The science paper THEY TRIED TO SILENCE!

Sheep in a tin foil hat
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There’s a view that the anti-GM movement is like a mirror of the right-wing anti-science movement against climate change. It’s certainly plausible. Some anti-GM claims are barely reheated arguments from the anti-science lobby attached to climatologists. But is this simply ‘science’ as a proxy for politics. A paper by Lewandowsky, Gignac and Oberauer challenges this assumption. They start from research that shows that while trust in science has declined on the political right, there has been no similar decline on the left. They argue that there’s something more interesting happening than simply anti-corporate politics.

The paper is The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science. In it Lewandowsky et al. argue that the only political belief that predicts a distrust of science is a ‘free-market’ worldview. Instead it is a belief in conspiracies that is more indicative of whether you’re likely to oppose vaccinations or GM foods.

The method is based on a survey of various statements that people could agree or disagree with on a scale of 1 to 5. These included basic statements like:

  • I am politically more liberal than conservative.
  • The major national media are too left wing for my taste.

or questions on economic views like:

  • An economic system based on free markets unrestrained by government interference automatically works best to meet human needs.
  • Free and unregulated markets pose important threats to sustainable development.

and then some on scientific issues:

  • Humans are too insignificant to have an appreciable impact on global temperature.
  • I believe that genetically engineered foods have already damaged the environment.
  • I believe vaccines are a safe and reliable way to help avert the spread of preventable diseases.

and some conspiracies like

  • Princess Diana’s death was not an accident but rather an organised assassination by members of the British royal family who disliked her.

There is a belief that much public hostility to science comes from a lack of understanding. The speaker is effectively saying “If only the public were as well-educated as me then they’d see things the right way”. This is often called the “deficit model”, which is sometimes held up as a straw man when science communicators want to rant about something, and sometimes a frighteningly accurate example of how scientists think about science communication. While scientific knowledge is important, there’s a bit more to it than simply a matter of having the knowledge or not. This is some thing et al. bring up:

…a striking feature of the opposition to climate science is that worldview-driven polarization often increases with greater levels of education and greater science literacy, suggesting that the opposition reflects a cognitive style rather than a deficit of knowledge or ability.

This is an important point. Conspiracist thinking requires intelligence and creativity. The wilder the conspiracy, the more evidence against it there’ll be, requiring more work to sustain it. In this case the deficit model is not enough because merely providing more evidence that something is true is evidence of a conspiracy as much as it is of whatever it is you want to prove.

Something that bothers me about the paper is that the conspiracies are safe. The conspiracists are people who believe the Apollo landings were faked, or the New World Order are going to take over the planet. Obviously you’d be a nutter to believe these, but is conspiracy thinking something that only happens to other people? What about the belief that Microsoft planted a program on your computer to deliberately annoy you and wreck your productivity? It’s not likely, but how many people have raged against Mr Clippy? It’s human to see intent in random events (or incompetence). Does this mean anyone be susceptible to a pseudoscientific campaign, if it was packaged correctly?

The paper is relevant to botanists with an interest in outreach as it touches on climate change and GM food directly, but it also shows that science communication research at the moment has to go a bit beyond simply how much science can we communicate. No Funny Business has asked how we can get to an applied science of science communication? Looking at science communication in the context of wider communication and (yikes!) media studies would be a start.

Note: We regret all stock of the AoB Tin Foil Hat has sold out after a bulk purchase from Fort Meade, Maryland.