Category Archives: Journalism

Come the revolution, first up against the wall.

Accommodating Science: the backfire effect, and conclusion

[This is the final section of the book. I will return to the section on neurobiology and religion later.]

The backfire effect

If science is to be communicated to the wider community in a way that will change how people think, then it would seem an obvious idea to look at the actual science of communication itself. A type of psychological research is into motivated reasoning, which seeks to understand how it is that people respond to challenges to their beliefs, and it has some surprising and counterintuitive results for us here.

When people are reasoning about things they are motivated strongly to defend, it turns out that evidence to the contrary will typically not reduce their confidence in these beliefs, but in fact cause them to strengthen their beliefs against the evidence. This is known as the “backfire effect”. This is why when conspiracy theorists are presented with strong evidence that, yes, the 9/11 terrorists did cause the collapse of the World Trade Centre, they double down and respond that the counter evidence is itself part of the conspiracy to hide the government’s involvement. It is why when study after study shows that vaccines do not cause autism, or that humans are causing global warming, those who are motivated to defend these ideas increase, rather than decrease, their certitude in those claims. It is why, when no weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq or connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda shown to exist, supporters of the Bush administration still think that Bush was right to invade and there was a connection between 9/11 and Iraq. As philosopher Jonathon Haidt noted (2001),

Research in social cognition also indicates that people often behave like “intuitive lawyers” rather than “intuitive scientists”

who argue in favour of their previously-chosen position rather than investigating it to find out what is right.

It cannot be that people will never change their minds, so what is going on? The theory of motivated reasoning suggests that the function of reasoning is not to find the truth, but to give reasons for what it is that we otherwise want to believe (Mooney 2011). It implies that what really matters is how people feel about beliefs, not what they critically think. In short, the rationalist is wrong. That is, they are wrong about why people use reason, not about the importance of good reasoning.

A recent paper by Mercier and Sperber (2010) argues that the “function” (I always air quote the word function, because there are a multitude of functions for anything, and which one you are most interested in tells the hearer more about you than about the thing you are talking about) of reason is to convince people, not to find the right things to believe. In short, the rhetorical aspect of reasoning is what we first evolved to employ, not the rational and logical aspect.

This must affect how we communicate science to the wider community, and how the community receives that message. Let me use an analogy: suppose you have a criminal element in your neighbourhood. You seek to remove or otherwise deal with that criminal element, so you enact through your local legislative body some harsh anticrime laws. You might expect that crime would drop, but instead it rises, and the criminal acts become more violent and extreme. It turns out that “law and order” campaigns are counterproductive, because all they do it strengthen the motivations of both law and crime doers. It effectively ramps up the tension and hence the violence (Beckett 1999). This is sometimes called the Untouchables Effect:

Malone: You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way! [The Untouchables, 1987]

Now the reasonable response would be to remove the tension and deflate the intensity of the game, for example by disarming the police so that the criminals no longer need to carry weapons. Instead, our tendency is to up the ante each time, ramping up the cost of the game until it becomes very serious indeed, and a kind of war breaks out between gangs and the police. It would also be reasonable to address the underlying social reasons for crime, such as a lack of access to basic resources and fair treatment, but again, in law and order arms races, the exact opposite happens.

This is exactly analogous to the ways in which those who are proscience and those who are anti-science, whether for religious or other reasons, behave. Instead of taking a slow, measured and agreeable approach, our initial tendency is to confront aggressively, and the outcome is not that one side or the other gives way in the face of force majeure but that they both entrench themselves in increasingly malign positions. That is the Chicago way.

This leads to a tragedy of the commons. Each individual actor in this struggle seeks to maximise their own return on cognitive investment (and the reasons have to do with social status), but when all act this way, we end up with a highly polarised negative-sum outcome. Everybody loses when science and political and religious motives are at odds. We end up with anti-science becoming a test of moral purity in some quarters, and thus we stop vaccinating, dealing with the environment, and going into space. A reasonable mind would see this as a problem to be solved, not a mere fact of life.

When communicating to somebody, it is obvious that we must take the audience with us, rather than force feed them at a speed they cannot absorb, and when the audience has prior expectations that run counter to the message, you must gently deconstruct those expectations. Otherwise, you end up reinforcing the motivated reasoning that got you into this mess.

Science communication is not, I believe, the solution to our anti-science social problem. This has to do with the nature of mass media, rather than any failings of science communicators, so let me discuss this a little.

Marshall McLuhan said that the medium is the message, and then failed to give that any real definition or sense. Here is my take on it. Broadcast media, meaning any kind of “publishing abroad”, as they used to call it, where something is written, said or done once, and then sent to many readers or viewers simultaneously, as a medium has some limitations. Since the audience is targeted at the lowest common denominator for the size of audience that is sought, it follows that broadcast media are generally quite information poor. This is equally if not more true of the internet media. A common tag is “tl;dr” – “too long; didn’t read”. Quite apart from the (questionable) claim that reading on a screen is less effective than reading on a physical copy, there is simply so much on the internet that if you want a large audience, you have to make the material bite-size and straightforward.

Yet, there is a lot of content even if there is not much information in broadcast media, so what is it all doing? I believe it is doing one thing only: manipulating attitudes. Broadcast media makes you feel good or bad about things. So the best outcome of good science communication in broadcast media has to do with manipulating the attitudes of the readers and viewers to feel positively disposed towards science. And if you can make people feel good about it, you can make people feel bad about it, as the anti-vaccination and global warming “skeptics” demonstrate. The techniques of manipulation are the message, even when the topic is science.

So when we engage in public debate about science, we are either trying to manipulate attitudes, or we are shouting into the wind. And I think that it is not a virtue to manipulate anyone. Instead, you should express yourself so that a reasonable and honest hearer can follow where your argument leads, even if they end up not agreeing with you. Motivated reasoning is deflated when you treat people with respect and civility, or at least, more so than with any other technique of public debate. It is not infallible.

