Tag Archives: Chris Mooney

Science denial is not limited to the political right

These days, climate is the most likely topic to bring up charges of having anti-science views and/or ‘right wing’ thinking but according to a Sept. 19, 2017 news item on phys.org ‘left wing’ thinkers can also reject science,

In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, many claims have been made that science denial, particularly as it relates to climate change, is primarily a problem of the political right.

But what happens when scientific conclusions challenge liberals’ attitudes on public policy issues, such as gun control, nuclear power or immigration?

A new study from social psychologists at the University of Illinois at Chicago [UIC] and published online in Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests people of all political backgrounds can be motivated to participate in science denial.

A Sept. 19, 2017 University of Illinois at Chicago news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further,

UIC researchers Anthony Washburn, a graduate student in psychology, and Linda Skitka, professor of psychology, had participants indicate their political orientation, evaluate fabricated scientific results, and, based on the data, decide what the studies concluded.

Once they were informed of the correct interpretations of the data, participants were then asked to rate how much they agreed with, found knowledgeable, and trusted the researchers’ correct interpretation.

“Not only were both sides equally likely to seek out attitude confirming scientific conclusions, both were also willing to work harder and longer when doing so got them to a conclusion that fit with their existing attitudes,” says Washburn, the lead author of the study. “And when the correct interpretation of the results did not confirm participants’ attitudes, they were more likely to view the researchers involved with the study as less trustworthy, less knowledgeable, and disagreed with their conclusions more.”

These effects were constant no matter what issue was under consideration, which included six social issues — immigration, gun control, climate change, health care reform, nuclear power and same sex marriage — and one control issue — skin rash treatment.

Rather than strictly a conservative phenomenon, science denial may be a result of a more basic desire of people wanting to see the world in ways that fit with their personal preferences, political or otherwise, according to the researchers.

The results also shed light on science denial in public discourse, Skitka added.

“Before assuming that one group of people or another are anti-science because they disagree with one scientific conclusion, we should make an effort to consider different motivations that are likely at play, which might have nothing to do with science per se,” she said.

This research fits into a larger body of work where researchers are examining what we believe and how we use or dismiss science and fact to support our positions. Chris Mooney’s article “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science” for the May/June 2011 issue of Mother Jones examines the issue although it is strongly weighted with examples of research into intransigent opinion associated with right wing politics (climate change, etc.).

Getting back to more recent work, here’s link to and a citation for the paper,

Science Denial Across the Political Divide; Liberals and Conservatives Are Similarly Motivated to Deny Attitude-Inconsistent Science by Anthony N. Washburn, Linda J. Skitka. Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550617731500 First Published September 14, 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

Scientists learning to speak and engage

I’ve come across a couple of US projects designed to help scientists speak and engage with the public. The Scientist (online journal) highlighted an acting workshop for scientists led by Alan Alda (known for the MASH tv series, Woody Allen films, and as the host for Scientific American Frontiers tv series). From the article (you do have to register for free access) by Daniel Grushkin,

This is what happens when you cross doctoral work with improvisational acting: A line of fifteen PhD students face each other in an imaginary tug-of-war. “Make sure you’re all holding the same rope,” says Valeri Lantz-Gefroh, their drama coach and a theater professor at SUNY, Stony Brook. “You don’t want to hold a shoelace when the person in front of you is holding a python.”

The students are part of a daylong seminar on communicating science to non scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. Prior to the imaginary tug-of-war exercise, they stood before each other and delivered short, off the cuff, introductions to their research meant for public consumption. Their talks were stilted and confused. Some swallowed their voices as they spoke. Others talked at the wall behind their audience.

Asked to describe their emotions during their presentations, one researcher complained, “It felt like I was almost insulting myself by dumbing it down.” Others nodded in agreement. The doctoral students were playing out Alda’s criticism of the science community. Alda believes scientists have been unable to make themselves understood by lay audiences. And as a result are failing to inform the public and policy.

A 2009 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center reflects Alda’s concern. Though the public ranks scientists third after military personnel and teachers in their contribution to society, only half of Americans believe in global warming and a mere 32 percent believe in evolution. Meanwhile, scientists complain that they’re not being heard. Half say that news media oversimplifies their findings, and 85 percent say the public doesn’t know enough about science. The numbers show a clear gap between the esteem that scientists hold in the public and the knowledge they’re able to transmit.

The other project highlighted by Matthew Nisbet at the Age of Engagement blog is a fellowship program for training in leadership and public engagement for scientists.  Pop Tech, an organization which focuses on social innovation and problem-solving ideas, is behind this effort. From the Sept. 15, 2010 posting,

PopTech is perhaps best known for its annual PopTech conference held every October in Camden, Maine. Called by Wired magazine a “must-attend for intellectual heavy weights…,” the conference features a line up of interactive talks by social innovators, scientists, researchers, and problem-solvers, with the goal of identifying new ideas and brokering collaborations.

