Pig Wrestling

A side-effect of working on the Big Bang is that I get a fair bit of crank mail (to use the technical term), a few crank phone calls, and even the occasional crank visit. These cranks – or “independent investigators” – usually believe they have solved abiding mysteries in cosmology and theoretical physics, or demolished some key tenet of modern science. Relativity and the Big Bang are popular choices.

The crank community is not a small one. Counting the people who have contacted me directly since I moved back to New Zealand, my country’s crank cosmologists clearly outnumber the portion of the local scientific community that works on the evolving universe. (And before you make any jokes I am sure this is true globally but it is easier to conduct the “census” in New Zealand.) In fact, there are few pieces of science so well-settled that you can’t find someone to disagree with it. The Flat Earth Society almost perished along with its guiding light Samuel Shenton but it was recently resurrected, and there is an active community that believes the Catholic Church should have stuck to its guns on the geocentric solar system

Young cosmologists learn fairly quickly that engaging with eccentrics and their pet theories is generally not a good use of their time. My own experience is that “independent investigators” are almost always courteous, decent people. However, they appear to enjoy dissent as much as they enjoy grappling with the deep problems of physics. Consequently, they are rarely overtly upset that they cannot change the opinions of mainstream scientists, and will hold on to their positions in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The advice I give my students is not to wrestle a pig; you both get muddy, but the pig enjoys it. 

Last weekend’s NZAS conference saw a thoughtful discussion of how science communicators should respond to heterodox opinions. For scientists, the default position is often the deficit model, which tacitly assumes that once they are provided with the facts, people will naturally align themselves with the position of the scientific community. This is hardly surprising: the lecture is a natural medium for scientists and while it smacks of an argument from authority, it is an authority we respect and are likely to believe we have earned. Unfortunately, this approach does not work on its own; if it did, the Flat Earth Society would long since have died out. Worse yet, in some cases this strategy can actually harden beliefs.

A second theme of the conference was climate: the meeting opened with a screening of The Thin Ice, a film about climate change. Likewise, the recently released IPCC report on the impacts of climate change argues strongly that this is a vital public-policy challenge. If a person turns their back on the Big Bang they are missing out on one of humanity’s greatest adventures, but no-one will get hurt. But anti-vaxxers, large chunks of the alt-med crowd and, it increasingly appears, climate denialists are putting human lives and well-being at risk. 

Denial has two main approaches. The first is to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt; one can point out that (for instance) climate science is hard and the models are not exact, that is not clear what we should do about climate change even if it exists, and that surely our hospitals and schools provide more pressing and immediate concerns? By contrast, the other approach is one of outright ridicule of science and the rejection of settled, incontestable results. The latter tactic is less common in New Zealand than in the United States, although the Conservative Party’s Colin Craig seemed to take a step in this direction when he told an audience that “whether the sun has a hot day or a cold day ‘is by far the biggest influence‘ on the Earth’s climate.” It’s possible that the Dominion Post has mangled Craig’s words here, but it is hard to square what he reportedly said with anything that remotely resembles the scientific understanding of the weather, the climate system or solar physics. (Similarly, radio host Mike Hosking appears to live on a planet with different laws of physics to those that apply on Earth.)   

The failings of the deficit model of science communication are clear, so identifying effective, alternative strategies is vital, especially at the points where science intersects with public policy. To my eyes, denialism thrives when people see science as an institution with which they have little connection. Deficit-based science communications may inadvertently reinforce barriers between science and this sector of the public. If so, part of the solution lies within ongoing developments in the scientific community. Open Science promises to make science more transparent, enhancing rigour and repeatability. It is easy to say that no-one would eat sausage if they could see it being made, but a sausage-factory with a window is more likely to be a sausage-factory that is spotlessly clean and uses top quality raw materials. Moreover, science is never unanimous, and Open Science may permit a more nuanced understanding of how scientists disagree, and when these disagreements are meaningful. Likewise, embracing diversity among scientists (and our students) will produce a scientific community that looks more like, and can thus fully engage with, the society it’s a part of. 

I suspect that the solution also involves letting people engage with science with no agenda beyond the excitement of science itself.  If – as I saw last weekend – people of all ages and backgrounds can play with ferrofluids, watch a 3D printer at work, imagine driving a rover on Mars, explore an ecosystem in which whales are nourished by plankton, or look a the surface of the sun through a solar telescope, they can get a sense of how science explores, explains and makes use of the natural world. And if people engage with science for the sheer fun of it, they are much more likely to take it seriously when it needs to be heard. 

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Postscript: During the discussion at the NZAS on the deficit model, I realised it had implications for my own writing on, say, the dangers of Wi-fi or homeopathy. In those pieces, I aimed to focus on how ostensibly evidence-driven institutions, such as journalism or government, deal with these fringe concerns, rather than simply mocking someone for being wrong on the internet. But the question of tone and persuasion is something I’m thinking about.