When motivated reasoning backfires, though, and civility fails, then the strategic issue moves from “convincing others about science” to “preventing others from blocking science and science education”. And this means that one need not be so civil (although I would suggest civility is always the right starting point). However, when we are considering advocacy roles, I do not see why those who are pro-science, even when they are religious believers, must be excluded from active engagement in science. Those who are anti-science may very well be treated in a hostile manner if civility fails, but why treat the pro-science religious believers that way?

So I think that the prohibitive advocacy form of non-accommodationism is a bad strategy, and that we should encourage rather than discourage the involvement of religious believers in science advocacy. And this is purely a political decision. There are few if any philosophical aspects to this: we know that religions that are not empirically testable are compatible with science, and we know that one can believe in scientific ideas and religious ideas when there is no conflict. Our decision to encourage the religious to advocate for science is about raising the knowledge temperature of a society so that decisions are made upon good rather than bad ideas.

Consequently, adopting the exclusionary view that some of the more extreme new atheists have advocated indirectly is counterproductive. If you exclude religious belief from inside the scientific arena, you will find this backfires, and makes science less, not more, influential in society, while at the same time setting up conditions in which anti-science becomes identified with religious belief. And given that religious belief in never going to disappear, this is just stupid behaviour.


Throughout this book I have argued for a kind of accommodationist perspective. Let me summarise it now.

It is my view that science and religion can be mutually consistent so long as it is religion that accommodates science, and not science that accommodates religion. It is also my view that religions have always done this to some extent. It is not my concern to suggest how this may be done, since that is for believers to decide. It will not be all that easy, but it can be done, so long as the religion manages to make their beliefs independent of empirical data.

I do not think that science and religion are at war, and in my historical survey, I find that what happens is that science battles science, with some sides being represented by religious figures and institutions. I note some exceptions to this, particularly with respect to the brain and the mind. Here, more than anywhere else, I think religion has trouble with science.

I argue that if we exclude religious believers from science advocacy, we run the risk of increasing the motivated reasoning that will exclude science from general social policy and the community, to our combined detriment.

Arguments against religion in science do not depend upon scientific arguments or evidence, as no such arguments of evidence against religion exist. Only by adopting a philosophical stance, such as the belief that religion must function like a scientific theory of explanation, or that the probabilities of science favour philosophical positions like atheism, can this be made out. When atheists argue against religion on scientific grounds, either they are arguing against empirically sensitive beliefs, which ought to be science in any case, or they are arguing in a philosophical, and thus unscientific, manner. I don’t mean by this that their conclusions are unscientific, but that the arguments are. They aren’t scientific arguments, but rather they are philosophical arguments that use science as the context in which they are delivered.

Science is neither atheistic nor religious. It is neither an apology for a socioeconomic status quo, nor an argument for a revolution. Consider the scientific claim that global warming is human-caused. This, if established (and I think that it has been established), doesn’t give us a course of action. For that to be derived, we also need the ethical value that we should avoid global warming because of its consequences for us and the environment. This ethical value is not itself scientific. It is a philosophical value.

While some like Dawkins may argue that science makes religion ridiculous, or like Stenger that it shows that it is false, this is neither the implication of science alone, nor is it historically sustainable. What is being argued for in such cases is not science as such, but atheism or positivism. This is of course fine, and within the rights of those who argue, but it is misleading to call this arguing for science. These are philosophical arguments for a philosophical position regarding science. And to say they are implied by science is disingenuous and at best bad philosophy.

On the other hand, the attempts by religious writers to claim science for themselves is equally disingenuous. Ranging from the complete disavowal of any and all science that does not match the prior conclusions drawn (often with great straining) from scripture, to the surreptitious view that a certain philosophical reading of science will support some religious metaphysics, this is the abuse of reason and science. Science doesn’t support Buddhism, nor does it support Christianity, nor the Kabbalah, nor any other fashionable religious view.

A more sophisticated attack upon the philosophical autonomy of science is that of Alvin Plantinga and others, who argue that there is a special kind of science where human reason is subjugated to religion, and so only that sort of science (Plantinga calls it “Augustinian” science) is acceptable to Christians. In this approach, one can use miraculous explanations in science when theology dictates it. I hope I don’t have to argue here against this. The onus is on the theist to justify in a secular context whatever they wish to do under the rubric of “science”; and in ways non- believers can accept, or else it isn’t science; it is theology and only theology. They can think whatever they wish to think as Christians; if it isn’t secular, it isn’t science. If they believe faith supervises reason, that is fine. Nobody else has to. And yet science works very well – just as well as for believers – in the absence of that belief, so perhaps that belief is of no consequence when doing science.

To return to the atheist critics of religion in science, the same argument applies to them. They may believe that faith is excluded by reason and science, and yet science works very well – just as well as for nonbelievers – in the absence of that belief too. In short, science is philosophically neutral.

And this is the take-home message of this book. Science isn’t religion or anti- religion. Religion isn’t science, nor is atheism. All these conceptual entities and social groups are what they are, and they aren’t science. Nothing useful is served by mixing them.

In the end, science matters because the more we know about the world we all inhabit, religious or not, the better we can make our way through it. If our society needs to include the religious in the scientific enterprise, then we should do that, so long, and only so long, as that does not cause science to become corrupted or the servant of social masters.

I have not been a friend to religion in this book; but neither have I been a friend to exclusivism. I haven’t tried to reconcile religion with science for the simple reason that I am not religious, and it is their duty, not mine, to do so. Nor have I tried to show that religion must be excluded from science, because it is my view that this is just wrong. Instead, I have argued for a principled accommodation of religion to science: believe whatever you like, but don’t believe that science is anything else but the best way to know the world around us.


Beckett, K. (1999). Making Crime Pay: Law and Order in Contemporary American Politics. New York, Oxford University Press.

Haidt, J. (2001). “The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment.” Psychological Review 108: 814-834.

Mercier, H. and D. Sperber (2010). “Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 34, No. 2, pp. 57-74, 2011.

Mooney, C. (2011). The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science. Mother Jones.


