Reframing the war on science

America’s kind of tense right now. Leading up to and following the November 2016 election, there’s a lot of talk of “the two Americas” and “the Divided States of America.” Americans are divided on a lot of issues, including scientific topics like vaccine safety and global warming. To many, it’s surprising that we disagree about these things because according to scientists who research these topics, there are no debates at all: vaccines do not cause autism and humans are responsible for global warming

At the same time, the current administration in the US has sent numerous messages that they devalue science (for example, by censoring scientists at organizations like the USA and EPA and establishing a Committee on Vaccine Safety). Actions like these seem to be only fueling the divided science beliefs.

In response, many people have declared that we’re in a war on science: This idea is expressed in headlines like Facts are the reason science is losing the current war on reason, How the Anti-Vaxxers are Winning, and documentary titles like The Vaccine War. (There are so many pieces that talk about the war on science).

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Scientific American

I’m a PhD student in Cognitive Science, a firm believer in the scientific method and basing beliefs and actions on evidence. I highly value scientific funding, vaccinations, and measures that reduce the effects of climate change. As Americans, we have freedom of speech, and we should exercise that freedom to speak up when scientific knowledge and interests are being trampled on. I agree with the ideas expressed in blog posts like The War on Facts is a War on Democracy and I’m a Scientist. This is what I’ll Fight for and many of the ideas that continuously populate threads on Twitter like #defendscience and #resist. But I’m much less enthusiastic about the widespread use of a war metaphor to get those ideas across.

Here’s why.

Metaphors shape thought

The metaphors we use to describe complex social problems actually shape the way we think about them. For example, when crime was described as a beast ravaging a town, people tended to suggest harsh law enforcement policies — similar to how they’d likely react to a literal beast ravaging their town. On the other hand, when that same crime was described as a virus, people suggested fewer harsh enforcement policies. Instead, they turned their focus to curing the town of problems that may underlie the crime, like improving education and welfare services.

People make inferences in line with the metaphors used to describe complex issues, so it’s important to reflect on what the war on science implies. It does have some helpful implications. Wars are serious, and often require urgent action. These are probably the messages that those who perpetuate the war on science want us to infer, even if not consciously.

But the war also suggests that there are enemies and casualties. There are two sides locked in combat, and neither will back down until they win (or they’re decimated). I like this quote from A Gentleman in Moscow, a novel I just happened to be reading while working on this post: After all, in the midst of armed conflicts, facts are bound to be just as susceptible to injury as ships and men, if not more so. In other words, we sometimes do stupid things in wars. We shirk thoughtfulness and conscientiousness, and instead we just fight. As I see it, our current political situation (for lack of a better word) needs all the thoughtfulness and conscientiousness we can give it.  

I recently expressed my concern in a conversation on Twitter:

The war metaphor challenges those who are not already on the “side” of science. It tells them they’re the enemy. When people feel that they’re being attacked, even idealistically, they’re likely to strengthen their stance and gear up to fight back. No matter how many scientists tweet about science or participate in the March for Science on Earth Day, people who have found themselves on the “anti-science” side of this war are not going to decide all of a sudden that climate change must be real after all or that they should rush their kids to the pediatrician for overdue vaccines (especially if we tell them we’re marching to fight the war on science!). People who have already been labeled as the enemy of science may as well go out and buy a new gas guzzler and decide that their kids are just fine without vaccines.

Others have already pointed out that actions like the science march are already in jeopardy of isolating anti-science proponents as opponents (for example see  Daniel Engber’s piece for Slate and Robert Young’s in the New York Times). Using war metaphors has the potential to only hammer that point home.

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This just doesn’t seem productive. Image: Battle by Thomas Hawk. CC BY-NC 2.0

Alternative frames?

If we want to stop thinking about ourselves as engaged in a war on science, we need an alternative. Proponents of and believers in science are experiencing a sort of struggle, but it doesn’t have to be a fight between the left and right, Democrats and Republicans, Coastal Elite and Middle America. Maybe we can reframe the situation as a challenge that unites all humans. Science communicators want to share how important it is to address climate change and to have children vaccinated for the good of all people. We can all be on the same side, working to better the world we live in, and it’s important that we convey that message in our communications.

Referring to the movie Hidden Figures, NPR blogger Marcelo Gleiser points out that if there is a central lesson in the movie, it is that united we win; that what makes America great is not segregation and intolerance, but openness and inclusiveness.

I considered the possibility that guiding people to trust empirical evidence and the scientific process might be better framed as a puzzle — a challenge, no doubt, but at least everyone’s working toward a common goal.

Marisa makes a really important point. The peacekeeper in me would love a frame that emphasizes hey, guys! We’re all in this together!, but that ship may have already sailed. At this point, it’s important not to downplay the gravity of discrediting and distrusting science. This is not a game.

 

I’ve had quite a few conversations on the war on science, but I still don’t have a one-size-fits-all framing suggestion for talking about America’s disconnect in belief in science. But when we’re considering talking about this issue as a war, it’ll be helpful to step back and assess our goals and the potential consequences of the words we use.

Right now, there are deep social and political divides in American society — and though it’s crucial to stand up for what we believe in (especially science and facts!), we should be careful about taking up arms in a war on science that might deepen those divides. 

I welcome other comments on the framing of the war on science. Do you find the war helpful? Why? Are there other frames we could use to avoid deepening ideological divides?


Featured image: United States USA Flag by Mike Mozart. CC BY 2.0

CogSci 2016 Day 1 Personal Highlights

I stepped out of the airport Wednesday night and my glasses fogged up. Ah, what a reminder of the world that awaits outside southern California, where I’m immersed in my PhD work. I had arrived in Philadelphia for CogSci 2016 to be bombarded by fascinating new work on the mind and behavior and the clever researchers responsible for it.

