[ASC-list] Speaking of social scientists ....

Vicki Martin Vicki.Martin at scu.edu.au
Mon Mar 14 23:50:42 UTC 2016

Hi Rob,

Thanks for your response. It certainly got quite a few people around the country chatting and emailing, but not posting on the list (unfortunately!) I've had quite a bit of feedback from others, particularly at the ASC conference and during the World Science Festival. There are a few points I would like to make in response, and I'll try to keep this as short as possible. (OK, apologies in advance for the essay ...)

First, and probably most important, is that it is social science which is helping us all understand how to communicate any sort of science more effectively. This was made quite clear by the presentations given at our own conference by John Cook, Kelly Fielding and others. Their work is based on social psychological research which spans the last century. Researchers in this area have long been able to predict the outcomes of traditional, one-directional science communication even in the context of the rapidly changing ways we now communicate. Without this knowledge, many 'real' (your term) scientists are likely to continue trying to beat people over the head with facts (and we have research which explains why scientists think like that) and do not understand why their audience doesn't listen, let alone understand or change their behaviour. If you're interested, take a look at the research by John Cook and his colleagues on how to combat misinformation, or work done by Liam Smith and others at BehaviourWorks (Monash Uni) on changing behaviours.

Second, your statement about the general public being hopelessly confused and mistrusting of science isn't quite true. I think it's more of a media (and science?!) generated myth than anything. Public opinion polls in Australia, the US and elsewhere, consistently show that public trust in science is high. Certainly, in Australia, researchers at CPAS/ANU found that public interest in science is also high. Of course there are also members of the public who do struggle to understand and trust science but let's not confuse what we hear in the media about the 'crisis in science' with the reality on the ground, that is, there are more people who value science than those who do not.

And third, it appears there is very much a need for social scientists to explain how social scientific research is done, since it appears from your comments that our work can be muddled with other disciplines. Particularly, those of us working in 'environmental social research' (such as Kelly Fielding, John Cook, Liam Smith, myself and many others in ASC) adhere strictly to the scientific process and while we use a mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods, I suggest that yours is not the only 'hard' science (one of my supervisors, a well-published specialist in the DNA of terrestrial birds, once said that the statistics I use are far more complex than his. If that's not hard enough, try doing face-to-face interviews with hundreds, or thousands, of people!) Our field is also subject to the current problems in science, such as the issue of replication, but it is forcing us to have a good hard look at the methodologies and biases that lead to these problems. It is these similarities with your science (brought about by the scientific process), and the confusion amongst some scientists about what social scientists actually do, that make me think there is value in explaining HOW we know what we know from social scientific research, and how we can improve. I think this information is also important to discuss because too often we see non-social scientists attempting to do social research, which ends up being so poorly designed and executed that the results are inherently flawed.

Getting back to my original email... I asked whether we should be communicating social science more effectively. It's just as difficult for us, as it is for any other science. This was also evident at the ASC conference when Julian Meyrick presented on the cultural value of science communication. Don't get me wrong, he was entertaining and enthusiastic, but used so much jargon that many of us didn't really understand what he was saying (sorry Julian! But you were talking to a bunch of people who know nothing about your field). So, I think we need to do better, just as others do, too.

Finally, the value of including discussion about social scientific research within the ASC, I think, is that it will help the non-social scientists understand the merit (or otherwise) of the very research which is helping us all to communicate information more effectively. These conversations are necessary now more than ever, since the benefits of social science are being discussed in forums such as the ASC conference, and last night on the ABC's Q&A special program on 'Science.' Since many of our decisions are made on social research findings, helping people understand what is good and what is bad social research is just as important to critical thinking as any other area of science.

Thanks for getting us to think about this!

Kind regards,



Message: 5

Date: Thu, 10 Mar 2016 05:29:15 +0000

From: Rob Morrison <rob.morrison at flinders.edu.au<mailto:rob.morrison at flinders.edu.au>>

To: Vicki Martin <Vicki.Martin at scu.edu.au<mailto:Vicki.Martin at scu.edu.au>>,

               "asc-list at lists.asc.asn.au<mailto:asc-list at lists.asc.asn.au>" <asc-list at lists.asc.asn.au<mailto:asc-list at lists.asc.asn.au>>

Subject: Re: [ASC-list] Speaking of social scientists ....


