I wish I could carry 20 posters at the March for Science

This Saturday, science-lovers in over 400 cities around the globe will be marching for science. I’ll be marching in San Diego with friends and colleagues (and many strangers). This march takes a lot of planning — of course at the macro level, orchestrating an international (or even local) event is massive — but also at a much more micro level, for the people involved.

My first stage of planning was to read and think a lot about the march — the goals of marchers, the message it might send, and its downstream consequences. I worry that it will be perceived by some as a coastal elite and liberal rally against Trump — and for some marchers, it probably will be that, but I see it as an opportunity for us to celebrate science and affirm that it’s important in our lives. I also know the March for Science (DC) organization has experienced a lot of internal mayhem, and many of the original organizers are no longer with the group because of disagreements with the way the organization has proceeded. This march is not a cure-all. It will probably offend people (unintentionally, I hope), and we should actively work to avoid offense, but I am optimistic that the benefits of coming together for science can outweigh the inevitable negative aspects.

So I’ve decided it’s an event I want to be a part of. Next step: planning logistics.

I have an important wardrobe decision to make. I own so many great science t-shirts, but I have to choose one for the march. I’ll also wear one of the science hats I’ve crocheted (I’ve made 38 so far, so hopefully I come across lots of hatless marchers). I haven’t yet hammered out these wardrobe details.

 

I also have to decide my primary message for the march: What will I put on the poster that I carry? I’ve organized an event for people in my department to make posters together tomorrow afternoon, and I decided I should do some research to provide people with inspiration. What kinds of messages will be most productive? The San Diego march team created a helpful guide for poster messages. A quick Google search provided so many clever and seemingly effective poster possibilities that I’m nearly overwhelmed. Here are a few of my favorite messages (I’ve remade my own visuals with the help of Canva but borrowed the messages from around the Internet).

 

Stay tuned to find out my eventual wardrobe and sign decisions. There are so many great possibilities, and I’m looking forward to seeing the many ways that marchers express their love and commitment to science.

 

 

 

 

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

What happened to Team Science?

Last week I saw Hidden Figures, a movie highlighting 3 African-American women who were instrumental in the math work behind NASA’s earliest space missions. I was captivated, and the movie’s success suggests that I wasn’t the only one. The movie showcases the intense obstacles women and African-Americans faced in American society, and sent a message that is still relevant and important today.

One theme that really struck me was the widespread fascination for science, particularly the American space program. Everyone was rooting for the space program. Families crowded in front of the TV to watch coverage of early US space missions, and cheered outwardly at its successes. They were rooting for America in a time of great tension with Russia (sounds familiar…), and they were rooting for scientific progress. Science seemed to be a topic that united Americans.

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Mercury “Friendship 7” Spacecraft by NASA on the Commons

I’ve never witnessed this kind of collective enthusiasm for scientific progress. I don’t think I’ve ever watched live coverage of a science event on TV, and I can’t recall any scientific event that I celebrated with family and non-scientist friends. I think it’s safe to say that science is not uniting Americans right now. My intuition is the reverse: science fuels ideological divides. It gives people more issues to argue about.

To test myself, I googled: “Americans rooting for science.” The only relevant search result I found referred to the “war on science.” Then I searched for that phrase, and there were many relevant and recent results. Americans aren’t united by Team Science; they are at war over it.

How did we get here? Why is science now so inseparable from other political beliefs, and therefore always a topic for debate? Have our national priorities shifted? Have we become a more individualist nation, all burrowing deeply into our own echo chambers? Are we too distracted by cat memes to realize when big scientific stuff is going on?

I don’t know, and I don’t know if it’s a bad thing. But I do wish my earliest memory of gathering in front of a TV had been to watch a rocket taking off and not of the Twin Towers collapsing.


P.S. Feb. 11, 2017: This post by Marcelo Gleiser really hit the nail on the head: “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.”

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, let’s put away our fight metaphors

Lately, as I’ve been scrolling through my Twitter newsfeed, I feel a little overwhelmed by the amount of metaphorical fighting going on in my tiny corner of the Internet. Of course the literal fighting is incredibly upsetting, particularly the recent rise in hate crimes permeating the U.S. and garnering media attention, but the figurative fighting is also jarring. If you go to your Facebook, Twitter, or social media feed of your choice, and search for the word fight, I feel pretty confident that you’ll come up with results, and that they won’t be about boxing matches or conflict in the Middle East.

A lot of these fight metaphors arise from positive intentions, encouragements to fight hatred and to fight for progress.

