Thursday, June 09, 2016

morality, stereotypes, and scientists—the anatomy of science denial

physorg |  Individuals tend to group others based on their perceived morality, often employing stereotypes to describe individuals or groups of people beliveved to have different morals or values. According to Fiske et al., stereotypes are well described using two dimensions: warmth and competence. Warmth (or lack of it) refers to the perceived positive/negative intent of another person, while competence refers to the other person's capacity to achieve their intent. Using this terminology, the ingroup, or the group that you belong to, is both warm and competent, and thus trustworthy. Stereotypes with high perceived competence and low perceived warmth, including stereotypically wealthy individuals, are often not trusted because perceived intent is either unknown or negative. Similarly, scientists have unclear intent due to their perceived amorality, and they are not trusted.

I believe that in order to incur more trust from the public, scientists must cultivate more warmth from the public.

I propose two ways to achieve this goal. First scientists need to make their intentions clear. Social psychologist Todd Pittinsky, mentioned in the introduction, has some terrific ideas on how to clarify intentions. One strategy is open access to data and methods, which is readily achieved through open access publishing. Scientists also need to treat misconduct by other scientists more seriously so that people don't, for example, deem that all vaccine science is fraud due to one case of misconduct. Finally, we need to treat science denial without disdain and acknowledge uncertainty properly when describing scientific results.

Second, scientists need to move into the ingroup sphere by imitating those already in the ingroup. Kahan et al. point out that an individual's established ideology greatly influences how they process new information. I would suggest scientists frame their findings in a way that fits with the audience's ideology, thus promoting "warmth". For example, the Pew report that reveals 37% of the public thinks that GMOs are not safe, which violates the individual foundations. Highlighting how certain crops can be genetically engineered for health (e.g. rice that is genetically engineered to produce beta carotene) shows how GMOs can be compatible with individual foundations. Behaving like an ingroup can then move scientists into the ingroup sphere.

Battling misinformation is definitely an uphill climb, but it is a climb scientists must endeavor to make. Climate change denial and the anti-vaccination movement threatens the future of scientific progress, and while the danger cannot be ignored, we should not belittle non-scientific ideas. Scientists can build goodwill through increased transparency and communicating the significance of their findings to the public. By taking other worldviews into account, we can find common ground and create open dialogue and perhaps find solutions to benefit everyone.