Filed under Accommodationism, Epistemology, Journalism, Media, Philosophy, Pop culture, Religion, Science

How to argue with silly thing believers

Orthodox apocalypse

The apocalypse in an Orthodox church. Source: Wikimedia

[Apologies this took a while; I’ve been rather sick]

So, given all this [Why believers believe silly things, why they believe the particular silly things they do, and the developmental hypothesis of belief acquisition], how can you change a believer’s mind? It is tempting to say that you cannot, or to take a more rationalist perspective and think that more argument is all that is needed, and both views are often put. But, as we might expect, the situation is a bit more complex than that.

First of all there are two distinct questions here. One is the individual question: how can we change a particular individual’s beliefs? The other is the communal question: how can we change the overall reasonableness of a given group or population? These are different questions with different answers.

The individual question has no general answer: it depends upon the individual’s belief-set, and how coherent it already is, and whether or not they are sensitive to experiential challenges (that is, if they are in a crisis). A believer who has a relatively well-cohering set of beliefs, with no real internal conflicts of note, but who is in no personal position of challenge by experience, is relatively immune from rational argument. If they face empirical challenges (their beliefs do not match with the world they are experiencing, as in the classical study of the failed millennialists by Leon Festinger and colleagues (Festinger et al. 1956)), one solution is to deny the facts, another is to to reinterpret the peripheral or less weighted beliefs to save the core beliefs, and a third is to reinterpret the core beliefs so that they are not challenged by the facts. All three strategies can easily be found. For example, global warming denialists will challenge the facts. Creationists will allow some facts but reinterpret them or the ways they are handled by creationist thinkers. And my favourite case of core reinterpretation is the reaction of the Catholic church to Daltonian atomism and chemistry: change the interpretation of a core belief in substance in the doctrine of transubstantiation from a physical reality to a metaphysical reality (thereby partly conceding to their Lutheran critics of 400 years earlier).

When these things happen, believers will usually deny that they have happened (Schmalz 1994), like the historical revisionism in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the state goes to war with a new enemy and now tells its pliable population that “We have always been at war with Oceania”. These three strategies are increasingly schizoid. Reinterpreting the core beliefs to accommodate new facts is a healthy response to the world, leaving only questions of group identity marking (we do not agree with those Lutherans, they are heretics!). The Church has accepted (belatedly) the scientific virtue of Galileo, Dalton and Darwin.

The revision of peripheral beliefs is more strained. When [honest] creationists spend time trying to accommodate the facts of biogeography, biodiversity, genetics and dating techniques, they may find their “hypothesis” dying what Flew called “the death of a thousand qualifications”, but so too do defenders in science of outmoded hypotheses, and there is no threshold at which it becomes irrational to hold those beliefs. Nevertheless, like pornography, we can recognise irrationality when we see it. The rationalist approach to argument, however, behaves as if there is, or ought to be, a line that one should not cross. This leads to interminable “debates” of claim and counterclaim, which rarely result in any resolution.

The third approach is to simply deny the facts. This can be achieved by adjustments to the reliability of those who we disagree with (ad hominem attacks, for instance, on the probity of climate scientists). Both believers in pseudoscience (like Bigfoot or homeopathy) and anti science (such as creationism or anti-vaccination) find methods of calling into question the facts themselves.

Now as the response becomes less grounded in the empirical, reasoning becomes much more difficult, until you reach a stage where no reasoned argument is possible. But this is determined by the strategies adopted by the believer, not by the subject or belief they hold. Homeopaths can be argued out of homeopathy, and Catholics can still hold stubbornly onto the view that the Host really is blood and flesh, and that chemists are just anti-Catholics. So it depends upon the individual. If the core beliefs are cognitively entrenched, then they are less likely to undergo any kind of rational or empirical revision. [As a side note, one often anecdotally hears of a believer in homeopathy or some other “complementary medicine” who abruptly adopts empirical medicine when it is their child or loved one who is suffering. This is a very personal crisis. However, it can also drive the believer deeper into the silly belief, as Festinger noted.]

At a group level, however, things are even more complicated. Here what counts includes the institutional structure of the belief-group. The plasticity of the group itself will help determine whether the group adapts or digs in further: the more authority-driven the group, and the more exclusionary it is to those who deviate even slightly from the approved belief-set, the less it will change. And another issue is group size. The Catholic Church, for example, while supposedly hierarchical (indeed, the very term hierarchy was taken from its military-style structure of command and constraint; it means “rule of priests”), has been very fluid in its interpretation of its core beliefs. In large part this is because the Church is not small and there are many de facto command structures apart from the clerical. The Jesuits, for instance, played a great role in adopting, refining and making viable scientific acceptance within the Church, even as others were pushing for a return to older, conservative, beliefs. Christian, Jewish and Islamic doctrine has been in various ways able to adapt to new science and new social conditions (as Harnack showed in great detail in his classic History of Dogma in the late nineteenth century).

But some generalisations can be made. One is, that the more a belief-group is reliant upon authority figures to tell believers what they should believe, the less fluid the tradition. This is, as I argued in the paper on rational creationism [mentioned in the last post], due to a kind of doxastic [that is, belief] division of labour. Most of us have little time to test and become familiar with the technical ideas of science, for instance, and so we rely upon authorities. But the authorities we select to rely upon depends a lot upon what belief-group we are in. We choose to believe our authorities over theirs. As I argued, this is because, evolutionarily speaking, they aren’t dead yet. Having their beliefs may have a cost, but that is offset by the benefit of savings in time, effort and resources of taking ready-made ideas off the shelf. We have a disposition to adopt the views of those we grow up around, because it is economic to do so, and adopting those views won’t likely kill us. Only when we reach a crisis state do we challenge those authorities, and even then we will tend to do so piecemeal until we reach a (personal) threshold of incredulity.

Another depends upon the degree of engagement we have with the wider society in which our belief-group is located. Even the Plymouth Brethren must deal with teachers, the media, and popular culture that is right there on the shelf in the bookshop. Messages that conflict with our belief-set can reach another (personal) threshold that we find challenges our core beliefs. When that happens, we may find a crisis that causes a rapid conversion (or de-conversion) in core beliefs.

