A Philosopher's Blog

Scientists & Public Perception

Posted in Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 30, 2010
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Academics in general and scientists in particular are often stereotyped as being brainy but lacking in social skills. While this is a stereotype, it does have some merit.

One example that illustrates this is the debate over climate change. While the scientists present data and logical arguments, they seem to be ill prepared to deal with the political machinery that has been arrayed against the idea that the climate is changing.

Part of the problem might be that scientists have faith in reason and think that because they find numbers and logic compelling, that other people will as well. However, as I always point out in my critical thinking class, people tend to be more swayed by emotions, rhetoric and fallacies than by good logic.

Part of the problem might be that the scientists generally do not get how the political process and public perception works. Anyone who has suffered through a painfully lifeless and dull lecture in a college class is well aware of this phenomena. To be fair, the job of the scientist is not to amuse or entertain and, of course, the most important facts and theories often strike people as dull. However, the reality is that being unable to deal with the persuasive component of dealing with the public is a serious flaw and can render all that logic, data and science ineffective.

As a final point, it must also be noted that scientists sometimes shoot themselves in the foot by being arrogant, condescending and creating the impression that those who dare to disagree with them are fools. While this works for many pundits, it seems to be less effective for scientists.

While learning to play the social game requires some effort and perhaps some natural talent, it can be done and is well worth doing. After all, if you have something to say and no one will listen, that is almost as bad as having nothing at all to say.

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5 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on March 30, 2010 at 8:19 am

    Scientists are generally truth-tellers and so fare poorly in politics, but scientists for the most part are intensely social creatures.

    Lacking in political skills is not the same as lacking in social skills.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 31, 2010 at 3:08 pm

      True. While social skills include political skills, there are non-political social skills. While scientists are often social, they are often cast as lacking the social graces and skills. This is often applied to academics in general. Naturally, the truth is somewhat different: some academics are masterful in politics.

  2. magus71 said, on March 30, 2010 at 8:19 am

    “While the scientists present data and logical arguments, they seem to be ill prepared to deal with the political machinery that has been arrayed against the idea that the climate is changing.”

    They may also have problems convincing others when they (the scientists) lied, exagerrated and ignored opposing information and theories. Or when studying a problem that doesn’t really exist is the only way to keep the funds coming or to maintain credibility after you’ve been spounting the same information for a decade.

    The is real, logical information that opposes that of the global warming crowd. It’s disingenous to imply that there is only an argument because one side uses emotion as a weapon. Go on to any one of a hundred global warming blogs and see who’s the most emotional.

    • P.E.N.Name said, on March 30, 2010 at 11:14 am

      “They may also have problems convincing others when they . . .lied, exagerrated and ignored opposing information and theories.”

      A statement for further consideration. Imagine a field of human endeavor where someone (a human being, let’s say) has not “lied, exagerrated. . .ignored opposing information and theories”. Oh. There isn’t one.

      You’re skeptical of the pro-climate- change scientists. I’m skeptical of the anti-global-warming scientists. Some are skeptical of evolution. I’m skeptical of those skeptics.

      I’m very very skeptical of those who can hear Glenn Beck (in his CNN period) refer to “the nightmare that is the American health care system” ‘and’ still believe him a year later in his Fox incarnation when he says “America already has the best health care system in the world.” But then he’s ‘just an entertainer’– who just happens to help shape their views and reinforce the worst views they already have. And, of course of skeptical of Glenn Beck–a man who “ignores HIS OWN opposing theories”.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 31, 2010 at 3:16 pm

      Some scientists engaged in what seems to be unethical and nonprofessional behavior. However, this does not discredit science or scientists in general. Interestingly the scientists in question are accused of doing what is standard practice in politics. While this does not justify what they did (that would be a fallacy), perhaps it shows that they get how to play politics. After all, Bush and his fellows just accepted (or made up) whatever “evidence” they regarded as justifying an attack on Iraq. Similar examples can be found involving Democrats, of course-but I’ll leave finding them up to others (since they enjoy it so much). :)


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