Echo Chambers Are Ruining Scientific Communication

Fairly early on, in my venture into the blogosphere space, I used to follow a scientific communicator with avid interest. Everything he wrote seemed so painfully obvious that it was difficult not to be drawn into his perspective… Well, almost everything.

One passing sentence he wrote sounded a little funny to me. So I did what many people would do; I asked for further clarification.

Up until that point, the only comments I had provided to his space were trivial points of approval. I’d even quoted his writing in what could rightfully perceived as advocating his views, which until that point, I was in complete agreement with. But I saw a new side following my simple question.

As far as it can be said within the blogosphere, I was “shouted out” of the conversation. Note; I hadn’t posed any real criticism, but merely questioning the views of the author was perceived as such and was treated with hostility.

I saw introduced to the echo chamber.

You would think, as I initially started out attempting to do what many science communicators have also tried – clarify the needlessly hotly debated (publically and politically but not so much within the science community) subject of anthropogenic climate change – that my first encounter with an echo chamber would be at such places like WUWT or Jo Nova’s space. Indeed both are notorious echo chambers, as I later witnessed firsthand. However the first encounter was a blog I largely agreed with by a writer who knows the science.

No-one is free from potential creation of an echo chamber.

This has worried my in the latter months of the now retired space of MothIncarnate and now New Anthro but more so for Gen[A]. I’m not interested in only attracting a readership (and authorship as I’m hopeful that both New Anthro and Gen[A] attract greater input by the readers) which only agrees with the views of the space and shouts out opposing ideas, but equally, I’m not interested in a game of Hathos or entertaining those trolling in their desperate need for attention.

It’s a tightrope between an echo chamber and opening the floodgates to debate for debate’s sake.

We often hear repeated ad nauseam the same old debunked climate change scepticism or unreasonable fear of a western economic collapse as a result of action. However, it’s very difficult to tell which is the misinformer and the misinformed or the fear-monger and the genuinely worried.

Arguably, it’s a much smaller group, who are beyond reason or are intentionally misinforming, that perpetuates a pointless discussion which not only leaves the general public saturated and disengaged (which also assists their purpose) but also sets the scene for a greater divide; what too often is labelled as “my side and your side”, as though it were a sport.

When the genuinely interested, albeit misinformed, approaches such an echo chamber, ultimately, they will feel more at home with a space such as WUWT or Nova, because their views, questions and fears are less likely to be shouted down than an echo chamber such as that spoken about above.

In short, we do ourselves and the science a great injustice by applying a hard and sharp rule of rejecting anyone and everyone who disagrees.

I’ve tried throughout to engage with everyone who has appeared on any of my posts, in comment threads I’ve contributed to and even those whom I’m made aware of via pingbacks. In some instances, I’ve gone to great lengths on what I can now see were merely merry-go-rounds by people whom are obviously just trolls seeking attention. It is easy, after all, to stir up such a person as myself to continue a silly debate, if you push the right buttons.

Run thin from all of that, I found myself disinterested in engaging with such people, but also worrying about the potential creation of an echo chamber.

Thankfully, it doesn’t seem to have occurred on New Anthro as yet.

However, I caution that if we wish to remain effective scientific communicators, we must remember that nothing is beyond question in science; anyone is invited to test the theory of gravity as much as the greenhouse effect until they’ve taken “planking” to a new level or cooked themselves silly (preferably not doing such a test on our communal atmosphere, of course).

We mustn’t, therefore, take ourselves so seriously – it’s not an ideology but only sound advice based on the best possible evidence collected from the most stringent investigative methodology we have yet derived.

The word “only” is key – it’s really up to all of us whether or not we accept such methodology, but not to disregard the evidence without a sound understanding of the scientific approach undertaken (eg. you have the right to personally feel that evolution is rubbish, but not state the evidence is lacking without sound understanding of the fields of science applied).

Asking questions and debating rigorously are part of scientific exploration. We must be careful never to shout someone down, but to engage with them positively and enthusiastically. It won’t take long to work out if the other is genuinely interested in the science or is fighting from an ideological perspective and selectively plucking a small handful of points that fit their view.