Barackobama.com says that “We’ve always known progress is hard, but that it’s worth fighting for — and now, more than ever, we’ve got to get fired up for the work ahead.”

A piece in the Huffington Post talks about how we can fight the “Trump Effect” (defined as the fear and anxiety that many children feel as a result of Trump’s rhetoric against different groups) in youth sports.

STAT reports on Choosing Scientific Sides in the Fight Against Alzheimer’s: Here it seems that the fight is both between scientists in favor of two competing hypotheses, as well as the general fight against the disease. (Some side speculation: since we talk about the immune system as defending the body and viruses as invading, I suspect that our tendency to talk about fighting diseases — from depression, to cancer, to obesity, and apparently Alzheimer’s — might originate from the immune system mental model, and has now generalized to diseases from which recovery doesn’t involve the immune system).

Many people are calling for recounts of votes in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, based on suspicion that the results may have been interfered with by foreign powers. Hillary Clinton’s campaign has been urged to join the fight in demanding a recount, the Guardian reports.

It gets particularly meta when articles talk about fighting the fighting: George Soros is donating $10 million to combat the recent rise in hate crimes, Time reports.

The phrase fighting fire with fire feels particularly apt right now: there’s too much fighting, so let’s stop the fighting with a different kind of fighting.

These articles are a tiny subset of the many fight-encouraging articles that have cropped up in my news feeds. In fact, they’re just the ones I noticed over breakfast in one day (I eat slowly, but not that slowly). I didn’t even have to go looking for these metaphorical fights.

Are all these fight metaphors influencing our behavior?

It’s hard to know if fight metaphors are empowering people to take more action for good, doing things like standing up for “what’s right” and shutting down acts of hatred. It’s also hard to know if the metaphors are encouraging people to engage in violence and unnecessary confrontation. But there’s been an alarming amount of violence recently, and every instance adds more fire to everyone’s fires — which might make them more likely to drop even more fight metaphors. I accidentally stumbled upon an appropriate Vox article that shares advice for arguing better, acknowledging that Thanksgiving can give rise to arguments, so here’s how you can equip yourself to win them.

It seems to me we have a national case of fighting on the brain.

Of course I am speculating, providing cherry-picked anecdotal evidence from a sample size of one (myself). And of course, confrontation can be necessary, and it can be effective. I’m not advocating for abolishing fight metaphors. They might empower some people, but they also might encourage others to be violent. The context in which they’re used, the frame of mind a person is in, the prior experiences that person has had… these all matter when metaphors shape the way we think.

I hope on this Thanksgiving Day, and as we head into a holiday season, and soon begin a New Year, under leadership of a new U.S. President, that we think twice when using fight metaphors. They’re powerful things, and they should be used responsibly.

Faith in science

We have a bit of a science problem in America. For some reason, our students aren’t learning it very well, or at least not as well as they are in many other countries. Most people seem to acknowledge this issue and advocate for an improvement in our education.

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And if students aren’t learning it, that probably means that adults, even those who are generally educated and motivated, probably have some conceptual gaps too (for example, when asked whether the earth orbits the sun or the sun orbits the earth – a question that gives people a 50% chance of getting it right if they guessed blindly! – only 74% of Americans correctly reported that the earth orbits the sun). Our widespread knowledge gaps are Problem Number 1.

A related problem is that many people tend to distrust science. For one, science is not always right on the first try (eggs are bad for your cholesterol! No wait, eggs are good for you!). Relatedly, some people do actually do crappy science (Problem Number 2), and other times good science gets reported badly (Problem Number 3). The recent “study” that recruited a very small number of participants, gave half of them chocolate, measured a ton of correlations to find a few that would reveal significant results, and published these results in a phony journal highlighted this. This hoax demonstrated both bad science and exaggerated, sensational reporting, and people who were initially fooled into believing that chocolate is the key to weight loss probably feel duped – rightfully so.

Problems 1-3 are a recipe for societal skepticism about science. It’s really difficult to evaluate science even when you’re being trained as a scientist, let alone if all of your training is in an entirely different field. Science can easily seem foreign, unrelatable, and unreliable. Who has the power to do something about this? Prominent scientists could maybe help sway the public’s opinion, but we might need a revolution in our cultural ethos towards science, and old people are rarely behind revolutions. What about wide-eyed and idealistic science grad students?

In a few hours, I’ll be on a plane heading to ComSciCon, a workshop on communicating science for grad students. The goal is to help us become better at communicating our own science as well as other people’s science – hopefully a step towards society’s impending science ethos revolution.