[ASC-list] When the "truth wins" assumption fails - denial and science writing

Susan Kirk skirk at iprimus.com.au
Wed May 2 01:46:27 UTC 2012

Thanks for posting this Susannah.  Some very interesting points worthy of
discussion.  I bet Grunig (four models of public relations) didn't
anticipate how his theory would affect getting the message across when
social media became the norm.  Now all and sundry are free to put their two
cents worth, sometimes these people are qualified to talk other times they
are not, and sometimes they pretend they are.  Go for a visit over to the
Conversation website. The comments can run for days, with never any
consensus.  It contains good examples of bombarding non believers with more
evidence on many different science subjects to little avail.  If there ever
was a truer cliché for our times it must be: baffle them with science.

I often hear comments that are echoed by my parents, global warming, what a
joke, its just another way to place a tax burden on people.  Climate has
been changing since the beginning of time.  My question then is, without
laying blame for its effect,   so if you know its changing what do you think
we should do about it?   How could we live through an ice age for example?

Unfortunately the answer usually is we won't have to worry about it.  Even
when I ask them about their children and grandchildren they shrug.  It's too

So are our messages targeting the right age group?  Mass media rarely
targets an audience well.  Who are we trying to convince?  We don't need to
convince government (public policy) it's already on their agenda.

The other issue is that it's not really the job of the journalist to
convince or to use communication theories to convince.  If they try to
convince they are biased in their reporting.   Its really up to public
relation officers to do the convincing.  There is so much money being pumped
into the issues such as 'adapting to climate change' I know the
horticulutral/agricultural industry is contributing vast sums (levies) and
addressing it as a priority in their R&D.   So where are the messages
relating to the outcomes?  How well are government PR servants communicating
positive outcomes?  And do we even know what the score is?  Believers vs
Non-believers, has anyone done a survey?

Social theory tell us that people want to be included, want to feel like
they belong, are the norm.  Where are the stories telling us about people
adapting for the inevitable climate change, as though it were the norm.  Joe
Smith including recycled water on his farm because he is adapting to climate

Also are our science comms people too logical?  Do you believe in the warm
and fuzzy of mother earth and how we should protect her?  There is a whole
population (call them hippies if you like) that are willing to push these

Of use to comms people, if they don't already use them, could be some of the
strategies used by people who work in 'fostering sustainable behaviour'
Where they really have to try and change minds and behaviour.   Not really
sure how effective any of these campaigns have been?  Something to take from
these types of campaigns is that information alone will not change
behaviour. (Fostering Sustainable Behaviour an introduction to community
based social marketing Doug McKenzie-Mohr and William Smith)

Where are the resources?  Do journalists know where they are?   Are there
plenty of FAQs resources?

Another issue is that of 'trust' and I've raised this a few times.  Do we
trust scientists to know the truth and tell it?  I have a sneaky suspicion
that people don't trust scientists,  I would love to poll it to see.  It all
comes down to that uncertainty of science.  Hey they got it wrong so many
times.  Are we doing a disservice communicating science to the public?

I think we have to keep reinforcing the words, climate change, so it becomes
part of the vocabulary.  The debate will continue to rage but mostly I
believe its an academic debate or at the least an intellectual one.   In the
future people will just wake up knowing there IS climate change.  Let's just
hope it's before it's too late.


Susan Kirk   
B.comm Journalist
Member and Queensland Web Editor -  Australian Science Communicators (ASC)
Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA)
& Horticultural Media Association (Qld)  (HMAQ)
tel: +61 7 5478 6761 | mobile: 0414 645 953 | email: susan at susankirk.com.au
www.susankirk.com.au |  Skype: susanakirk | Tweet: susanakirk

