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Jan 16 2012

Whose Side Are You On?

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.

7 comments

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  1. 1
    James Croft

    Good point: this phenomenon is often in evidence on this very site, in discussions between freethinkers with different points of view on critical issues.

  2. 2
    Beth

    I’ve noticed the described phenomenon as well. But for me, it’s not been presenting evidence, but merely asking question. If you question anything about the current vaccine policy you’re assumed to be an anti-vax nut. It is very frustrating when attempting to have a reasonable discussion and you get treated with utter contempt. It becomes a complete dismissal of your concerns without bothering to understand what they are.

  3. 3
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    You get my vote.

  4. 4
    stuartvo

    This entire post is pure bullshit. You’re only saying this because you’re an anti-gun fanatic who wants to outlaw nuclear power-plants and lock Julian Assange’s wee-wee in a chastity belt.

    But seriously, it made me think about my own reactions. Thank you, that’s half the reason I come to FTB.

    For example, I immediately bristled at Beth’s post: “She really is an anti-vax nut who wants babies to die”. Then I realised I was doing exactly what Stephanie was complaining about, and that I should examine my own tendency to attribute impure motives to those that attribute impure motives to whomever says something I agree with…

    And Beth: I apologise for my knee-jerk reaction. But you have to expect that reaction, unfortunately. Too many baby-killers* (and other intellectually dishonest trolls) hide their advocacy behind cries of “I was just asking a question!” So by now a lot of people are on hair-triggers and will snap at anyone raising concerns, even if they’re being sincere.

    *) And how’s that for unbiased language? ;-)

  5. 5
    karmakin

    Generally speaking this is something that’s very difficult to avoid. It’s possible, but it’s very rare. And it’s not something that we ever, I think, defeat completely. I mean speaking for myself, there are a couple of places where I avoid it and a couple of places where I fall right into it.

    Abortion, as an example I tend to fall right into it. I do tend to think, as this is my personal experience, that the anti-abortion argument is full of outright lies. I think the number of people who actually believe that life begins at conception is actually painfully small, and it’s more about maintaining social customs. It’s probably still morally wrong and an unhelpful over generalization, but still, it’s hard to fight sometimes.

    As an example of a place where I tend to not do that…political economics. While I think that the extreme supply-side view, or market disinflation views are wrong, people who promote them, I think that some who promote them truly think that this is the best model to go by.

    Now, here’s the problem. There’s an overlap between people with this view and people with a neo-calvinistic view (Success and failure are divinely ordained and as such we shouldn’t “interfere” with “God’s Will”), and as such if I hear neo-calvinistic language, I reflexively snap back into a negative judgement. This one I DO think is really justified, to be honest, as the entire concept from top to bottom is immoral.

    Anyway. It’s something we all do and I guess maybe should try to overcome? Or maybe not. Maybe it’s the price we pay for actually trying to make the world a better place. But at that point we should at least own it, and not say that other people, are wrong just for doing it themselves. Wrong on the issues, sure, but not wrong for doing that.

  6. 6
    Beth

    @ stuartvo: Apology accepted. You’re right about expecting such treatment, and I do now. But when my son was born (he’s 12 now), I was trying to sort out the relevant facts regarding vaccinations for a newborn and I was not expecting such a reaction for merely asking questions about the concerns I had at that time.

    While I understand that advocates can sometimes disguise their ideas as questions, it really does a particular “side” no good to have ‘supporters’ assume that everyone asking questions is a knowledgable advocate being deceptive and treat them with disdain and contempt. I think that’s the point of the post and I’m glad I was able to help you identify such reactions in yourself. Hopefully you and others will be inspired to control their knee-jerk reactions.

  7. 7
    Michael Brew

    Coincidentally, I just recently got involved with just such an exchange. It was both disheartening and somewhat rage-inducing to see people attack someone for asking questions. Granted, there are genuinely deceptive people who try to ask questions, but rather than dismiss people offhand it’s a better tactic all around to actually engage the person, regardless of their intent, and find out what they actually believe and, most importantly, why they believe it. The former is a good way to throw out some major baby with the bathwater, whereas the latter method might reveal a new friend, and even in the case of a deceptive person you have the opportunity to make the person have to think more about their position as well as serve as a learning experience to others watching the exchange.

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