PopTech … has announced its inaugural class of 20 Science Fellows. The fellows are early to mid-career leaders in fields such as energy, food supply, sustainability, water, public health, climate change, conservation ecology, green chemistry, computing, education, oceans, and national security.

The fellows were chosen based on their scientific credentials but also for their innate communication and leadership skills. As PopTech describes, the program is designed to provide the Science Fellows with long term communication and leadership training, mentorship, and access to thought leaders across sectors of society including those from the fields of media, business, social innovation, and education.

These projects provide an interesting contrast to the furor which greeted a paper that Chris Mooney wrote about scientists needing to pay more attention to the art of listening (my June 30, 2010 posting). I can certainly see how the acting class could lead to better listening skills (or paying better attention to your audience) but am not so sure about the Pop Tech fellowship project (a bunch of really interesting people getting together and getting excited means they tend to proselytize to the uninitiated for at least a short period afterwards).  Despite my reservations about the fellowship project I find these efforts encouraging.

NANO Magazine’s April 2010 issue country focus: Canada

I’m a little late to the party but the month isn’t over yet so, today I’m going to focus on Nano Magazine‘s April 2010 issue or more specifically their article about Canada and it’s nanotechnology scene. The magazine (available both in print and online) has selected Canada for its country focus this issue. From the April 2010, issue no. 17 editorial,

The featured country in this issue is Canada, notable for its well funded facilities and research that is aggressively focused on industrial applications. Although having no unifying national nanotechnology initiative, there are many extremely well-funded organisations with world class facilities that are undertaking important nano-related research. Ten of these centres are highlighted, along with a new network that will research into innovative plastics and manufacturing processes, and added value can be gained in this field – with the economic future benefit for Canada firmly in mind!

It’s always an eye-opening experience to see yourself as others see you. I had no idea Canadian research was “aggressively focused on industrial applications.” My view as a Canadian who can only see it from the inside reveals a scattered landscape with a few pockets of concentrated effort. It’s very difficult to obtain a national perspective as communication from the various pockets is occasional, hard to understand and/or interpret at times, and not easily accessible (some of these Canadian nanotechnology groups (in government agencies, research facilities, civil society groups, etc.) seem downright secretive.

As for the ‘aggressive focus on industrial applications’ by Canadians, I found it interesting and an observation I could not have made for two reasons. The first I’ve already noted (difficulty of obtaining the appropriate perspective from the inside) and, secondly, it seems to me that the pursuit of industrial applications is a global obsession and not confined to the field of nanotechnology, as well, I’m not able to establish a basepoint for comparison so the comment was quite a revelation. Still, it should be noted that Nano Magazine itself seems to have a very strong bias towards commercialization and business interests.

The editorial comment about “not have a unifying national nanotechnology initiative” I can heartily second, although the phrase brings the US National Nanotechnology Initiative strongly to mind where I think a plan (any kind of plan) would do just as well.

The article written by Fraser Shand and titled Innovation finds new energy in Western Canada provides a bit of word play that only a Canadian or someone who knows the province of Alberta, which has substantive oil reserves albeit in the sands, would be able to appreciate. Kudos to whoever came up with the title. Very well done!

I have to admit to being a bit puzzled here as I’m not sure if Shand’s article is the sole article about the Canadian nanotechnology scene  (it profiles only the province of Alberta) or if there are other articles profiling pockets of nanotechnology research present, largely in Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia with smaller pockets in other provinces. I apologize for giving short shrift to six provinces but, as I’ve noted, information is difficult to come by and most of the information I can obtain is from the four provinces mentioned.

From the article,

Steeped in a pioneering spirit and enriched by ingenuity, one of the most exciting, modern day outposts on the nanotechnology frontier is located on the prairies of Western Canada. The province of Alberta is home to some of Canada’s most significant nanotechnology assets and has quickly become a world-destination for nanotechnology research, product development and commercialization.

While Alberta is rooted in the traditional resource sectors of energy, agriculture and forestry, it is dedicated to innovation. The Government of Alberta launched its nanotechnology strategy in 2007, committing $130 million to growth and development over five years. It also created a dedicated team.

Shand goes on to note Canada’s National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT), located in Edmonton, Alberta’s capital city, and its role in attracting world class researchers (see News Flash below). Other than the brief mention of a federal institution, the focus remains unrelentingly on Alberta and this is surprising since the title misled me into believing that the article would concern itself with Western Canada, which arguably includes the prairie provinces (Manitoba and Saskatchewan) and British Columbia.

Meanwhile, the editorial led me to believe that I would find a national perspective with mention of 10 research centres somewhere in the April 2010 issue. If they are hiding part of the issue, I wish they’d note that somewhere easily visible (front page?) on their website and clarify the situation.

If this is the magazine’s full profile of the Canadian nanotechnology scene, they’ve either come to the conclusion that the only worthwhile work is being done in Alberta (I’m making an inference) or they found the process of gathering information about the other nanotechnology research pockets so onerous that they simply ignored them in favour of pulling a coherent article together.