We can spend a small amount of time working out which is which.

Those who fall into the latter group too shouldn’t be treated with hostility – it only makes those who lash out look foolish. However, you can laugh and walk away as you would someone who insists that the Earth is flat or only six thousand years old. In doing so, they lose attention, they lose the Hathos game play but most importantly, we can effectively defuse the war of this insane divide. “My side and your side” is the advent of the climate change sceptic which entrenches the people involved on both “sides” and wrongly inflates the small amount of contrary scientific evidence that the climate sceptic insist to be correct.

It needs to be put in perspective as does the whole crazy sport that has resulted from it. We will not achieve this through echo chambers.

If we wish to do science any justice, we need to get off our soap box and remember that science is about finding the “most likely” not absolutes. We should engage and lose interest when we realise that the conversation has stepped out of developing conclusions based on the evidence and into finding evidence that supports the held conclusions. Otherwise we are no better than the hostile climate sceptic, in fact, we’re worse; we risk shouting down reasonable, yet misinformed individuals whom may have only required a little of our time.

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12 thoughts on “Echo Chambers Are Ruining Scientific Communication

  1. Good insight. On occasion I have found myself caught up in a pointless hostile exchange. It’s never contributed to the exchange of ideas or understanding of the science.

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    1. Indeed.. But it’s good to engage on the outset and then, when they expose themselves to insist the typical climate sceptic memes regardless of contrary evidence, they’ve exposed their true nature and we should cut our loses..
      The whole ‘echo chamber’ idea has been with me since the noted exchange above, but I’ve not really written about it until just now.

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  2. It’s a tough one.
    We’ve become so polarized and the contrarian disinformation campaign becomes ever more refined and ruthless. Now that scientific conclusions are pretty dang strong, they are creating an alternate sci-perspective, and attacking scientists and trying to trash the entire edifice of established institutions.
    How does one confront that?

    ~ ~ ~
    The science is settled. . . no it’s not! . . . yes it is! . . . but, but can you explain to what degree it is or isn’t settled?

    Why is there such a division of appreciation for the same data sets and information?
    ~ ~ ~

    Is it time to focus more on the faith system certain people hold… since they seem willfully oblivious to scientific explanations?
    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    PS. MOTH,
    These aren’t rhetorical questions, if you had any suggestions or thoughts I’d love to read them.

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    1. I think the shortest, easiest answer I can provide is that we too have been sucked into the climate sceptics reality. We’ve spent far too much time on the back-foot defending the science against, quite frankly, a load of nonsense. As I wrote – they are entitled to feel that the science is wrong but not to think that this feeling refutes the evidence. When the climate “scepticism” really caught on, we rightly went and did what we could to test their accusations and found them lacking – but to this day, the same debunked arguments are still being used and we continue to give them the time of day.
      What we need to do is not defend the science – it doesn’t really need it after all – but rather demand them to provide the scientific evidence as to why the scientific view on ACC is flawed. Don’t defend, but question. We have a right to be sceptical of their “scepticism”. By defending, we unfairly promote their baseless accusations. By questioning their accusations we’re forcing them to do what they keep telling us they are doing – simply asking to be convinced. In doing so, it forces them to reflect on their own stance at the same time.

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      1. MOTH wrote: “As I wrote – they are entitled to feel that the science is wrong but not to think that this feeling refutes the evidence.”