This is why one of the major areas of battle between belief-groups lies in the control and amelioration of these challenges in education. If you can introduce some doubt about the strength of, say, evolutionary biology among younger children, it is rational (in a bounded sense) for them to stick with the core beliefs of their belief-group. Only if evolutionary biology (or whichever other topic is at issue) is presented firmly and without competing beliefs in educational contexts will it begin to undermine the authority structure of the student’s belief-group. As I argued in the creationism paper, sufficient challenges will tend to sway the average developmental trajectory of a believer away from the hard-core or exclusive belief-set of the belief-group. The population as a whole becomes more accommodationist.

This leads to my final point: herd immunity. In vaccination, when a sufficiently high number of the population has been immunised, the epidemiology of the disease being vaccinated against reaches a point at which the likelihood of infection among the unvaccinated (the very young, for instance) is very slight. Beliefs behave like pathogens (a metaphor that has been widely abused, in my view) in that since we take our belief cues from the experienced social norms, when those norms are reasonable ones, unreasonable beliefs tend to founder, and so this sets up a selection pressure in the evolution of beliefs for beliefs to be not too weird, or they isolate the believer too greatly from the social context in which they live. Sufficient education in reasonable beliefs forces many silly beliefs, or at any rate those that have real world consequences, to become less silly.

Anyone who understands population genetics will realise that this does not mean that the entire population will become reasonable as such. In genetics and in epidemiology, the ratio of beneficial to deleterious variants will reach a tradeoff point, called an evolutionarily stable strategy. In economics, this is called a Pareto optimal point. To increase one variety will lower the average fitness of the population, and so the two variants will remain in a set balance until external conditions change. It is for this reason, for example, that I do not think religion will “disappear” as many rationalists think it will. There are group benefits to religion, and even in the most secular society, until the costs of being religious exceed those benefits, religion as an institution will persist.

So in order to ameliorate the supposed evils of religion (or conservatism, pseudoscience, radicalism, etc.), the best strategy that those whose ideas are empirically based can take is, in my view, to resist attempts to dilute science and other forms of education. This sets up a selection pressure against extremist views. Similar approaches might be taken in what Americans call “civics” classes to deal with political extremisms, and so on.

To conclude, I should make the following point: I am not suggesting that I alone am ideologically pure and coherent in my beliefs. Anything I say in general must apply to me also (this is why one of the objections to Marxism is that somehow Marx exempts himself from false consciousness). So I assume that I, too, will have conflicting belief subnetworks, and so one of the reasons why I put these thoughts out here is to get the same kind of correction from the wider community that I expect those I have used as examples here require. I am a radical (increasingly as I age), conservationist, small-l liberal of the Millian variety, agnostic and very, very, pro-science. I expect I have more than a few of my own shortcomings. As a friend once said of me, I am like a hunchback who cannot see his own hump, but sees everyone else’s. I expect this. But I think this analysis is roughly in the right region.


Festinger, Leon, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter. 1956. When prophecy fails. Minneapolis, MN, US: University of Minnesota Press.

Schmalz, Mathew N. 1994. “When Festinger fails: Prophecy and the Watch Tower.” Religion 24 (4):293-308.


Filed under Accommodationism, Epistemology, History, Journalism, Logic and philosophy, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science, Social evolution

Why anti science?

Over the past few decades there has been an increasingly negative attitude by governments, pundits, religiosi and faux philosophers against science. We have seen an increase in denialism about climate change (one of the most well supported scientific models of the day), vaccination, evolution, medical research in general, and the ancillary aspects of science like museums, education, and expert opinion. At the same time we have seen an increase (I believe) in the number of pseuodoscientists claiming scientific credentials they do not have, such as cancer quacks, non-members of the House of Lords claiming to be climatologists, and celebrities opposing this or that public health measure, along with Oprah-style “doctors” of medicine or psychology. What in the merry hell is going on here?

As Goldfinger once said “Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time, it’s enemy action.” Who is the enemy here? I think the answer has to be more than a few conspiracists or plutocrats funding astroturf campaigns. The answer has to do with the basis of modern urban society. It’s the money, honey.

Since the end of the second world war we have seen the freedoms and pro-education values of the time slowly but inexorably eroded. It has been known for a while that the majority of scientific research done in the United States, for instance, is done by the Department of Defence or allied organisations. We know that corporations are well involved in this – and the reason is that the money is to be found in military expenditure (the US spends more on its military and intelligence activities that pretty much the rest of the world). Corporations have but one motivation these days – to “maximise shareholder value” – and so they will employ any and all techniques to achieve this. If it involves science, then they will use science, but if it involves corrupting science, and it does, too often, then they will do that. At the same time the myth has taken root in the west that corporations must flourish for society to flourish (a deeply erroneous myth). So governments have followed the money trail, and taken many steps that promote anti science.

Some people are anti science for psychological reasons. I think of these as “anti modernists”; they fear the change that science will bring. Since science involves, of its very nature, a challenge to the status quo, those who are fearful of changes from the “”way things were” (i.e., in their childhood) will fear also science. These people tend to be those who benefit from the status quo; that is, they tend to be the ruling classes. If science tells us, as it does, that the use of oil and other fossil fuels is bad, the ruling classes who own much of that industry will object, and take steps overtly or covertly to destabilise science.

We have seen this in more than in science. Teaching on what used to be the “humanities” has been defunded. I was chatting to some people recently who were reminiscing about the days when European languages, history and philosophy were well funded university courses. Now there aren’t enough people in my city (Melbourne) to run a frequent seminar series on these topics. The problem is not that science alone is being treated so harshly, but that intellectual life is. Yesterday (and this is what inspires this post) I was told by the vocational counsellor appointed for me by the unemployment agency that “nothing that I know has any value”, meaning that I was unemployable as an intellectual.

