Do Scientists Need to Learn to Lie More Believably?

As public trust in science diminishes, one serious proposal that scientists should manipulate our beliefs for our own good

By Denyse O'Leary Published on December 7, 2023

Australian philosopher and medic Chris Ellis thinks that science writers should quit telling everyone that the universe is a meaningless void, even though he seems to think it is:

We live in a deterministic world without free will, yet we must choose to accept science and prevent climate change. And we must act now!

1.The universe is destined to end in a dead, freezing void and life has no meaning. But we must prevent climate change so our planet does not become a dead, overheated void — and we can continue our meaningless lives.

2.As a result of these paradoxes, those who do not align with science’s claims about the fundamental nature of the universe may not accept scientific arguments regarding climate change.

So what does he propose?

Instead, science communicators would do well to take a more sensitive and anthropological approach to science communication. Understanding what people value and how to reach them may actually help the advancements of science make the world a better place.

In short, science writers should misrepresent the situation to the rest of us for our own good. The remarkable thing about Ellis’s proposal is that it comes at a time when, in North America at least, trust in science is already plummeting to an all-time low. People suspect that we are being conned about a lot of things. How would an accepted, admitted policy of conning us not make it worse?

The “Experts” Don’t Even Know What They Don’t Know

First, it’s far from clear that the universe is a meaningless void. Generally, the sciences whose ultimate message is meaningless void-ism are running aground. As John Horgan (who would have preferred that things be otherwise) has pointed out,

As for life, Dawkins’s claim that it is no longer a mystery is absurd. We still don’t have a clue how life began, or whether it exists elsewhere in the cosmos. We don’t know whether our emergence was likely or a once-in-eternity fluke.

Brain scientists have no idea how our brains make us conscious, and even if they did, that knowledge would apply only to human consciousness. It would not yield a general theory of consciousness, which determines what sort of physical systems generate conscious states. It would not tell us whether it feels like something to be a bat, nematode or smart phone.

For that matter, the war on free will is stalemated. And denial of the significance of the fine-tuning of the universe for life is becoming a hindrance, not a help, in the search for ET. And, as time goes by, it’s probably becoming harder to con people about these things.

Trust Us. We’re in Bed with the Government

Meanwhile, a paper from the American Psychological Association recommends countering “misinformation” as follows:

– fact-checking, or debunking; – prebunking, or pre-emptive debunking to prevent people from falling for misinformation in the first place; – nudges, such as asking people to consider the accuracy of information before sharing it, or rewarding people to be as accurate as possible; – and formal education or community outreach to raise people’s awareness about healthy online behavior and media use.

One underlying assumption in the release is that the authority using such tactics is itself a source of correct information. With COVID-19, that was often not the case. The tactics have been used by central authorities to spread propaganda whose relationship to fact was dubious at best. In an information-rich society, people find these things out and trust, once dashed, is hard to regain.

Luckily, They’re Bad at Their Jobs

Not surprisingly then, a recent open-access paper in Nature found almost no evidence that top down efforts to fight “disinformation” about climate change had any effect. As the release from the University of Geneva puts the matter,

The “trust in climate scientists” group, for example, received verified information demonstrating the credibility of IPCC scientists. The “transparent communication” group, meanwhile, was presented with information on both the advantages and the disadvantages of climate mitigation actions. Each group was then exposed to twenty pieces of false or biased information, ten on climate science and ten on climate policy. The UNIGE scientists then measured their impact after these preventive interventions by asking the participants about their feelings regarding climate mitigation actions.

We found that the protective effect of our strategies is small and disappears after the second exposure to disinformation.

The Geneva team vows to develop new strategies. They might do better to confront the reasons people don’t trust science the way we used to. 

 

Denyse O’Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto StarThe Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

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