Here’s a meta-question for you: to what extent can we scientists explain what we do, and to what extent does that change anyone’s mind? That sounds like a cry of despair, but it’s not. As someone who writes about science for a mixed audience, though, it does cross my mind.
A few recent examples: here’s an NPR segment on the Jamison group’s drug synthesis machine (as blogged about here). They interviewed someone who managed to get the idea of the thing (to my mind) almost totally wrong: he seems to think that this will be a mighty patent-busting machine, enabling anyone to just crank out high-priced pills for pennies, and will thus disrupt the entire pharmaceutical industry. People who heard this segment are now talking about how much of a savings this is going to be for society, and so on. This gets things about as backwards as they can be gotten, actually (see that linked post for more, if you’re not involved in drug research and wonder why I’d think that).
Another case would be Martin Shkreli’s appearances before Congress a few months ago. I am nowhere near defending Shkreli, but at the same time, several of the members of the House who were questioning him seemed to have little or no understanding of the issues involved (patents, generic drugs, FDA exclusivity provisions, etc.) I found it hard to say which side of the hearing was more annoying, and ended up not being able to stand listening to it.
I wrote about glyphosate the other day, and as you’d imagine, I always get some interesting feedback on that sort of thing, too. There are people who are right along with Stephanie Seneff – they are convinced that glyphosate is behind pretty much everything wrong in the world, and they cannot understand why (or how) I can’t immediately grasp the problem. These people tend to be wrong in all sorts of different ways, some of them mildly entertaining, but what they have in common is that in their minds the question is absolutely settled, and anything that contradicts (or even complicates) that position is a deception of Satan (or of Monsanto, who are really the same entity, anyway). The autism/vaccine people, and the anti-vaccination people in general, are in this same category. Some of them surely overlap, and if I had lots of time to waste, I’d let one of them try to sort out for me if it’s the glyphosate or the vaccines that’s going to make everyone autistic first.
This is why I don’t spend more time bashing away at Food Babe-style nonsense. There’s so much of it out there, and the people who believe it are (in many cases) basically unpersuadable. I can’t resist going after some of the more idiotic manifestations, but I do so in the knowledge that it’s partly just therapy for me.
This article talks about the similar effect you see in discussions of GMO foods. The author’s right – many of the people who are anti-GMO are not, will not, will never be convinced by any evidence to the contrary. It’s a good example of one of my favorite maxims, that you can’t use reason to talk someone out of a position that they didn’t arrive at by reason. The paper being discussed illustrates that: large numbers of people opposed to GMO food are reacting at a basic level of emotional and moral disgust, and that’s not something that can be reasoned away very easily. They want GMO foods banned no matter what the risks are, no matter what the benefits are, no matter what any evidence anywhere might be: banned, banned, banned. (Given the apparent number of people in this category, many of them would probably have to be eating GMO foods already without realizing it, but I wouldn’t want to be the person telling them that).
So I guess the question is, what percentage of the population is willing and able to change their opinion based on evidence? Many a reformer in many a field has overestimated that number, that’s for sure. But it’s not zero, either, which is why I’m not writing this in a despairing mood. I think, actually, that the people who are disproportionately more influential are, for the most part, somewhat more willing to use reason as a tool. For example, I note that the Royal Society (to their credit) is calling for European governments to reassess their opposition to GMO crops. The Guardian (well, the Observer) came out with a strongly worded editorial to the same effect:
The importance of changing attitudes to GM crops is equally pressing for the green movement. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other NGOs are happy to accept scientific consensus when it suits their purposes. They triumphantly quote academic research that backs their claim that climate change, brought about by increasing use of fossil fuels, now threatens major changes to sea levels, coral reefs, shorelines and global temperatures. Yet they are equally willing to say that scientists – who they are pleased to endorse as a profession elsewhere – are utterly wrong about GM crops. This is a dishonest act of cherry picking that makes a nonsense of the green movement’s claim to hold a superior moral position about the health of the planet.
These things move slowly, and if you’re waiting for them, the time it takes can seem ridiculous. But I fully expect that decades from now the anti-GMO protests will seem as quaint as smashing waterwheel-driven looms does to us now. Progress isn’t inevitable, but it isn’t easy to roll back, either. So if we think that there are things that need explaining, we shouldn’t shy away from trying to explain them, while at the same time realizing that explanations themselves are of slow effect.