Why 'scientific consensus' fails to persuade

A recent study sought to understand why members of the public are sharply and persistently divided on matters on which expert scientists largely agree. How would you determine whether or not a scientist seems like an "expert" on a particular matter? The study indicates it is likely to depend on whether the position the scientist takes is consistent with the one believed by most people who share your values. What do you think?


If you find this interesting check out the "social values" group page

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Comment by Steven B Porter on April 30, 2012 at 3:18pm

I agree that often people believe only those scientists whose results agree with the values of the reader. But I think an equally important issue is the bias of the scientist, especially in the scientific expert arena.

It is difficult to hire a scientific expert/consultant without giving away your position on an issue. Once the expert knows the position of their "boss," the expert tends to lean toward the position of their employer even when the employer has requested a neutral analysis and even when the expert is attempting to be neutral.

In addition it is hard for government and private scientific experts to perform neutral analysis. Their personal views tend to find themselves (knowingly and unknowingly) into the research analysis and the models they use to generate the basis for their conclusions. The best way to combat this tendency is through true "peer review." The scientific expert must choose from among those scientists that potentially agree with their findings and those scientists that potentially disagree with their findings.

When a finding of an expert generally agrees with their "employer," I tend to spend more time reviewing their models, assumptions, and other documentation that form the basis of their analysis and conclusions resulting from that analysis. Based on my own examination of the assumptions, models and analysis that forms the basis of the conclusions I can have a better understanding of the bias that may or may not have infultrated the report. Hopefully the scientist followed good process in developing their report; and hopefully I can limit my own bias from influencing me in my analysis and conclusions about the report.

Comment by Erica Schachtell on November 3, 2011 at 1:53pm
A lot of it is blatantly intentional, too.  Often, people are paid to create confusion even after scientific consensus has been reached, in order to benefit organizations that would stand to lose if public opinion were to align with that consensus.  Just google Merchants of Doubt.  Very interesting, albeit slightly disheartening...  You're right, Rich: DDT, climate change - it's the same game.
Comment by Don Yasuda on August 17, 2011 at 12:24pm

Here are a couple of links to the actual study:
Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus OR

At this site, click the "One Click Download" button at the top of t...


I found these quotes to be particularly interesting and it raises the question about how we judge if a decision used or considered "science" and really makes me wonder about the term "best available science", but more on that later.  Here are a few quotes:

"The cultural cognition thesis predicts that individuals will more readily recall instances of experts taking the position that is consistent with their cultural predisposition than ones taking positions inconsistent with it."

"To start, cultural cognition influences perceptions of credibility. Individuals more readily impute expert knowledge and trustworthiness to information sources whom they perceive as sharing their worldviews and deny the same to those whose worldviews they perceive as different from theirs."

What this study indicates is that one's perception of "scientific consensus" is in the eye of the beholder.

"On this account, then, what most scientists believe is simply another empirical fact no different from any other that bears on a disputed question of risk."

 So what then does the term "best available science" really mean and how can we use "science" to truly inform decision-making?  I think first we need to recognize that most people typically consider "science" as coming from two sources: 1) published in peer-reviewed literature and 2) from facts and opinions of scientists (and others).  As a generalization, I think we tend to infer the published literature as fact-forming (generating new "facts" through rigorous study) and the information from scientists (and others) as theory-forming (synthesizing facts into hypotheses or theories about how something in the world operates).  If you're wondering, I added the words "and others" because I I believe that just because someone has or doesn't have an advanced degree does not necessarily mean others will or should believe or not believe their statements.  I guess in this respect, I fit the study's results.  I believe that science, at its heart, should be about the facts, theories and hypotheses and not who presents them.


So here's my punchline:  Most published natural resource-related scientific literature contains a disclosure of "new facts" (the methods and results of a study) AND "opinions of scientists" (the discussion and recommendations).  If the public can have skewed perceptions of "science" based upon their personal worldview, then aren't scientists also susceptible to the same dynamic?  And as public land managers (and those that care about public land management) aren't we similarly susceptible?  Is this a case that now we are "aware" of this weakness in decision-making we can work together to overcome our worldview biases and then use science facts and theories to objectively make informed decisions?  Dang, I wish now that I had taken more human psychology and sociology classes in college instead of those biology classes.  They would be more relevant at the moment.

Comment by Rich Walker on August 2, 2011 at 5:06pm

In his book "Moral Politics", George Lakoff Of U C Berkeley seeks to get to the essence of why specific values of people tend to cluster quite predictably into groups (for example, people who consider themselves environmentalists also tend to support gay rights, gun rights advocates often have anti-abortion views, etc.).  I think his insights in the book have bearing on this issue, and go a considerable way towards explaining what a given person would tend to believe.

see http://www.amazon.com/Moral-Politics-Liberals-Conservatives-Think/p...

In recent years, public discourse has become more and more degraded, where baseless conjecture is often granted the same respect (and column space) as well-supported research.  And I would argue that the more money potentially at stake, the more likely it is that the prevailing science (when it urges caution) will be called into question -- "controversialized" if you will.

Industry learned well from their bad experience decades ago in dealing with Rachel Carson (author of "Silent Spring").  For decades since, they have successfully thwarted those who have tried to follow in her footsteps.


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