Recap of “Science Writing in the Age of Denial” (part 1)

Here begins my Storify summation of day one from this week’s timely conference, “Science Writing in the Age of Denialism.”  Go to the conference website for complete details on panels and speakers, which also featured PLoS Bloggers Deborah Blum and Steve Silberman.  (In case you’re not familiar with Storify, what you’re reading between the short passages I wrote is a selected assortment of tweets made by participants at the conference on the hashtags #sciencedenial and #denialconf, and which I later curated.) I’ll have one or more further summaries of this sort on the rest of the conference, which I’ll try to complete soon.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison assembled a roster of science-writing all-stars to consider the roots of the public’s resistance to accepting the science about evolution, climate change, vaccines, and other matters.

The organizers made their goals for the event clear in the description listed on its website at

Science writers now work in an age where uncomfortable ideas and truths meet organized resistance. Opposing scientific consensus on such things as anthropogenic climate change, the theory of evolution, and even the astonishingly obvious benefits of vaccination has become politically de rigueur, a litmus test and a genuine threat to science. How does denial affect the craft of the science writer? How can science writers effectively explain disputed science? What’s the big picture? Are denialists ever right?

Welcome and Introduction

Science writer par excellence Deborah Blum of UW-M welcomed the audience at the event’s start and introduced some of those making it possible. University chancellor David Ward considered the tensions between science and irrationality, modernity and anti-modernity, inclusive pluralism vs. ideological pluralization.

David Krakauer, the head of the relatively new Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (the venue for the day’s discussions), then pointed out that all of us engage in our own forms of denial. For example, journalists covering the denial of climate warming et al. fooled themselves into thinking that they could change public opinion. For decades, Krakauer noted, popular films had carried the message that we ignore scientists’ warnings at our peril, yet the public still had this distrust of scientists.’

David Krakauer: “the science communicator’s denial? That the work makes a difference.” #sciencedenial sciencedenial

David Krakauer: “If Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott have failed, what can science writers do?” #sciencedenial   Mark Riechers

“But journalists aren’t the only ones.”  Scott Dodd

“We’re actually in the age of denial – of the end.” John Krakauer #sciencedenial Adam Hinterthuer

Communicating Science in Politicized Environments

Arthur Lupia, professor of political science at the University of Michigan, kicked off the session with an energetic and engrossing review of what biology and psychology had discovered about the challenges of making complex arguments to diverse audiences. The fleeting, fragmented nature of human attention and the phenomenon of “motivated reasoning” almost guarantee that people will not absorb and accept upsetting information unless it speaks meaningfully to their priorities and values.

Lupia: “Familiar communication plan is that if we give people right info, they will make the right decisions. But often fails.” #sciencedenial John Rennie

Lupia: “The problem is us, not them. We have unrealistic expectations about how they’ll react to info.”  #sciencedenial John Rennie

Read the rest of my report on Storify

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