see it in Nature magazine.
    Still MIT had a cold fusion wake some years ago, now they are holding conferences and courses on the science involved.
    For commercial developments in this field see
    and question why aren’t the news readers telling us about this.

  • Now it looks like the US government is actually looking at it, after all the denial. From Forbes
    “The Department of Energy included low energy nuclear reactions—which NASA scientists have said could fuel home nuclear reactors—among other representative technologies in a $10 million funding opportunity it announced last fall.”
    How long will it take for the schoolbooks to change on this is my big question ?

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