Author Chris Mooney has a provocative piece up at the Washington Post today. He argues that scientists are misunderstanding the dynamics of science-policy debates. Because, he argues, ideology often trumps scientific fact in the minds of the public, we (scientists) need to work harder to engage the public to win their hearts before we win their minds (please forgive me, Chris, if I didn't get this quite spot on).
While I appreciate Chris's general point---that we can't just "fact" people into submission---I think some of his arguments beg for a more critical analysis. Point one, scientists are missing an important piece of data:
One the one hand, the nonscientists appear almost entirely impervious to scientific data that undermine their opinions and prone to arguing back with technical claims that are of dubious merit. In response, the scientists shake their heads and lament that if only the public weren't so ignorant, these kinds of misunderstandings wouldn't occur.
I'm not so sure Chris is right about this. Those of us who fight against the anti-vaccine movement have known for years that it behaves like a cult, making the members nearly impervious to reason. Many of us realize that the core of the anti-vaccine movement are not our primary audience. Our real audience is fellow activists (igniting the core) and those who have not committed themselves (nearly everyone). Chris's argument is most valid when applied to this latter group who may or may not be turned off by the aggressive rhetoric of both sides.
But as Chris argues later, their minds may be more or less made up. They may choose a side based on their basic ideology rather than rational argument. If we can't sway the cultists, and their ideologic fellow travelers are already spoken for, what are we doing?
We are also speaking to policy makers. The public health establishment is science-based but susceptible to politics. We are arguing for them to hold fast, not to bow to the vagaries of politics and ideology. And we are bringing our own inflamed base into the fight.
Chris argues---admirably---for a more democratic approach to swaying the public on scientific issues, giving as an example Canadian nuclear waste disposal. In Canada, the government has worked to involve the public and other interested parties.
In Canada, for instance, the national Nuclear Waste Management Organization spent three years listening to the public's views about how to handle nuclear waste disposal and promised that no dump or repository would be sprung on a community without its consent. Throughout the process, even critics of waste storage efforts remained engaged and supportive of attempts to come up with the best possible solution.
There is a fundamental problem with science policy decisions. As a nation, we are a democracy, yet science is not. Not every community has the appropriate natural resources to serve as a nuclear waste repository. What happens when, as in Nevada, a good scientific choice is a bad political choice? Is the community really open to persuasion? And are anti-nuclear activists (who, as Mooney implies, are moved more by ideology than reason) really going to ever be persuaded that any site is adequate?
Those of us arguing for sound science policy are not ignorant of ideologies and of our own inabilities to sway true believers. We get that. But neither do most of us believe we can simply open up science policy to a vote. When the public "votes" that vaccines cause autism, what are we to do, halt proper vaccination until we can convince everyone, just to go through the same cycle in another few years?
This is a representative democracy. We must convince policy makers to isolate, as much as is possible, science policy decisions from the election cycle. And we must be loud advocates of sound science policy, realizing that we are fighting ideology. The more we isolate the Jenny McCarthy's, the more our own voices will affect policy.