I have been viewing the site on a regular basis since I heard about the April 2010 issue and this is the only time I’ve seen an article about Canada made available. They seem to have a policy of rotating the articles they make available for free access.

One other thing, a Nanotechnology Asset Map of Alberta is going to be fully accessible sometime in May 2010. I gather some of the folks from the now defunct, Nanotech BC organization advised the folks at nanoAlberta on developing the tool after the successful BC Nanotechnology Asset Map was printed in 2008 (?). I’m pleased to see the Alberta map is online which will make updating a much easier task and it gives a very handy visual representation that is difficult to achieve with print. You can see Alberta’s beta version at nanoAlberta. Scroll down and look to the left of the screen and at the sidebar for a link to the asset map.

I have to give props to the people in the province of Alberta who have supported nanotechnology research and commercialization efforts tirelessly. They enticed the federal government into building NINT in Edmonton by offering to pay a substantive percentage of the costs and have since created several centres for commercialization and additional research as noted in Shand’s article. Bravo!

News Flash: I just (in the last five minutes, i.e., 11:05 am PT) received this notice about the University of Alberta and nanotechnology. From the Eureka Alert notice,

A University of Alberta-led research team has taken a major step forward in understanding how T cells are activated in the course of an immune response by combining nanotechnology and cell biology. T cells are the all important trigger that starts the human body’s response to infection.

Christopher Cairo and his team are studying how one critical trigger for the body’s T cell response is switched on. Cairo looked at the molecule known as CD45 and its function in T cells. The activation of CD45 is part of a chain of events that allows the body to produce T cells that target an infection and, just as importantly, shut down overactive T cells that could lead to damage.

Cairo and crew are working on a national/international team that includes: “mathematician Dan Coombs (University of British Columbia), biochemist Jon Morrow (Yale University Medical School) and biophysicist David Golan (Harvard Medical School).” Their paper is being published in the April issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Now back to my regular programming: I should also mention Nano Québec which I believe was the first provincial organization founded  in Canada, circa 2005, to support nanotechnology research and commercialization efforts. French language site / English language site

NaNO Ontario has recently organized itself as the Nanotechnology Network of Ontario.

Unfortunately, Nanotech BC no longer exists.

If you know of any other provincial nanotechnology organizations, please do let me know.

Janus particle breakthrough; science knowledge or illiteracy?

It’s a two-faced particle named after the Roman god, Janus (love the reference to Roman mythology) and complete control has been achieved. The Janus particle is made up of at least two different substances according to this 2005 news item on Phyorg.com. From the 2005 new item,

A Janus particle is composed of two fused hemispheres, each made from a different substance than the other. This means Janus particles could, for instance, carry two different and complementary medicines.

For instance, one side could hold compounds that bind to molecules specific to a certain tissue or disease, while the opposite side would carry the appropriate drug.

There are other potential applications as researchers at Duke University note in their media release posted on Phyorg.com on Aug. 12, 2009. The Duke researchers have achieved control over the particle’s movements. From the media release on Physorg.com,

Duke University engineers say they can for the first time control all the degrees of the particle’s motion, opening up broad possibilities for nanotechnology and device applications. Their unique technology should make it more likely that Janus particles can be used as the building blocks for a myriad of applications, including such new technologies as and self-propelling micromachines.

There are more details and a Janus particle video here. I did get a little confused with this description,

“Past experiments have only been able to achieve four degrees of control using a combination of magnetic and optical techniques,” said Nathan Jenness, a graduate student who completed his studies this year from Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering. He and co-author Randall Erb, also a graduate student, were first authors of a paper appearing online in the journal Advanced Materials. “We have created a novel Janus particle that can be manipulated or constrained with six degrees of freedom.”

I looked at the video where the range of motion appeared to be much broader than the 6 degrees that the researcher mentions. Perhaps the phrase “of freedom” is of more significance than I know. This brings me to Andrew Maynard’s discussion (on his blog 2020 Science) of a book on science illiteracy. Titled Unscientific Americans: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, the book’s authors (Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum) caught my attention with their recent essay (based in part on their book) on Salon.com where they elucidate their position.They make a compelling argument and one I find emotionally satisfying unfortunately it’s a little problematic as Maynard points out here.

It’s more than just amusing when Maynard (a scientist by training) notes that he could be described as scientifically illiterate since there are scientific terms that he doesn’t understand and that “Math makes my head ache.” If you take the comment to its logical conclusion,you can infer that all scientists are scientifically illiterate since none of them can know everything about science. Maynard notes that he enjoyed the book but has some major issues with the term “scientific illiteracy” as promotes and “us vs them” mentality and the book’s intellectual depth. He also offers some recommendations for reading about science and society.  I do have some hesitation about one of his recommendations but more about that tomorrow.