April 23-24, 2012

Madison, WI

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

Working within the psychologies of belief and learning: Panel discussion

Session II on the second day of Science Writing in the Age of Denial included a workshop panel titled “Working within the psychologies of belief and learning.” On the Panel: Bill Blakemore of ABC News, psychologist Peter Ditto of the University of California, Irvine, historian Ronald Numbers of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and John Rennie, former editor-in-chief at Scientific American and instructor at New York University.

A theme of the discussion was belief as support for psychological, social and historical opposition to evolution and climate change science.

Opposition to the wealth of scientific data is not simply being denied, according to Ditto. People’s wishes, fears, social allegiances shape their judgments. One doesn’t just believe what one wants and deny what one does not.

When a doctor tells a patient they are fine, he or she may not question it. But when someone is told they are sick, they are likely to need more proof before they believe the diagnosis. Ditto calls this asymmetric deployment of doubt “motivated skepticism,” a concept he developed in his research in the 1980s and 1990s, and a term he prefers to “denial” in this context.

“What we believe in is some compromise between what we want to believe and what the data and adaptive concerns will let us believe,” Ditto said. “People have a stricter criterion to accept things they don’t want to believe than things they do want to believe.”

“In this bifurcated media environment, you might want to believe in something, and then you can turn to a TV station where everybody reinforces that belief,” Ditto concluded.

Calling climate change “the coming story” and “too big to cover,” Blakemore analyzed the psychology of its denial, and put the media’s feet to the fire.

“People resent the story because it asks you to ask and think about big, existential questions,” Blakemore said. “There is the possibility that humanity might not make it or that there’s going to be some kind of great upheaval. We resent being made to ask that.”

Blakemore has a talk, called “The Many Psychologies of Global Warming,” that he gives on these issues and which he hopes to help people to “stop feeling bad about feeling bad about global warming, so they can get right down to just feeling bad about global warming — which is a lot more practical.”

While climate change is a political issue, it is an event story, not a politics story, according to Blakemore. He later expressed his desire for the media to deal with the topic holistically as an all-encompassing issue — like the business section or the sports page, as suggested by an audience member.

Numbers, a science historian, switched the focus to evolution and the historical “evolution” of its denial.

He began by pointing out that the “old age creationism” of the early 20th century did not deny evolution itself. It was not anti-science. Rather, the movement denied the scientific status of the discipline.

These old creationists did not deny the antiquity of the Earth, but something happened around 1970. A new group of American conservatives co-opted the term “creationism,” according to Numbers. Though the movement interpreted the Bible more literally, claiming the Earth is thousands of years old, not billions.

This is anti-science, and Numbers claims it is spreading globally.

“America is less and less exceptional,” Number said. “(Europeans) are catching up… not even half of Britons believe in Darwinism any more.”

John Rennie rounded out the panel by bringing into focus the communication aspects when of learning and the psychology of belief. As journalists and communicators, Rennie instructs professionals to do the following:

• Know who your audience is
• Know what you are asking of your audience
• Know your metrics/how to judge your success in communicating science

Specific audiences in modern media can be found, according to Rennie. Such advice is not without its pitfalls, though.

“The way that you communicate with those audiences may mark you as someone in this debate, forevermore, and poison you in the eyes of some other audiences,” Rennie points out. Nevertheless, professionals “end up having to make these choices anyway. It is a fight. If it is becoming political, there is no simple way that we are always going to keep it out of that.”

In this effort, the panel agreed that the tone of scientists and communicators should be more constructive than apocalyptic or combative, as such language does not sway belief in the modern political and media landscape.

By Joe Doolen

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