Why write for the public about science and research?

This post is jointly authored by Bill Gardner and Austin Frakt.

Why do we write for the public about science and research? It’s a lot of work and our day jobs pay better. Last week, Austin and Bill conversed about this on Twitter. We had help from Kristen Rosengren (@RosenKris) and others, including Janet Weiner (@weinerja). We’ve edited the conversation for clarity and expanded some of our answers.

Austin: I typically do not write more than once about the same topic. A mistake?

Kristen: Depends on your primary goal. To express yourself, once is enough; to convince or change minds, repetition is helpful.

Austin: I don’t write to convince, actually. I think that’s a dangerous objective.

Bill: “I don’t write to convince.” I can see that it might be dangerous to need to change other’s views. But if you don’t want to change others’ views, why offer an argument? Moreover, doesn’t TIE have a goal of science translation?

Kristen: To educate & inform so others can make decisions? Perhaps biased by our mission, I think that has real value.

Austin: I write first to convince myself I have a reasonable understanding of the world. And writing for the public changes the quality of my thinking. I find that publishing motivates deeper engagement and care than I would otherwise apply.

Bill: Excellent motives. One of the things you learn in good science lab meetings or good philosophy seminars is how much deeper you can get when you are pushed by the best critics.

Nevertheless I feel an obligation to persuade. I had the privilege of a great education leading to a PhD. That incurs a debt because not everyone had those chances. I see some ways in which we could act together to make the world better. This obligates me to take part in public debates about health policy. If my writing gets at the truth, and I write well enough that others can see that truth, maybe we’ll make better choices.

Austin: I’m delighted to serve a translation role, and even change minds. It’s not my primary motivation, though. Were it so, I worry I’d not be as faithful to the evidence, wherever it may lead. An “obligation to persuade” could (though need not) become a conflict of interest.

Bill: True. There is a tension between writing to persuade and writing to discover the truth. The danger I fear more is partisanship: that is, writing that serves the needs of your political identity rather than your commitment to the truth. This leads to a risk of motivated reasoning, as Dan Kahan describes so well. One of the great things about social media is that it is easy find smart, well-informed people who disagree with you.

Austin: I worry about more than partisanship. I’m not sure why that’s the only bias of relevance. Fealty to any set of values would shape how one sees and conveys facts and ideas. Though I think it’s possible for someone to be faithful to evidence and still be principally motivated by an ambition to persuade, I think many minds can’t handle that. It’s very easy to become invested in a position or to take the view that if you’re seen as having been fallible, that weakens your strength of persuasion.

Whenever I hear or perceive that someone is in it to persuade me I lose a bit of trust. I am much more comfortable if I feel they are just in it to convey truth, as best they can and whatever that means. The way in which one acknowledges limitations and counterpoints offers a clue. It can be done dismissively, or it can be done in a way that shows the writer is really wringing his hands over it. I like to see sweat on the brow. Synthesizing evidence for a firm conclusion is hard and fraught, or should be. That challenge should come through. If it doesn’t, I feel I’m being spun. I try to avoid doing that as a writer.

Bill: Yes. Cognition is social: we depend on others for access to information. I only know anything about recent physics because I trust Brian Greene, Sean Carroll, and other great science writers. Yet we know this social dependence makes us vulnerable to manipulators. So we are wired to worry about the motivations of our sources. We look for evidence about whether they care about the truth. Of course, caring about the truth can be faked. But I’m not that subtle. As I learned the hard way playing poker, I’m a terrible liar. The only way I can communicate that I care for the truth is to actually care for the truth. So my best shot at persuasion is to be as faithful as I can to the science.

This is, by the way, the reason why I think TIE has gained a loyal and discerning readership. We are clear about our values but I think we are all first committed to the norms of our disciplines. My sense is that lots of people who disagree with us about both policy and the facts nevertheless trust us to give our best effort at the truth.

Austin: Trust is a huge topic. I had a high school social studies teacher who convinced me that it’s all we have. He’s right, but to go into that would take another post. (Well, I see I wrote that other post on trust in 2010.)

Anyway, I’m delighted if we are perceived as trustworthy. I wonder if we’re clear about our values, though. There are degrees of clarity. There are absolutely some elements of my life and upbringing, even professional circumstances, that I have not and likely will not disclose. That’s true of everyone, perhaps to different degrees. Can we ever know why a given person is communicating in a given topic in a given way? What is speaking, the evidence or some tribal value? Or, to what extent does the latter shape presentation of the former? Or, what about subjects that are never raised?

Bill: Great point and I spoke too quickly in claiming that we are clear about our values. Actually, I find that most of us don’t even fully know our own values. This is part of the value of moral philosophy: it’s a practice of confronting your theories about what is right or good with your judgements about actual cases, with the goal of making them cohere. You get clearer about what you really believe and perhaps you can revise your views for the better. And when you work on the edge between research and policy, getting clear about your values is essential, because policy choices are based on both scientific evidence and goals informed by values.

To get back to where we started: this is another reason to write for the public. The net is full of smart people with diverse values. They can, perhaps, see something that you are blind to. That valuable exchange can happen whether you convince one another of something or not.

@Bill_Gardner and @afrakt

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