What causes this is the focus, purely and simply, on money and its acquisition. The idea that we might take steps as a nation (in my case, Australia) that could in any way interfere with this economy of plutocrats is simply unthinkable to that class. Consequently, science, along with all the other intellectual activities we used to hold dear in a liberal democracy, are now otiose; they simply do not contribute to the Holy Economy. The minister for education in Australia, for example, has said he will personally decide which grants are “useful” when funding academic research. This follows the past thirty years since a notionally progressive government reduced all education to “vocational” education by collapsing the education system into one system, so that vocational education was now the main task of universities (previously, vocational tertiary education was done by non-university colleges).

We live now in a deeply anti intellectual world, at least in the west (there are other problems in the developing nations). It is not because the populace wants no intellectual activity – the many pro-science and pro-intellectual groups that spontaneously form on the internet show that. But instead of it being done properly, the plutocracy has made it into “infotainment”. Instead of shows that actually explain scientific processes and theories, such as we had int he 1960s, we now have Brian Cox or some other pretty face giving us “gee whiz” science, with no explanation or underlying principles at all. But we get some pretty graphics.

For example, in the climate change “debate” I have never seen any mention of Arrhenius’ nineteenth century proof that the earth will warm. Arrhenius used what is now called a “single pixel” approach – treat the earth as a single system and measure the input of energy against the reflection of energy and show that there is an imbalance. What is debated now is the role that parts of that system, like the oceans, play in sequestering heat or recycling it, but the overall sum doesn’t change. We are and can only be seen to be, warming the globe. The rest if detail, and there is no damned debate whatsoever, just about the role different “pixels” play in the way it will happen.

But this is to explain the science, and the media doesn’t like that, because the proprietors, whether state or corporate, do not like that to happen. The reason we live in one of the most stupid of societies for generations si simply that it doesn’t suit the money makers. I have little hope we will oppose this in any way soon.


Filed under Australian stuff, Ecology and Biodiversity, Education, Epistemology, Freedom, General Science, History, Journalism, Politics, Pop culture, Science, Social evolution

Education, Journalism and Science

My last rant was perhaps somewhat intemperate. Carl Zimmer, who along with Ed Yong I really respect as a science journalist, tweeted it with the line:

@carlzimmer: Man, @john_s_wilkins does not like newspapers. 

This is not quite true. I like some newspapers. I do not like the newspaper industry. I worked in various media positions for thirty years. In that time I have seen the best and the worst of journalism (and Carl and Ed are the best). The point of the Twain quote in the last post was that only one in fifty “newspapers of the average pattern” was a virtue. The standard justification for a free press is that they are mostly okay. They mostly aren’t.

But this does not detract from the very good work done on occasion or by good magazines like National Geographic. It is possible to report science without dumbing down or misrepresenting. Carl once interviewed me about a subject I spent ten years working on, species concepts, and his piece in Scientific American (a patchy magazine sometimes) covered the territory well and without distortion.

So what was I getting at? Very simply this: if you want an informed population, put not your faith in the mass media, but in education. No amount of good or ordinary science journalism will improve the public understanding of science. This is hardly a novel view, and it is largely the consensus view in science communication studies.

But let us first ask what legitimate functions science journalism does play, and how it can be done well. First of all, what is meant by the phrase “science journalism”? This covers, in my view, everything from garish front page stories about the latest “breakthrough” in cancer research and “genes for” this or that, through to well written books like Brian Switek’s Written in Stone, or Richard Conniff’s The Species Seekers, to name two recent excellent books. Carl himself has one or two excellent books, including his recent Evolution or A Planet of Viruses (still waiting for the review copy ;-) ). What differentiates bad from good science journalism?

In my mind, the difference lies between “gee whiz” and “this is why”. Science is not a list of discoveries or results; it is a process of discovery and getting results. There is reasoning and work involved, and if you don’t understand the principles behind the reports, you don’t really understand the reports. Any book that just says “scientists have discovered that…” is bad journalism. It tells you something, of course, but doesn’t give you understanding. Good journalism (in science or any other field) tells you why things are what they are and how they came to be that way. It involves narratives, of course, and I never said that narratives, where they are called for, are bad. But good journalists tell narratives where they are required, and not merely for the sake of having a narrative.

For example, there is a narrative, beginning with Arrhenius in the late 19th century, about how we got to understand global warming. But if the goal is to provide understanding of global warming, all that history and personal development is simply drama for its own sake. If you want to understand climate and the reasons why we think the earth is warming, instead focus on the models of energy sinks and sources, ocean transport, the hydrological cycle, etc. The story merely gets in the way. A good journalist will tell only so much of the story as is needed to explain these facts and inferences. A bad journalist will ignore the facts and inferences for the story and personalities, simplifying down to stupidity the actual science, or even just dropping it altogether. As Einstein once wrote:

Anyone who has ever tried to present a rather abstract scientific subject in a popular manner knows the great difficulties of such an attempt. Either he succeeds in being intelligible by concealing the core of the problem and by offering the reader only superficial aspects or vague allusions, thus deceiving the reader by arousing in him the deceptive illusion of comprehension; or else he gives an expert account of the problem, but in such a fashion that the untrained reader is unable to follow the exposition and becomes discouraged from reading any further. If these two categories are omitted from today’s popular scientific literature, surprising little remains. [Quoted in Fahnestock  1986: 276, from 1948]

So what must a good science journalist do? If they are not to write an academic tome, they must select and report what they think is relevant and important, but whatever else they do, they absolutely must report facts. There is no need to make them dramatic if they aren’t. The reader can be asked to do a bit of work. As Terry Pratchett once said, education is Lying to Children, simplifying and paring away complexity, and then adding it back later as the students advance. A science journalist must Lie to the Reader to an extent, but not by adducing opinions from the ignorant in order to maintain interest, nor by lazily using tropes like “gene for”, but by fairly and clearly reporting on the, you know, science.

The industry doesn’t support that. Few are able to make a living like Carl or Ed, researching, talking to the scientists carefully and extensively and not merely a ten minute chat to get some pull quotes to fit a story they already have written in their head, nor just topping and tailing press releases (often written by ex-journalists now posing as university public relations experts) and putting a byline on them.