³If you don¹t ask the right questions you won¹t get the right answers.²

> I spent the past two days at the Science Writing in the Age of
> Denial<http://sciencedenial.wisc.edu/> conference at the University of
> Wisconsin-Madison. The event explored the phenomenon of denial and what it
> means for science writers. How can journalists effectively convey science when
> its uncomfortable truths face organized resistance?
> I walked away from the event feeling both energized and frustrated. Denialism
> is easy to spot, and conference speakers like Sean B.
> Carroll<http://seanbcarroll.com/> and Naomi
> Oreskes<http://history.ucsd.edu/people/faculty/oreskes-naomi.html> were
> especially adept at characterizing and documenting it. During his keynote
> talk, Carroll outlined a ?denialism manual in six steps,? which he adapted
> from a history of chiropractors and
> vaccination<http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/105/4/e43.full>
> published in 2000.
> Step 1: Doubt the science.
> Step 2: Question scientists? motives and interests.
> Step 3: Magnify legitimate, normal disagreements among scientists and cite
> gadflies as authorities.
> Step 4: Exaggerate potential harms (scare the hell out of people).
> Step 5: Appeal to personal freedom (I?m an American and no government official
> can tell me what vaccinations I need.)
> Step 6: Show that accepting the science would represent a repudiation of a key
> philosophy.
> As Carroll described this denialism playbook, people in the audience nodded
> knowingly. Any science writer who has encountered pushback from denialists has
> seen these strategies at work. But the question remains: how do we counteract
> them?
> And the answer to that question remains elusive. Keynote speaker Arthur
> Lupia,<http://www-personal.umich.edu/%7Elupia/> a political scientist who
> studies how people make decisions, says that attempts to educate policy makers
> and the general public on scientific topics commonly fail, and he puts the
> blame squarely on the messengers. ?The problem isn?t the audience, the problem
> is us,? Lupia told the journalists in attendance. ?We have unrealistic
> expectations.? Many journalists and educators assume that if they simply
> present the facts, their audience will recognize them and change their beliefs
> accordingly.
> As I?ve written 
> previously<http://www.psmag.com/health/convincing-the-public-to-accept-new-med
> ical-guidelines-11422/>, social psychologists call this idea the ?truth
> wins<http://conium.org/%7Emaccoun/>? assumption ?and it rarely pans out. Why?
> Because people don?t assimilate facts in a vacuum, they filter them through
> their pre-existing belief system. Psychologists call this ?motivated
> reasoning??it?s the tendency to seek out and view new evidence as consistent
> with one?s prior views.
> We seek facts that confirm what we already believe, and reject the ones that
> contradict our world view. People deploy skepticism asymmetrically, says
> social ecologist Peter Ditto<http://socialecology.uci.edu/faculty/phditto/> of
> the University of California, Irvine.  ?They have stricter criteria to accept
> something they don?t want to believe.?
> For this reason, bombarding deniers with more evidence is a losing strategy.
> It doesn?t matter how many facts you throw at them, or how correct your facts
> are?if those facts threaten someone?s self-identity or their world view, they
> will find a way to dismiss them. Forget items one through five in Carroll?s
> denialism manual, item number six explains everything.
> Is there any hope for informing the willfully ignorant? In the session on
> ?persuasive writing in the age of denial,? my fellow panelist Steve
> Silberman<http://stevesilberman.com/> asked the audience if any of them had
> ever successfully changed someone?s mind with something they?d written. Only
> one hand went up.
> When we convey facts to an audience that doesn?t want to hear them, we come to
> an impasse. The stronger the pre-existing belief, the stronger the motivation
> to dismiss the contrary evidence and the journalists who convey it. And
> there?s not much journalists can do about this. One of the points that Lupia
> emphasized was that credibility is bestowed by the audience. He presented the
> following formula:
> Credibility =perceived common interests x perceived expertise.
> I asked him how journalists who find themselves at the impasse can find a way
> to speak to, rather than past, their audiences. He told me that that making a
> personal connection?showing them that you share common interests or values?can
> help. But ultimately, it?s not entirely about you, it?s about how the audience
> perceives you. And the hard truth is that in many cases there?s not a damn
> thing you can do to change that.
> **
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