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Which all sounds good and, in the hands of someone like Alex and Vicki would be, but it worries me a bit, for these reasons.

Trying to get people actually to understand what science is and does is harder now than it was 30-40 years ago. That is largely an effect (I think) of the internet and, more recently, social media, but debates on scientific matters are now filled with statements about science  that, even from those onside, are often way off the mark. "Science proves....", "The Science is settled...", "It is a scientifically proven fact...." , "breakthrough" to describe every minor advance and much much more.  In this plethora of misinformation what is lost is crucial to our relatively recent profession of science communication - revealing how science actually sets about testing hypotheses and showing how it can, from a range of claims, determine what can be empirically supported by experimentation and similar tests and the extent to which such findings are reliable.

I am one of the founders and current VP of Friends of Science in Medicine, which we started a few years ago to take on some of the many purveyors of pseudoscience in the alternative  "health" practices that now infest our society and economy. These dodgy practitioners know exactly how to muddy the scientific waters to their own advantage - pervert the meanings of scientific terminology, describe as "research" a couple of anecdotes from friends and relations, invent some "sciencey" terminology for invented procedures, talk about the need for or lack of "proof" when there is no such thing- and on it goes.

As a result, the general public is hopelessly confused as to what science does, and the extent to which it can be trusted or suspected. Mechanisms such as peer review, publishing in gold standard journals, double-blind tests, Cochrane reviews and the whole collection of techniques that science uses are a mystery to the average punter.

While I am fully supportive of the social sciences that actually do deserve the title when they go about their business in ways consistent with science, there is a vast amount sitting under the social science banner that does not, and even deliberately eschews such practices, often citing some rubbishy postmodern doctrine that all belief systems are of equal value.  Have a look at the recent controversy regarding the PhD awarded by the University of Woollongong for a thesis that purported to deal with vaccination but produced an absurd anti-vaccination  'revelation' about the WHO being in a conspiracy with major drug companies to inflict vaccinations on an unsuspecting world. It completely failed to adhere to any valid scientific process in evaluating the literature, using the appropriate resources, consulting the appropriate authorities (or ignoring what they said when consulted), evaluating available information with appropriate scientific techniques and more.

In response to severe national criticism, the defence of this thesis has not been one of defending the argument but bleating about persecution. It has provoked a national outcry for good reasons, but the defence has also been a slippery one that the work was not done in a medical or science faculty but in either Humanities or Social Science. Apparently that allows an "out" for someone who was quite happy to use the science banner until they were shown to be doing so inappropriately, but it certainly doesn't help scientists, science or a public understanding of either.

I would happily include in our fold the practitioners of social science who are genuinely trying to use scientific methods to justify giving their activities the "science" label, but many do not. Too many actually contest scientific methodology.

I think that we have enough trouble trying to get people to understand the benefits and limitations of real science (witness the current debates on climate change, vaccination, nuclear science, etc etc) without taking on board the extra burden of trying to explain why so much that calls itself science is not deserving of the name.

Even with orthodox science we have some ground to make up. Peer-review is great when it works, but we know that it gets fiddled. Quite a few recent reports have shown that many experiments reported in good journals cannot be replicated (this is a big problem for biotech companies when they try to replicate promising drug studies). Most studies never even receive an attempt at  replication because it is hard enough to get a grant for something original, let alone repeating someone else's study, and the occasional fraud brings huge discredit to our discipline when it manages to get through all the self-correcting mechanisms that we claim makes science trustworthy.

I would rather see us do a bit more to help the public understand what it is that makes properly done science such a powerful tool and how to evaluate scientific reports in the media and elsewhere than to dilute such effort by trying to shoehorn in other pursuits that want to gain the credibility  of science by adopting its name but don't reliably adopt its disciplines.

I know that there are many social scientists who are not to blame for any of the above, and I do not want to reflect on their work, but perhaps they, too, have a role to play in making sure that their discipline of social science deserves that label. With one third of Australian universities now offering pseudoscientific alternative "health" courses under the health science banner, those of us in science communication probably need to narrow the focus on what we are trying to explain and communicate, not broaden the view to the point where science becomes indistinguishable from other stuff in an increasingly smoggy landscape.


Dr Rob Morrison

rob.morrison at flinders.edu.au<mailto:rob.morrison at flinders.edu.au>

Phone: (08) 8339 3790

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