How does education get around this set of limitations? In an ideal world, by building on increasing understanding of the processes – the methods and reasoning styles – of the actual science. Instead I see evidence that too many pre-university curricula are based around passing exams, which is to say, focussing on the results. However, we know how to educate, even if we don’t do it properly a lot of the time. Educators do not need my advice, but they do need me and everyone else who gives the policy makers their marching orders to support extra funds and resources to do it.

And there’s the problem right there. We have been so acculturated into expecting the media to educate us in an entertaining fashion that we have increasingly defunded and removed opportunities for good science education, and moved to “infotainment” and high technology in schools. We do not know how ignorant we are, and so we do not ask the policy makers to support education properly. Instead we think that by adding another computer based technique we can solve the problem amusingly, with drama, to pique interest.

Another rant I shall make one day is on the industrial nature of education today (shades of Illich!), but the point now is that we are misled by media to think media is the solution, when it is the problem. How to do this better? Stop thinking that communication is the solution to the misunderstanding of science. Start teaching better.

Next, I shall issue a solution to world peace…


Fahnestock, Jeanne. 1986. Accommodating Science: The Rhetorical Life of Scientific Facts. Written Communication 3 (3):275-296.


Filed under Education, Epistemology, Journalism, Rant

Drama, journalism and science

Recently the Jonah Lehrer scandal was raised again when he was paid $20,000 to speak on his journalistic dishonesty by the Knight Foundation. I cynically noted on Twitter that being honest and as accurate as I could be netted me exactly nothing in the way of honoraria (I think I got a bottle of scotch once, for which I was very grateful). The best discussion of the Lehrer affair is this one by Christopher Chabris, professor of psychology at Union College, in which he notes

When the allegations of plagiarism and fabrication came out, the story became one of “greatest science writer of his generation makes unthinkable mistakes,” and the analysis was mostly psychoanalysis of Lehrer’s motives or of the media culture. Entirely lost was the fact that Jonah Lehrer was never a very good science writer. He seemed not to fully understand the science he was trying to explain; his explanations were inaccurate, overblown, and often just plain wrong, usually in the direction of giving his readers counterintuitive thrills and challenging their settled beliefs.

The Sun Life on Mars

Entirely lost in such criticisms, though, is that this is not only a failure of the entire field of science reporting, whether on blogs or in published outlets (or both), but of the very field and profession of journalism itself. What you read in the successful mass media is not factual, nor complete, but a story, a narrative. And narratives have to have conflict. They need to have drama, or they will not be published, and if they are, they will not be read.

This is why the “view from nowhere” so criticised by Jay Rosen developed. If you simply report the facts, people’s attention will wander and you will not sell advertising. So if there is no drama, create some. Find an “opposing” view to report, even if it means giving equal weight to the ignorant, the foolish or the simply insane, and if you can’t find a credible enough counteridiot, interview another journalist. Every time a journalist interviews a journalist, you are being offered theatre, not reportage.

There are a few, a precious few, science journalists who rise above this dramatic license, but even they are constrained by the medium. And let us understand the nature of the medium. Mass media are not, contrary to myth, designed to pass on information. They are designed to modify attitudes. This is because they must sell advertising, or, if they are publicly funded, they must compete for audience share with the media that are not so funded, and you don’t get audience share by deliver facts. You get it by engaging the audience. Humans are narrative driven, so facts take at best second place to a story.

Daily Express: Aspirin

The media have at most about a dozen narrative frames. In the field of science, these include The Breakthrough, The Imminent Danger, The Founder, and The Fraudster. Each of these is dramatic, and engaging, and lead to fear or the release of fear (which has usually been constructed in the first instance by previous frames). But anyone who actually works in the field of science, or more generally in an academic or professional field, knows that most of what is reported, even if it is accurate, is the ephemera or epiphenomena of science. The work that scientists actually do is much less dramatic, but by the same token it is far more important than the drama. To understand it takes effort, and to understand the importance of it takes analysis and care, and avoids the view from nowhere. And it is almost never reported. It is not dramatic enough.

Onion Science is hard

For this reason, when you actually study a field, there is little to no narrative. Of course the sciences themselves are not free of narrativity; every textbook tells a story (usually wrong or misleading) that purports to tell students how we got to the point the textbook relates. Historians then spend a lot of time trying to uncover the actual sequence and developments. Popular histories, though, are just another form of journalism, even if they are written by a Bill Bryson or a Dava Sobel, and they often mislead as to facts. This is unsurprising; they are there to tell you stories.

The field of science communication attempts to remedy these lacks by emphasising the need for accuracy and objectivity, but if the very domain in which science communication takes place is corrupt, and I regard it and all journalism as corrupt from its inception, this is papering over the cracks. Science communication is not the solution to the problem of the public misunderstanding of science. Education is. Scientists are not, and should not be, journalists, nor even historians (unless they turn to history of science as a profession, in which case they can often, with some training, be very good at it). They should do science, and the task of communicating their results to the lay public should be handed to those who can really get an understanding out of those willing to make the effort: teachers. Training scientists to be science communicators, as some insist we should do, merely makes them less active scientists, and they will remain unable to communicate science unless they, too, fall into the drama trap and modify attitudes. Facts are not dramatic. All the actual drama is in how people respond to facts, and that is no longer science, nor even science policy, but simple politics.

This has a number of implications. The most obvious is that we should not expect journalism nor popular publishing to do much to actually educate the lay public. The reason why textbooks and monographs are dry is that they do attempt to cover facts, and the different (actual) ideas and approaches, in order to initiate a critical analysis in the reader. You don’t do this with a breathless Dan Brown style of writing. So if we want a better informed populace, and it is vital that we have one, there is only one way to do it: teach the science to students in a non-partisan fashion, and stop making up drama, which is to say, conflict, where there is none. Evolution is not controversial in science, nor global warming, tobacco causing cancer, and the overuse of pesticides and fertilisers causing massive ecological damage. These are facts in any sense of the word, philosophical debates about factitude notwithstanding. All else is obfuscation for political drama.

