Scientific findings are not public service announcements.

When a newspaper publishes an article about a recent scientific study concerning humans, it is almost expected that people with a political agenda will pick and choose parts of the article that support their view, and ignore those parts that invalidate it. The science writers may even intentionally and deliberately insert clarifications and disclaimers to make sure the article is inconsistent with a popular incorrect political view, but people with an agenda will ignore the clarifications and disclaimers because they don’t understand it, they reject nuances, or because they simply ignore information that does not fit into their worldview.

However, sometimes members of the public will also take into account the public’s tendency politicize controversial studies, and then accuse the study’s researchers of “knowing” that their study could be used to support a political agenda and conducting the study with the “intention” to stir up controversy and support said political agenda.

Of course, this is a complete misunderstanding of how scientific research works. Almost all scientific studies are not done to educate the general public; they are done to explore the unexplored territory in the field. The primary audience of a scientific paper is other scientists in the field. Only after the original paper endures years of debate and replications among the scientific community do the new findings make it into the canon of an undergraduate textbook. Most published studies do not make it into this canon, and are read by only a small circle of specialists.

In other words, many members of the public assume that scientific studies are conducted for them instead of for other scientists. Given this assumption, it is not too much of logical leap for them to suppose that the scientists conducted a particular controversial study with the nefarious intention to advance a political (e.g., right-wing) agenda.

One way to avoid the possibility of misinterpretation is to hide the results of scientific studies from the general public, but this is unethical, it keeps the general public scientifically illiterate, and it creates distrust when information is restricted to an elite few.

Another way to avoid misinterpretation is to somehow teach the general public that scientists are even more aloof and detached from practical concerns than they had initially assumed. Scientific studies are not conducted for the general public and taxpayer in mind, but for other scientists to discuss among themselves. The literature generated through government-funded scientific research does not benefit the public directly, but indirectly, after a collection of scientific studies finds a practical application in some indeterminate time in the future. However, this explanation is complex, requires an understanding of the sociology of science (which is another poorly understood topic), and may also generate public distrust.

Noticing a person’s skin colour is natural. You are not “color blind” when it comes to race.

An example is the politically controversial notion that humans process skin colour at a basic perceptual level, i.e., vision-enabled humans cannot be “color blind” when it comes to skin colour. There are many psychology and neuroscience studies that support this. However, since the general public assumes that noticing race makes you racist, such studies could be interpreted as suggesting that racism is innate and natural.

Again, hiding these studies on race perception from the general public is unethical, and telling the general public that the study was not intended to be read by the hoi polloi is offensive. White liberals may object to the study’s coverage because it could support the right-wing idea that racism is natural, so it is okay to be racist. However, by preventing this research from reaching the general public, white liberals would also be protecting the common, white-privileged, and white liberal idea that they can and should be racially “color blind”.

In other words, the idea that it is natural for humans to notice skin colour would be perceived as a “right wing” idea by a typical white liberal, but the same idea would be perceived as “left wing” by a typical anti-racist person of colour who is sick of white liberals preaching racial “color blindness” and assuming that the problem is race instead of racism. By suppressing or dismissing such studies that do not fit into the standard white liberal discourse, white liberals again ensure that they direct the liberal conversation about race, and define what is and is not a progressive racial idea.

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4 Responses to “Scientific findings are not public service announcements.”

  1. pprscribe Says:

    I greatly appreciate this post, and agree with much of it. I think the additional part of the equation is the “mainstream media” and its goals. So, for example, a scientific study may be spun a certain way in order to generate attention. Sometimes, the headline is inaccurate, but the content fairly faithful to the science. Other times bot the headlin and content is all mucked up. But regardless, in the end the public is often misled.

    I do not, however, “blame” the media. Reserachers and the infastructure that supports us *must* do a better job of learning how to communicate our findings to a lay public. Media outlets across the nation are cutting what little science correspondent divisions they had so now is actually an opportune time for us to step in and learn how to write for the public and offer this service.

    It is not enough to fall back on our purposes and history as “pure” scientists. This should be part of our professional ethics to not send our findings out in a rhetorical vacuum to be repackaged however other people see fit.

  2. Restructure! Says:

    I definitely agree, but how? There is always the assumption that the findings are implying or suggesting something that is not actually in the text, which contradicts how scientists communicate. This assumption is based on the idea that scientific findings occur very rarely, only once every few years, and that the scientific findings only happen when they appear in mainstream news.

    As I said before, disclaimers and clarifications don’t work, because people tend to ignore them because they don’t want nuance.

    Is the issue that we need to debunk the stereotype of a scientist as a wise old man who is supposed to offer a integrated and complete story of how life works (and in this case, how racism works)? More than just communication, there is the social expectation that a scientist is a sage who offers people moral advice.

  3. Feynman was not being arrogant when he told people, “You’re wrong!” « Restructure! Says:

    [...] wrong by other scientists with hard, empirical evidence. Again, when a scientist makes a claim, the primary target audience is other scientists in the same field, not the general public. A scientific claim is embedded into a larger dialectic within the field; science implicitly uses [...]

  4. LoneStarNot Says:

    Even in the rare cases where researchers are paid to prepare reports for general consumption — e.g. AgExtensions, NIH, HUD, etc — those making political hay just ignore the careful summaries and “cross-post” misleading snippets from one context to another, often to maximize controver$y.

    “… debunk the stereotype of a scientist as a wise old man who is supposed to offer a integrated and complete story of how life works.”
    We’re in agreement: scholarship works. And we know that does not mean it magically makes things simpler. Teasing the truth from the myth from the stereotype re:”wise old men” seems quite a challenge. What testable hypotheses might yield valuable results?

    My unscientific sense is that “wisdom” stereotypes are very subject-specific. For insights on human behavior, I expect many would often defer to a “wise old woman”; for the latest in electronic tech, a “wiz kid”; to create/maneuver an engaging/compelling fundraiser, “prime-time vixens” would top the list. Those are all stereotypes … but favoring different demographics for different insights. For the stated phrase, an “integrated and complete story of how life works”, the literature on philosophy is quite rich, including a diverse range of contributors.

    “Stereotypes” seem as compelling as sexy images. Yes, stereotypes distort; but they also serve a demand for summary/compression. Though somewhat socially constructed, they are also very idiosyncratic … not unlike the bookmarking of a specific website as representative of a whole topic.

    The underlying compulsion to shorten/compress, combined with idiosyncratic nature seems to preclude “debunking” most stereotypes. That’s surely why some focus on constraining the_power_to_impose them on others.

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