With 9 simultaneous talks at any time and over 150 posters on display during each poster session, I of course only got to learn about a fraction of all that was there. Nonetheless, here are some projects that are still on my mind after day 1:

  • Cognitive biases and social coordination in the emergence of temporal language (Tessa Verhoef, Esther Walker, Tyler Marghetis): Across languages, people use spatial language to talk about time (i.e., looking forward to a meeting, or reflecting back on the past). How does this practice come about? To investigate language evolution on a much faster time scale than occurs in the wild, this team had pairs of participants use a vertical tool (I believe the official term was bubble bar, see below). to create a communication system for time concepts like yesterday and next year. The pairs were in separate rooms, so this new communication system was their only way of communicating. Each successive pair inherited the previous pair’s system, allowing the researchers to observe the evolution of the bubble bar communication system for temporal concepts. Over the generations, participants became more accurate at guessing the term their partner was communicating (as the bubble bar language was honed), and systematic mappings between space and time emerged; that is, although each chain ended up with pretty different systems, within a single chain people tended to use the top part of the bar to indicate the same types of concepts (i.e., past or future), and used systematic motions (for example, small rapid oscillations for relatively close times like tomorrow and yesterday and larger, slower oscillations for more temporally distant concepts).

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    The bubble bar
  • Deconstructing “tomorrow”: How children learn the semantics of time (Katharine Tillman, Tyler Marghetis, David Barner, Mahesh Srinivasan): This team had children of varying ages place time points (like yesterday and last week) on a timeline. They analyzed different features of the kids’ timelines to investigate at what age kids seem to understand three different concepts of time (or that they begin to understand these concepts in ways that adults do). The first was whether a time is in the past or future relative to now (did kids place it to the left or right of the now mark on the timeline?). The second aspect they looked at was whether kids understand sequences of different times – for example, that last week comes before (to the left on a timeline) yesterday (regardless of where those events were placed compared to now). Finally, they compared the way kids’ timelines showed remoteness – how temporally distant different events are from now – to how adults showed the same concept. Adults, for example, will place tomorrow quite close to the now mark and next year significantly farther away. They found that kids acquired an adult-like sense of remoteness much later than the first two – deictic (past vs. future) and sequence – concepts. While the latter two concepts reliably emerged in kids by 4 years old, but knowledge of remoteness wasn’t present until much later – after 7 years old. These data are an indication that while kids can pick up a lot of information about what different time words mean from the language they encounter, they may need formal education in order to really grasp that tomorrow is much closer to today than last year was.
  • Gesture reveals spatial analogies during complex relational reasoning (Kensy Cooperrider, Dedre Gentner, Susan Goldin-Meadow): After reading about positive feedback systems (i.e., an increase in A leads to an increase in B, which leads to more increase in A…) and negative feedback systems (an increase in A leads to an increase in B, which leads to a decrease in A), participants had to explain these complicated concepts. Even though the material that people read had almost no spatial language , spatial gestures were extremely common during their explanations (often occurring without any accompanying spatial language in speech). These gestures often built off each other, acting as a way to show relational information through space, and they suggest that people invoke spatial analogies in order to reason about complex relational concepts.

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    Sample Gestures showing (from left to right) a factor reference, a change in a factor, a causal relation, and a whole system explanation.
  • Environmental orientation affects emotional expression identification (Stephen Flusberg, Derek Shapiro, Kevin Collister, Paul Thibodeau): Past work has shown us that we not only talk about emotions by using spatial metaphors (for example, I’m feeling down today, or your call lifted me up), but we also invoke these same aspects of space to think about emotions. In the first experiment, the researchers found that people were faster to say that a face was happy when it was oriented upwards and that it was sad when oriented downwards (both of which are considered congruent with the metaphor) than for the incongruent cases. Then, to differentiate between an egocentric (facing up or down with respect to the viewer’s body) and environmental (facing up or down with respect to the world) reference frames, people completed the same face classification task while lying on their sides. This time, they only showed the metaphor consistent effect (faster to say happy when faces were oriented up and to say sad when faces were oriented down) when the face was oriented with respect to the world – not when the orientation was with respect to the person’s own position. This talk won my surprising finding award for the day, since researchers often explain our association between emotion and vertical space as originating in our bodily experiences: we physically droop when we’re sad and we rise taller when we’re happy. That explanation isn’t consistent with what these researchers found, though, suggesting that people’s association between vertical space and emotions was critically an association involving vertical space with respect to their environment, and not their own bodies.
  • Context, but not proficiency, moderates the effects of metaphor framing: A case study in India (Paul Thibodeau, Daye Lee, Stephen Flusberg): People use metaphors they encounter to reason about complex issues. For example, when a crime problem is framed as a beast, they think that the town should take a more punitive approach to dealing with it than when that same problem is framed as a virus. What if you encounter this metaphor in English, but English isn’t your native language – does the metaphor frame influence your reasoning less than it would influence a native English speaker’s? People from India (all of whose native language was not English) read the metaphor frames embedded in contexts, and reasoned about the issues that were framed metaphorically. Overall, people reasoned in metaphor-consistent ways (i.e., saying that crime should be dealt with more punitively after it was framed as a beast than a virus). Their self-reported proficiency in English did not affect the degree to which people were influenced by the metaphor; people who were more fluent in English were not more swayed by the frames. However, the context in which they typically spoke English, did play a role: Those who reported using English mostly in informal contexts, such as with friends and family and through the media, were more influenced by the frames than those who reported using English more in formal contexts, like educational and professional settings. These experiments don’t explain why those who use English more in informal settings were more swayed by metaphorical frames than those who use the language more in formal settings, but it opens the door for some cool future research possibilities.

Check back for highlights from days 2 and 3!