Governments should therefore take all educational decisions out of the hands of politicians and pundits. That there should be a public debate is not at issue: this can go on and should do in the public sphere. But unless and until the scientific community is convinced that the objections raised in public are correct, scientifically rather than politically, no amount of noise in the media should have the slightest effect on what is taught.

Mark Twain, to whom all good bons mot not otherwise ascribed to Churchill or Wilde are ascribed, once said (it is claimed):

It seems to me that just in the ratio that our newspapers increase, our morals decay. The more newspapers the worse morals. Where we have one newspaper that does good, I think we have fifty that do harm. We ought to look upon the establishment of a newspaper of the average pattern in a virtuous village as a calamity.
- “License of the Press,” speech, 31 March 1873

I have said before that I think the greatest disaster for modern society was the invention of public relations and marketing. I include the invention of that particular PR called journalism. As Twain also rightly noted:

It has become a sarcastic proverb that a thing must be true if you saw it in a newspaper. That is the opinion intelligent people have of that lying vehicle in a nutshell. But the trouble is that the stupid people — who constitute the grand overwhelming majority of this and all other nations — do believe and are moulded and convinced by what they get out of a newspaper, and there is where the harm lies.


Filed under Education, General Science, Journalism, Politics, Pop culture, Rant, Truisms

Eww, I stepped in some evolutionary psychology and other crap



I try and try to stay out of the muck, but they keep pulling me back in! I saw what I thought was a careful and rather overly-documented critique by Edward Clint of a talk by Rebecca Watson against evolutionary psychology (EP). It was full of references and arguments, devoid of ad hominem, and well defended. So I linked to it on Twitter. I got these responses:

Very BAD post. Surprised you’d recommend it.RT @ @ @ not recommending the individual, but that one post.

@ @ @ @ Looked decent to me PZ, at a glance – has anyone done a response/take-down then?

Nope. not well done most of the time & premises are false. RT @ @ @ @ EP is not a priori false.

EEA is shockingly bad. RT @ @ @ massive modularity of mind? Environment of evolutionary adaptedness?

And off it went. There were some response articles by Stephanie Zvan (which PZ called a GOOD response), James Croft (the most measured response so far) and Greg Laden, but the raw nerves were on fire. Clint was accused of being an “MRA” (men’s rights activist – a term of abuse apparently, and one I hadn’t come across) and having evil motives against Rebecca. Others said that because evolutionary psychology was bad science, a post defending it must be wrong (I suspect that might be PZ’s underlying enthymeme) no matter what the arguments made were.

I also discovered that while I had linked to one post, I disagreed with Clint on his treatment of agnosticism (1 and 2). I am not recommending him as an Authority, but then I don’t do that.

I am not shocked (any more) that this has descended into partisan personalities. I have come to expect this. But I am interested in the arguments made. Stephanie’s post is not bad, but in the end Croft effectively says “It’s okay to equivocate and cherry pick if it’s for popular purposes”, and that I do not agree with. If it’s bad science, and we can attack antivaccinationists, homeopaths and creationists for popular bad science, then the wheel turns against us skeptics too.

Clint’s defence of EP as potentially good science and not at all to be attacked because of the bad examples and bad reportage is solid, I think. The problem is that EP has its defenders who will ignore all counter evidence and counterarguments, while the opponents will ignore all evidence and arguments in its favour. I want to do something here, which I have previously alluded to: announce my being a born-again sociobiologist - EP is a form of sociobiology.

The criticism of sociobiology and EP is largely cultural. It tends to privilege the power structures of the people doing the research. Henrich’s, Heine’s and Norenzayan’s recent essay on psychology focusing on WEIRD students (western educated industrialised rich democratic, if memory serves) points out that all psychology and social science tends to do this, by default. But we should try to remove that bias as much as possible in all science, so it is fair criticism of EP also.

But what some people, including (I know from personal contact) PZ and Larry Moran, object to about EP is what Gould called “panadaptationism” and “Just-So” storification. Here is where there is interesting and philosophical issue, and so here is where I am most compelled to comment. Forgive me in advance.

First of all, there is the issue of when it is appropriate to use adaptationist explanations. Clint cites the leading philosopher on natural selection, Elliot Sober. Now I often disagree with Sober, especially in the assumption of optimisation studies (and of course classification), but Clint is right to cite Sober here:

Adaptationism is first and foremost a research program. Its core claims will receive support if specific adaptationist hypotheses turn out to be well confirmed. If such explanations fail time after time, eventually scientists will begin to suspect that its core assumptions are defective. Phrenology waxed and waned according to the same dynamic (Section 2.1). Only time and hard work will tell whether adaptationism deserves the same fate ( Mitchell and Valone 1990).

Opponents, largely following Gould and Lewontin’s 1979 attack, tend to assert (often without consideration of the particular attempts to give adaptive explanations) that any and all adaptive hypotheses are cheap and to be avoided. This has the effect of basically eliminating natural selective accounts of anything. But we know that selection is the only process that results in complexity over any time, and the fact there are complex traits among organisms leads to the inevitable conclusion that we should be able to give selective explanations from time to time. I have argued before that we should think of adaptation as a viable hypothesis at all times; but being viable doesn’t make it true. The problem is not that EP or sociobiology makes adaptive hypotheses. They should. It is that they often make them without testing them.

This is no longer the case, at least not universally. Desmond Morris is long gone from the forefront of panadaptationist thinking, and we can start to deal with the more serious claims and studies made. As Clint says

Although there are always going to be some  flawed studies, researchers weeded out failed hypotheses and refined methodologies. The influence of evolutionary psychology has steadily grown. Evolutionary psychology theories once controversial are now accepted by mainstream psychology.

Mind, that isn’t a high bar to leap. A lot of psychology is still fairly simplistic (but not most, by any means). If there’s a field that is really well grounded in my subjective assessment, it is comparative psychology, which is cross-specific at comparing human cognitive development and our nearest relatives, the primates. And that gives us a constraint upon EP-style adaptationism. If it is shared across all primates, then it can’t be an adaptation to an ancestral environment not shared by all primates (not unless some massively unparsimonious evolution has occurred, in which case we can’t say squat about evolutionary history).

