(Presenting science in a public debate.)
In a discussion following her post about the decision by the Hamilton city council to abandon fluorination of their water, Alison felt that scientists were disadvantaged in not showing passion in presenting their case. She writes from the view of those opposing what is considered sound science,
If you’re frightened by something, & those you associate with you also find it alarming, then it’s always going to be harder for a ‘contra-’ voice to be heard. Particularly if that contrarian [here, a scientist] doesn’t argue with some passion; they can come across as a bit mechanical & uncaring, which doesn’t help their case.
This probably follows on from Hilary’s comment after Helen’s post,
So maybe we need more passion from people in the science community on these issues? I think we do have scientists in this country with the charisma to achieve this in the public forum, but they need to bring more than information. They need to bring the kind of spirit that gets people behind them.
You might argue if scientists are better to present things calmly (in ‘just the facts’ style) or with some passion. I suspect that comes down to the circumstances. Let’s take the passionate view for a moment.
Two types of passion that scientists have.
First is the passion that gets them interested in a problem.
Second is that passion to test what we know about the thing and share what has been learnt.
The first is the same as that which gets anyone interested in a topic, scientist or not.
Children dying of a particular illness, cleaner fuels, pollution, saving wildlife and so on. Of course some of scientists’ choices are geekier than non-scientists might choose, but the spirit driving it is the same and that’s my point here.
When doing good science, the second passion is put foremost. In order to look to answers, you need to set aside your own bias, any feelings of outrage, fear and whatnot, and push a passion for sound investigation to the front.
One passion inspires researchers to go onto work on a topic, another is focused on when working on the topic.
The first passion is not gone (or was never there, as sometimes scientists come across as) – it’s what brought the interest in the topic. It’s just to progress a keenness to test and critique what possibilities there are is used to serve that initial passion, so that what can be established soundly will emerge.
The reason I’m belabouring this point is that the second can be shown as a ‘passion’ too, one that doesn’t raise the conflicts the first does. There’s no conflict in having a passion for the ‘truth’.*
Relevant to the fluorination discussion and choosing to express passion on a subject under debate, perhaps this approach is one some might take? – Show some of the first passion to remind others you share the same interests as them, then make clear that to hold true to that interest you need to set that bias aside and care deeply for, have a passion for, what can be said accurately.
As scientists we can see passion for sound information in patient accuracy and carefully-worded replies.
There may be occasions where a passion for the correct answer needs to be made more explicit. I’m not suggesting this passion should be ‘loud’ or disrespectful of other’s views, but that it may need to be seen.
I agree with Pat Touhy (see comments after Helen’s post) that for this issue,
it’s the outrage factors such as loss of choice, its association with industrial waste, fear and distrust of authority etc which are the big issues here
(There also seem to be issues of political process.) These are the same issues I feel are underlying opposition on other issues, such as the few who oppose use of vaccines.
* One aspect that makes it harder to express ‘passion’ (and to write this post!) is that the answers are often more accurately stated as likelihoods. As Feynman said,
We find that the statements of science are not of what is true and what is not true, but statements of what is known with different degrees of certainty: “It is very much more likely that so and so is true than that it is not true.”
Likelihoods are sometimes expressed as ranges of values, e.g. a range of a low to high value of concentration of fluorine in water that is considered safe to drink.
(Excuse the absence of anything here from me of late. If my diary isn’t misleading me, mid-June should see more time for writing.)