This post is one of several intended to provide some starting points for the session John Timmer and I are moderating at Science Online 2012, “You Got Your Politics in My Science.” The general topic has to do with when scientific findings call out for advocacy, and when advocacy is appropriate in the reporting of science. Feel free to join the conversation even if you’re not part of Science Online. This is an unconference that works to see as many viewpoints expressed on its topics as possible.
In our correspondence on our session, John mentioned something that instantly rang bells: the tendency of people to look at scientific information you present and infer from that your cultural identity. He mentioned it as a speculative idea, in (I believe) that it hasn’t been documented in the research as a function of cognition. As that isn’t the literature I’m particularly familiar with, I can’t back him up on that. What I can do, however, is document the phenomenon in the wild.
It’s easiest to see in the most hot-button topics. For example, when I post an analysis on the effectiveness of guns in promoting safety in the home, I get comments like this:
I am sure I will not win any of you over. Honestly, that’s not my goal. All I ask is that you respect my choice to own a gun the same way you ask others to respect any other personal freedom you enjoy.
The legality of gun ownership was not the topic, but because I was studying a claim that was made by one cultural group and my findings did not support their claim, I was assumed to be the enemy as described by that cultural group.
A similar thing happened when I deconstructed some numbers on the safety of various forms of energy production. Happily lost to the depths of Reddit are all the comments calling me an anti-science scaredy cat who wants to shut down all nuclear power production so we can pollute more with coal.
Talking about the damage that is done to rape victims when they don’t have social support has made me an anti-Wikileaks shill for the U.S. government. Or perhaps it was that I was hopelessly politically naive and willing to trust everything they had to say. I don’t remember, and I really don’t care to go looking again.
I won’t tell you that I report without advocating. Not only would I be laughed out of the room, but that isn’t who I want to be. I make no apologies for being an advocate on a number of fronts. However, I also work very hard to check facts and untangle those intractable arguments to get at something closely approximating the truth–and that is where these kinds of leaps to identify my politics have happened.
So it’s worth remembering, as we explore combining advocacy with our science, that the baseline for how we will be judged as we do this is not “impartial until proven biased.” Those who don’t like what we have to say will likely find a way to attribute “impure” motives no matter what we do.