April 23-24, 2012

Madison, WI

"Irrationally held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors." -Thomas Huxley

Persuasive writing in a world of denial: Panel discussion

The Tuesday afternoon session “Persuasive writing in a world of denial” was designed to help writers communicate effectively with readers who question scientific consensus. Panelists spoke about the need to understand their audience’s existing mental models, and to write stories that take those models into account.

Freelance writer Steve Silberman spoke first about his experiences writing about autism, which is now diagnosed in more than 1 percent of U.S. children. Silberman noted that a vocal community of parents, fueled by a now-debunked study linking autism to the MMR vaccine, continues to promote the autism-vaccine link and use language like “vaccine-injured children.” Even though there is no scientific controversy surrounding vaccines and autism, much of the press coverage persists in focusing on the notion of debate.

Silberman said he decided to write a book about autism because he was “horrified” by the development of the story of autism into a debate about vaccines. He said, “I wanted to write something parents could relate to, in an accessible way.”

Story-telling is “our oldest tool,” said Silberman. He believes the broadening of diagnostic criteria is a “heroic story,” albeit with mistakes along the way.

Freelance writer Christie Aschwanden echoed Silberman’s emphasis on the importance of story-telling. Stories are “the way the human mind works,” she said. “It’s not something that only deniers do; we all do it. Scientists do it, too.”

However, Aschwanden noted that many of the stories science writers tell are not ones readers want to hear. The science of cancer, for example, contains some “really ugly truths: some cancers will never kill you, some are really bad, some can’t even be caught with screening.”

Likewise, Aschwanden said, “With global warming, the message we’re sending is ‘you’re evil, you’re killing the planet, the only solution is to do things you don’t want to do.’ Climate change contradicts our stories about ourselves, that we’re good people. The place we have to start from is to speak to that story.”

Dietram Scheufele, professor of science communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, concurred with previous speakers that the “knowledge deficit model” is not what is needed to reach skeptical audiences. Scheufele spoke about the importance of framing, which he acknowledges has little to with the contents of a story. The question is, he said, “Can we present facts and phenomena in a way that lay audiences can attach them to what they already know?”

“We’re being out-communicated” at reaching hard-to-reach audiences, Scheufele said. “Persuasive communication has to be finding language that resonates with how people see the world.”

The final speaker was Wilson da Silva, editor-in-chief of the Australian science magazine COSMOS. Da Silva made a forceful case that “you cannot pussyfoot around science. It’s important that we defend science and that we stick up for science.”

Like Sean Carroll in his talk on Monday, Da Silva provided a list of points — in this case about how to write persuasively. Da Silva’s list included recommendations that writers attempt to persuade with writing that has “color, analogy, and humor.”

“Use humor to win arguments,” he suggested.

Da Silva also spoke about the importance of using analogies to get climate change “out of its pen.” Although climate change denial is no more common among scientists than the denial that HIV causes AIDS, da Silva noted, the public believes the scientific controversy is much greater. Similarly, people insure their houses when there is only a small risk of fire or flood. “Shouldn’t we insure the earth if climate change is 90% likely?” he asked.

A lively question-and-answer period kept the conversation going 15 minutes past the scheduled end of the session. Audience members asked panelists about some of the challenges in changing entrenched beliefs, and in finding new ways to address challenging ideologies. Panelists also acknowledged some of the limitations of persuasive writing. Aschwanden said, “I don’t think we’re going to win every battle – we’re never going to convince every denier. You have to choose your battles.”

“You cannot win an argument with facts,” Da Silva added. “But if you write persuasively you can get your point across.”

By Gabriel Popkin

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