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truth, it must be very frustrating to see that truth misrepresented in the media, rejected by policy makers, or superseded by junk science.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