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

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
This entry was posted in Climate, Evolution, Health, Journalism, Media, Science Writing, Skepticism. Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. N says:

    If Ms. Blum is part of this conference she is the wrong person to be advising on this topic. She is a talented writer, Pulitzer winner, published author and I suspect would be very good on what it takes to do those things.

    The problem scientists are having with the public is that they want to actually write the public policies. If that us their desire then run for public office. Further, I would advise not to lend their creditials to candidates or public office holders; their goals will likely conflict with scientific goals.

    For example, Al Gore, hardly a scientist or even a computer scientist, started his own 10-year Doomsday Clock on global warming. This helped the former Vice President achieve his goals and became a very wealthy man. But his Doomsday Clock has ticked down so far, only the scientific community, leftwing political organizations, and the UN are the only ones paying attention to it. The public decided some time ago either Al Gore, global warming or both were bogus. Still an environmentally sensitive Al Gore travels by private jet and had a very modest 20,000 sqft home built for him and his wife.

    One of the big problems for global warming scientists was their need keep their data secret. Some of these scientists said that they believed the data “will only confuse the public.” Activities like that leads to charges of elitism.

    This elitism should not be that hard to grasp. Maybe movies are the best way to provide examples of this but it is a simple enough tool. If one finds an old $5 Walmart DVD of some of the horrible “mad scientist” movies of the 1960s you can see examples of this. In those movies, maybe best characterized by the Flynt (James Coburn) series (though Dean Martin was not to be outdone either), the scientists wanted to rule the world because they thought they knew best.

    That is the problem scientists have today. Scientists have been seduced by politicians seeking more power and are encouraging scientists to bend their research and be part of the political system. Armed with this “research” politicians can tax, regulate, confiscate, etc. and the public will tag along because of their misplaced faith in corrupted research.

    The problem for science now is the public is extremely wary of scientific research especially where government funding is concerned. The people also know how to spot news reports using shaved and misleading data.

    Science needs to break away from its symbiotic relationship with the press and politicians. Science needs to engage in purity of science, hiding nothing, worrying not one wit whether you or university will get that patent, avoid seeking the favor of politicians or the press, and have faith that people are smarter than you think, and public trust will return.

    If you do those things, the public will trust you before they trust the press…

    • John Rennie says:

      You haven’t made it clear why you think Deborah Blum was a poor inclusion in this conference, given that she is a science writer who has experience with debunking and confronting science denial arguments. Having heard what she had to say at the conference, I’ll just conclude that you’re wrong.

      I’m not really interested in defending Al Gore against the commonplace aspersions you’re repeating, but I will point you to this and this in passing.

      Your argument about scientists trying to grab for power also doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny, particularly on the subjects of global warming, evolution, and subjects discussed in Madison. No offense, but I’ll take Naomi Oreskes’s scholarship on this topic over your visit to the discount DVD bin at Walmart.

  2. Pingback: Extra! Get yer “Science Writing in the Age of Denial” conference recaps here! |

  3. N says:

    Well I am responding via a Droid phone and will reply in greater detail later. I will say if I could have edited my earlier response, I would amend it to say “…she wouldn’t be my choice…”

    Without going into greater detail Ms. Blum’s previous articles on lead. To me they are classic examples of articles that mislead the public on the risk from lead. In truth many of the replies are far more accurate that the articles themselves.

    Having taken a class on activism some 30 years ago (I got an A) as an engineering elective I still recognize the techniques. If Ms. Blum’s articles had been for other nations to follow the US EPA, OSHA, FDA etc to protect their own citizenry, or a historical account of how we got to our present system her work would be quite informative.

    When journalists delve into activism and try to remain journalists they do so inviting peril. My father, a news director warned me of that problem. I did not agree with him but his wisdom
    proved to be correct.

    Obviously, Ms. Blunt is a very talented writer. Any author who manages to persevere and publish a book is admirable, Pulitzer notwithstanding.

    While I am not so elite as to dane to shop at Wally World, nor talk with the who work browse its hallowed aisles or its selections of books, I know I should rest easy tonight because of those that think it is intelligent to pay more than $5 for a DVD.

  4. N says:

    As you can Droid is not the best way to type. Sigh, back to the simulators….

  5. Pingback: Denial of science, science of denial | The Why Files