        Right, but to use the oldest example, the hockey stick deal, they point at calculating weakness that led to minute corrections – recalculations & corrections that appear less than certain themselves – yet we have these witchhunts going on seemingly trying to criminalize, and definitely trying to intimidate, scientists who come up with inconvenient results:

        “Ask University of Virginia to Protect Its Scientists from the Political Witch Hunt”
        http://profmandia.wordpress.com/2011/08/12/ask-u-va-to-protect-its-scientists-from-the-political-witch-hunt/
        ~ ~ ~
        or
        “There Seems To Be a Lynch-Mob Hate Against Any Teacher Trying to Teach Climate ~ Attacks on Science Education Intensify”
        http://thinkprogress.org/romm/2011/08/11/293781/attacks-on-climate-science-education/
        ~ ~ ~
        or
        The prosecution of Dr. Monnett {Mr. Polarbeargate guy}
        http://thinkprogress.org/green/2011/08/10/292729/persecution-of-polar-bear-scientist-continues/
        ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

        MOTH wrote: “Don’t defend, but question. We have a right to be sceptical of their “scepticism”. By defending, we unfairly promote their baseless accusations. By questioning their accusations we’re forcing them to do what they keep telling us they are doing – simply asking to be convinced. In doing so, it forces them to reflect on their own stance at the same time.”
        ~ ~ ~
        Good advice, but so difficult when we’re talking to brick walls, or is that dingbats, sorry. But, you’re good to point out that we need to do a better job of questioning “skeptics”. More on strategies to do this would be helpful.

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      2. When they can’t pull the wool over their eyes, they instead resort to threats – that’s the behaviour of the school yard bone-headed bully as is it the tactic of these thugs.
        We are up against a brick wall.
        Hey, if tomorrow I make a new post – about the ‘climate sceptic’ sceptic and you and I comment to each other – you playing the role of a climate sceptic, giving me various attacks, I’ll show you how I feel we should respond? It would be a good example of a wider audience.

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  3. It is tricky. And I’m sorry that whoever you disagreed with was so brittle and needing of adulation as to not be willing (for he was surely able?) to tell the difference between a troll and someone who was disagreeing on what was presumably a matter of judgment. Best not to have heroes, isn’t it, they all have feet of clay.

    It is so easy to get caught up in the game of whack-a-mole, and think that you’re achieving something. But instead (IMHO) there is a mountain of work to be done around translating climate science into sound metaphors and similes, and producing youtube videos, skits, pamphlets, ‘memes’ etc etc. And having those tricky conversations with people who are NOT denialist nutjobs, but who haven’t bothered to reflect on the News Ltd/Abbott agenda…

    Keep up the good work…

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    1. I must admit, I’m not certain if the writer in question is aware of it, or if it’s solely his over-zealous following who are entirely to blame.
      But you’re right – there is more import things to do. If anything, I’m tired of science communicators feeling like they need to defend the science, that they’re on the back foot. We need to think of ourselves as ‘climate sceptic’ sceptics; we should force them to defend their criticism with solid scientific reasoning or step aside.

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  4. Good points Moth. I have stepped back somewhat from climate change and (in a new job I’ve just been offered) will be working on the more fundamental issue of ‘how science works’ and critical thinking in general, with children and the public. The problem is, skeptics often take this to the extreme, looking for holes in anything and rejecting it as too perfect to be true if they can’t find one.

    I think the ‘laugh and walk away’ is the best bet in most of those difficult scenarios – as we have both learned, there are trolls out there who can be fun to feed but in the end it’s a big waste of time.

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    1. That’ll be a great job! I’ve always liked that aspect of science – transferring it in an interesting way to the general public and students.

      You’ve raised a great point. It’s an age old technique to undermine scientific reason the perpetrator is uncomfortable with (often strengthened by one’s cognitive dissonance – making objective reasoning with such an individual even more difficult). It has been applied in what is called the “God of gaps” most often and unfairly promotes what science doesn’t already know, or where it is less certain regardless of what is known. Dawkins is often on about how, when a new species is found which provides a bridge between two species, creations now claim that there are two gaps, where there once was one – so, somehow the science is less certain than it once was! It’s insanity that some people think this way, but so commonplace we’re all used to it.

      On the flip side, as you highlight, when certainty is too great, they write it off on that fact alone! “Conspiracy” – where the cognitive dissonance really pulls it’s own weight. C’est la vie – we can’t waste our time on a brick wall. It’s better to just explain the science well, over and over and get on with investigating the physical universe more so.

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