But something must have happened in our lineage to give us the traits we now have and it simply is not sufficient to say it could have been evolution by accident. Accident is an admission we cannot explain things. It is the background assumption of anything. And let us not forget that accident is the raw material of selection. Accident proposes, selection disposes. Accidental variation is the origin of things, not the reason why things are retained and built upon, at least, not always. If something can be acquired by accident, and spread through a population via drift, then it can be lost the same way. Nobody sensible would go so far as to say that there is no evolution by accident. But neither should anyone sensible suggest there is no evolution by selection either. The question, as the wit said to the society woman, is how much.

So sociobiology as a hypothesis is acceptable. It need not lead to Nazism, racism, sexism or US exceptionalism. So long as there is empirical data, testing the particular hypothesis at hand, it is and can be good science. It is not the final word. And as Twain said, I wouldn’t hang a dog on a newspaper report. EP like anything else can be misrepresented by various interests, just as evolution always has been.

This brings us to the formal and informal fallacies this whole subject seems to attract like things that are attracted to bad metaphors. If PZ is saying Clint’s post was bad because it asserts and defends something he knows without argument to be false, then that is question begging and displays massive confirmation bias. This is not a good trait in scientists. If, similarly, he approves of Zvan’s piece because it agrees with his belief that EP is false, then that too is confirmation bias. If he dismisses Clint’s defence because Clint is an MRA or has “issues with Rebecca”, that is obviously a fallacy of ad hominem, and a genetic fallacy to boot. His argument stands or falls on the merits of the case made (even if, and I can’t stress this highly enough, he is massively wrong about agnosticism!).

And no, Stephanie (see comments) James, it is not sufficient to accept a bit of exaggeration or cherry picking or equivocation when we do it because it’s entertaining or fun. It is false argument. If it’s wrong to do it when you are anti vaccination, then it’s wrong to do it when you are “skeptical”. This is called tu quoque in reasoning. Rebecca equivocates between a field and reportage or misuse of a field. She is clearly trying to poison the well. Similarly, Dawkins does the same thing with religion in The God Delusion. It’s simply dishonest argument, no matter how entertaining.

In the past I have been challenged by PZ and Larry Moran for saying “we are all subject to our own biases”. I know I am (and because they are mine I am not sure what they are, although in the case of chocolate I have suspicions), but Larry once said to me that I should show him his. Well he’s not engaged on this topic for now, but here is me showing some cognitive biases of some skeptics.

I initially thought Clint’s piece was overkill. Now I see that it will never be enough for some. No matter what his history or motives.

Late note: PZ has a post here and a promise of more to come.

Later note: The first of his ?EP series is here.

This series:


Gould, Stephen Jay, and Richard C. Lewontin. 1979. The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme. Proc R Soc Lond B 205:581–598.

Henrich, Joseph, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. 2010. The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33 (2-3):61-83.


Filed under Cognition, Epistemology, Evolution, Journalism, Logic and philosophy, Philosophy, Social evolution, Truisms

The decline of Australian progressivism

Australian state Queensland had an election yesterday, and the result went from a Labor government to a virtual elimination of Labor in the state parliament. This follows, and exceeds, similar defeats in New South Wales last year, and Victoria the year before. Each year, the defeats increase. Victoria went from a 13 seat majority for Labor to a 13 seat majority for the conservative coalition on a nearly 6% swing. New South Wales was, at the time, the biggest swing in Australian history, with the coalition gaining 69 seats in a landslide on a 16.48% swing, with Labor reduced from 52 to 20 seats. Last night, Queensland had seen around a 14.5% swing, and Labor is reduced from 51 to 7 seats.

The usual wisdom here is that Labor is tired, or that it has sold off public assets, or broken promises, but I think the real problem is that lately Labor in Australia has played politics for the sole purpose of holding power and giving cronies plum positions. The party is closely tied to the union movement, and most politicians in the party rose through the ranks of union representatives or functionaries. In the past when cronyism has been seen openly in politics, Australians will vote against it, as Queensland showed in the 1980s.

The trouble is that the opposite side, the conservatives, are no better, so the choice seems to be between those whose cronies are big unions, or those whose cronies are big business. The problem Australia faces is that this has been normalised, largely through the influence of the Murdoch media, so that a common refrain by pundits is that a vote for parties like the Greens are considered a “wasted vote”, which is literally false given Australia’s system of preferential voting.

There are alternatives on the political scene: the Greens are one, although I would say that there is not one but two Green parties, one that is largely progressive in its social policy, and one that seeks to paternalistically control social morés and is driven by an antipathy to any science that happens to contradict their favoured dogmas. There is the unfortunately named “Sex Party” that promotes a properly liberal, in the sense of John Stuart Mill, social agenda. I suggested to the leader that their slogan should be “governance for grownups”. Unfortunately, although it is the fourth most voted party federally, legal restrictions in New South Wales mean they cannot register as a political party there, and so they do not show up on the political reporting radar (and so they are not mentioned).

So long as the media insist Australia is a two party state, there will be strong pressure for each party to converge in behaviour and policies, and the only choice is whether one supports a corrupt labor movement or a corrupt capitalist class. Democracy is effectively stage managed and so merely the acting of free choice on a stage decorated by those with power already.

Issues like gay marriage and personal freedom from police action where no crime has been shown, and so forth are regarded as side issues by this economically obsessed media and political class. But such issues are what makes democracy worthwhile. Any society can run an oligarchy; the issue is whether social attitudes drive or are driven by oligarchs.

I urge my Australian readers to vote Anything But The Two Parties in all subsequent elections. Use your preferences to decide which of the two Oligarchy Parties is least offensive, but if enough Australians vote for a truly progressive candidate or party, things will change, and change rapidly, a rather than waiting another two generations for the current Gilded Age to subside.


Filed under Australian stuff, Journalism, Politics, Pop culture