Depends on what you mean by "know"

Chris Mooney is galloping around on his anti-science education hobby-horse again. That's a harsh way to put it, but that's what I see when he goes off on these crusades for changing everything by modifying the tone of the discussion. It's all ideology and politics, don't you know — if we could just frame our policy questions and decisions in a way that appealed to the conservative know-nothings, we'd be able to make progress and accomplish things. And, as usual, I expect he won't recognize the irony of the fact that the way he communicates his message alienates scientists and science communicators.

He's reporting on the work of Dan Kahan, who has done interesting and informative work on how ideology, both left and right, distorts decision making. Motivated reasoning is a real problem, and we all need to be aware of it. But this work, at least as described by Mooney, goes a step further to argue that conservatives aren't as dumb as they seem -- that they know the science, but are using politics and identity to dictate their answers. They already know the science, so teaching them how the science actually works can't possibly be the answer -- instead, we have to work around their biases and lead them by careful wording towards the resolution of real problems. Kahan says,

The problem is not that members of the public do not know enough, either about climate science or the weight of scientific opinion, to contribute intelligently as citizens to the challenges posed by climate change. It's that the questions posed to them by those communicating information on global warming in the political realm have nothing to do with—are not measuring—what ordinary citizens know.

I disagree. The public does not know enough. I don't think Kahan or Mooney have a clear idea of what they mean by "know". And I don't think they're recognizing that if they believe they are clever enough to trick the public into revealing their true knowledge by rephrasing questions about science, that perhaps the public is also clever enough to hide their true ideas about science in their answers.

They've evaluated public knowledge of science with sets of multiple choice questions phrased in two different ways, to show that the answers you get vary with the wording. First: speaking as a teacher, multiple choice questions are terrible at testing in-depth knowledge and understanding. They're fine for evaluating basic facts, but even there, they can be gamed. Often, the strategy for answering multiple choice facts isn't necessarily based on knowledge of the material, but understanding human nature and the psychology of the person who wrote the test -- the wording of the question and the alternative answers can be a good clue to which one the instructor thinks is best.

Second, we've known about this phenomenon for a fairly long time. About ten years ago, I heard Eugenie Scott explain how soft polls on evolution were: that by changing the wording from "Humans evolved over millions of years" to "Dogs evolved over millions of years", you could get a tremendous improvement in the percentage of respondents approving of the statement.

Kahan has discovered that you get the same improvement from conservatives if you change "the earth is warming" to "climate scientists believe the earth is warming," testifying to the fact, Mooney says, that they actually do know what the science says, it's just that phrasing question wrong punches their button and causes them to reject the idea.

Bullshit. Look, I know creationist arguments inside and out; I can often finish their sentences for them, and can even cite the original sources that they didn't know their claims came from. This does not in any way imply that I think like a creationist, that I'm ready to accept creationism, that I sympathize or agree with their position, or that I think creationism ought to be considered as a source of facts in public policy. I know what they say, but I also know all the arguments against their nonsense. That a climate change denialist is able to regurgitate what he's heard a scientist say does not mean he is not also packed to the gills with lies and rationalizations; that he's able to check a box on a paper exam does not mean that he won't act against that fact in his public activities.

I've also talked at length, hours on end, with creationists. And no, I'm sorry, despite being able to puke up quotations from what scientists actually say, they really are grossly ignorant of evolution. Are we going to start using quote-mining as an example of the scientific process?

Another example from teaching genetics. I once assigned a problem of medium difficulty on a homework assignment, involving Mendelian crosses of flies with different wing shapes. A little later I had the students do the exact same problem in an in-class exercise -- a way to spot check whether they'd actually worked through the problem. Easy peasy, they breezed through it in class, and the students I asked could even explain the process for solving it. Then, on an exam, I repeated the very same problem, except that I changed every mention of Drosophila to Danio, and changed the hypothetical phenotypes from wing shape to fin shape. But the numbers, the crosses, the outcomes were all copied directly from the homework. All the changes were superficial.

A third of the class bombed it.

Did these students know how to solve the problem? I suppose Mooney could claim that they knew how to do fruit fly genetics, but simply didn't know the details of fish genetics. But I would say no, not at all; that they could reiterate the procedure they memorized in one problem does not in any way imply that they could understand the concepts. It was the same damned problem! The students who could repeat an answer in one very narrow context did not know the science. They were unable to generalize and apply a conceptual understanding to a specific problem.

(For those of you concerned about my students, this is a common problem; a lot of what I'm doing in the classroom and exams is taking ideas they've grown comfortable with and twisted them a little bit to compel them to THINK about the problem, rather than trying to find which rut in their brain it fits best. Learning has to be procedural and general, not liturgical. They mostly get it eventually, oh, but how they suffer through the exams. "This wasn't in the homework or the class examples!" is a common complaint, to which I reply, "Of course not.")

Mooney likes to cite empirical, practical results of his approach, which is good…but unfortunately, they always undermine his premises, and he sometimes isn't even aware of it.

Later in the paper, Kahan goes on to assert that precisely this strategy is working right now in Southeast Florida, where members of the Regional Climate Change Compact have brought on board politically diverse constituencies by studiously avoiding pushing anyone's buttons. Kahan even shows polling data suggesting that questions like "local and state officials should be involved in identifying steps that local communities can take to reduce the risk posed by rising sea levels" do not provoke a polarized response in this region. Rather, liberals and conservatives alike in Southeast Florida agree with such a statement, which references a major consequence of climate change while ignoring the gigantic elephant in the room...its cause.

I've emphasized that las bit, because it is so damning. What good is this approach? If you know anything about science at all, you understand that how we know what we know, the epistemology of science, is absolutely critical to our progress. You're stuck like my students in the early part of the semester, able to tick off check boxes on a multiple choice test or follow a cookbook procedure to arrive at a specific answer, but unable to generalize or extend their knowledge to new problems (really, let me assure you though, most of them got much better at that by the end of the term!). Those respondents in Florida don't understand the science -- all the participants know is which buttons to push, which ones to avoid, with the aim of steering the poor stupid mouse through the maze to a cheese award at the end.

OK, to be fair, this is a case where Mooney is at least vaguely aware of the problem. Here's his next paragraph.

Here's the problem, though. Maybe this approach will work up to a point, or in certain locales (in North Carolina, the response to sea level rise is pretty different). But at some point, we really do need to all agree that the globe is warming, so that we can then make very difficult choices on how to deal with that. To save our feverish planet, it is dubious that merely having conservatives know what scientists think—rather than accepting it themselves, taking the reality into their hearts and identities—will be enough.

Very good. So why did Mooney write a whole column arguing that conservatives aren't really as anti-science as they seem to be, that ends with an acknowledgment that, well, not knowing how reality works isn't a good long-term strategy for responding to challenges from reality? The entire first 90% of the article is bogged down with this misbegotten notion that we can equate science understanding with checking the right alternative on a multiple choice test, only to notice in the last paragraph that oh, hey, that's not science.


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I have to admit though, it would be nice if someone could destroy the wingnut death star using only the force to fire a special verbal packet into its reactor core.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 26 Jun 2014 #permalink

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