Monday, January 23, 2012

Science, well sort of....the motivation of the mob

I keep coming back to beliefs…how they are formed, held on to, rationalized and then put into action…and in that exploration, I keep coming back to myself…what do I believe, and why?  Most importantly, what will allow me to change my beliefs, and can I change those of others?

Last week I had a jarring experience that forced me to look into the maw of beliefs forged by fear, loathing and anger.  I went to a public planning meeting.  You may know the type… the community is invited to provide feedback to governmental agencies about some project or another.  These are, at their best, wonderful exercises in free speech and the manifestation of a pluralistic democracy at work.  All our voices are nominally equal and everyone gets heard.  But a funny thing happened on the way to this idyllic exercise of civic engagement…we got jumped by the mob.In this case it was a mob of folks who used the public meeting as a venue to express their belief that the planning process we were trying to engage in was somehow linked to an international conspiracy aimed at creating a new world order under the aegis of the United Nations, and something ominously called “Agenda 21”.  Funny, I thought I was there to talk about future transportation options in Marin County…who knew.  From the start of the meeting, attended by about 200 folks, of which I would estimate 25 were “Agenda 21ers” (hereafter, the mob), the mob disrupted any attempt at dialog by shouting down the speakers.  Typical of their approach was to repeatedly yell, “Why won’t you answer our questions?”  When anyone actually tried to answer a question, they started shouting “Lies!”, clearly uninterested in any answers. Wow….

But it gets better. After a particularly unsettling few minutes of shrill non communication, I had the opportunity to approach one of the most vocal mob members.  He had been throwing out a series of questions about climate change and I thought I’d try a different tack. I calmly approached, smile on my face, gave him my card, and offered to talk to him at any time to try to answer his questions.  Looking down at it he said, “What are you, a SCIENTIST??!” literally spitting out the word in a spray  of spittle, his eyes bulging.  “No”, I replied in feigned breathless curiosity, “are you?”  In rapid fire he said we wasn’t , but that he had taken a number of science classes in college, and he proceeded to recite a number of scientific formulas (I didn’t really follow what he was saying) in an attempt to establish his non scientific, scientific bona fides.  Soon we were surrounded by 5 or 6 other members of the mob, several of them with video cameras recording our conversation, which I took to be a pathetic attempt at intimidation, making the whole scene at once more laughable and at the same time distressing.  I couldn’t resist…I pulled out my iPhone and took pictures of them taking pictures of me…it actually seemed to bug them…hey, you gotta find the fun in these things. As I continued the exchange with my climate change denier friend, the other mob members left us once it became clear that I wasn’t taking their bait.  I answered all his questions calmly and politely, even asking him once if he was angry or upset at me, as his face was visibly reddening.  Not what he was looking for.  He also wasn’t looking for any answers or real debate on climate science.  He was only there to confirm the strength of his own convictions, to confirm his deeply held beliefs.

But here’s the thing…his beliefs about climate change had nothing to do with the scientific evidence for it one way or another. Rather, they were based on his underlying belief that there is a worldwide socialist inspired conspiracy at work trying to take away his personal liberty and property rights, and the “myth” of climate change was merely a tactic towards that end.  More often than not, when we are confronted with so-called science denial, it has much more to do with underlying ideologies or beliefs rather than any real debate about the science or its validity itself.  This is the case for everything from denial of evolution to fear of vaccines causing autism.

So what does this have to do with my beliefs?  For a long time, I thought our challenge in science education was to simply do a better job of laying out the facts, being clear about the evidence and methods of science.  Not so.  Based on this recent and other experience, I now believe that we need to consider a different approach.  We need to better understand the underlying beliefs and motivations of folks who deny science if we are to meaningfully engage them. And frankly, we need to find congenial ways in which to do so.  I’m not saying we need to accept their beliefs, but rather have a better appreciation for their motivations.

We’re obviously never going to change some minds. There will always be a mob around one topic or another.  But they are small in number, and our challenge is not with them, but with those who may be swayed by them.  My perhaps na├»ve and idealistic hope is that by engaging these folks with a better appreciation for their motivation, we might reach understanding, and open the possibility of actually changing some folks minds, at least if they are open to it.  The alternative clearly isn’t working.  So, what do you believe?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Science, well sort of....Smart Meters linked to alien abduction

Did I get your attention?  Clearly a cheap tabloid trick on my part, well sort of.    OK, so the SmartMeter thing – the claim that SmartMeters have negative health effects – has been around for a while now, and you’ve likely already  formed your own opinion on the validity of that claim. I can direct you to voluminous evidence that they do not (have negative health effects), but frankly, most people will likely be unable to completely understand it. I sure can’t as much of it is highly technical and, well, “sciency” (but send me an e-mail if you‘d like to see the original reports.)  However, because this evidence is based on “science”, it will never be able to provide what some folks are looking for, which is absolute proof that SmartMeters are harmless.  Sorry, science cannot “prove” that something cannot happen…it just doesn’t work that way.  What it can, and does say is that we can’t figure out how SmartMeters could cause any health effects, and that there is no evidence that they do, or ever have, but science cannot “prove” they never will.  This aspect of science, by the way, is poorly understood generally…. but that’s a topic for another day.

No, the reason for this post and its tabloid-esque headline is to examine the role of the media in all this science stuff.  Ah yes, the media, everyone’s favorite whipping boy.  “If only they could get it right!” we say, “They are clearly biased” or “Mouthpiece of the  left/right wing (your pick) establishment”  etc, etc.  But it’s too easy to blame them really, because frankly, they are just us. As individuals we are all bombarded with a deluge of information that is often conflicting and difficult to understand, and yet we are naturally wired to make a quick decision about it, right or wrong.  But the media DOES have an obligation to “get it right” and this is where it gets really tricky.  The following is from a December 16 piece in the SF Chronicle about SmartMeters.

… “People convinced that wireless signals can cause debilitating headaches, insomnia, ringing in the ears and other symptoms have repeatedly asked state regulators to halt the SmartMeter program.

The notion that wireless technology can have such effects remains in deep dispute among researchers….” (Read more: here.)

My problem is with the statement that there is a “deep dispute” among researchers because that’s simply not true – at least not among the scientific community as opposed to the blogosphere, which for complex reasons seeks to perpetuate the myth of wireless technology health effects.  Over the years we have heard about the “deep dispute” over climate change, vaccines and even various paranormal phenomena, such as the existence of alien abduction.  The challenge for the media is to know when to stop saying there are scientific disputes on these types of issues, when in fact there are not. While it is always possible to trot out some individual who “disputes” any scientific finding, and specific details will always be subject to some dispute, characterizing these as significant does a disservice to us all. As a result, climate change deniers have slowed the pace of needed reforms while vaccine scare mongers have increased the rates of unneeded illnesses in our children.

There is no simple solution to all this.  These are all complex and emergent issues.  But one small tactic would be for us to reconsider what it means when we read that there is a “dispute”. If we can agree that some nominal dispute does not mean something is not true, and that we need to look a bit farther before we decide what to believe, it may be a good starting point.

Also, these things can take time to get clarified.  I would argue the Chronicle would not say today there is a “dispute” about alien abduction although some folks still truly believe it exists, and in fact state that they have experienced it.  However, there is no evidence for such, no real dispute about it and in today’s world no legitimate media outlet would give credence to claims to the contrary (tabloids not withstanding!)  Also, thankfully, you read less and less about ‘disputes’ involving climate change (or am I just reading stuff I can agree with…hmmmm)

Finally, we can’t really lay the blame on the media completely – we have some accountability too.  The media merely plays to our interest in stories that have some perceived conflict or dispute.  That’s what we want to read about … maybe that’s why my goofy headline grabbed your attention.

Anyway, there you have it…a proven link between SmartMeters and alien abduction…no dispute about it!  So…what do you believe?