08 February 2011

Is dilution the solution to information pollution?

ResearchBlogging.orgChris Smith, my good friend and longtime collaborator on all things relating to Joshua trees, pulled into the gas station well after dark. He was on his way back to our field site in the Nevada desert, and this was the last stop before cell phone signals disappeared for good and you had watch the highway ahead for free-range cattle.

It was also the last stop for fresh water, gasoline, and propane. Chris fueled up the van, then went inside for help refilling the spare propane tank. The unshaven, sun-darkened night clerk gave Chris's flip-flops and tee shirt a sidelong look—they might've been perfect back in Vegas around midday, but now it was a freezing high desert night. Clearly unpleased to have to go outside himself, the clerk zipped up his parka and followed Chris out to fill up the tank.

Why do scorpions fluoresce under UV light, anyway? Photo by Furryscaly.
Refilling the propane tank entailed much adjusting of valves and connecting of pipes, which the clerk accomplished with a large wrench. Somewhere a valve misconnected to a pipe, and Chris's jeans were suddenly soaked in liquid propane. The clerk swore elaborately at the valve, blamed the lazy bastards on the day shift, and took out his frustration on the propane tank with the wrench.

When this miraculously failed to engulf the two of them in fiery death, the clerk straightened out the connection and started filling the spare tank, then turned to Chris and said, "So what're you doing out here, anyway?"

Evolutionary biologists learn to be vague about their profession in rural areas, so Chris said he was a biologist. No, he wasn't working for the Air Force base over at Groom Lake. He was studying Joshua trees.

"You must know something about evolution, right?" said the clerk. "I've got a question for you."

Oh, brother, thought Chris. Here we go. How long till this tank fills up?

"You know how scorpions glow under ultraviolet light," they clerk asked.

Why yes, I do, said Chris.

"How come? I mean, what possible adaptive value does that have?"

Well, you know, said Chris, I don't have any idea.

"I hear," said the clerk, "that fossil scorpions millions of years old will glow if you shine a UV light on them. That's pretty wild, isn't it?"

You're right, said Chris. That's pretty wild.

Chris told this story to everyone else in the field team as soon as he got back to camp, and I think it's a great illustration of two points that inform the way I think about science blogging. First, that scientists are maybe a bit quick to assume hostility in their audience; and second, that telling cool stories about the natural world is at least as important as confronting the hostility really is out there.

I've been thinking about these points ever since ScienceOnline 2011, which I finished with the "Defending Science Online" session, a discussion of strategies for countering all manner of anti-scientific bunk: climate change denialism, opposition to vaccination, creationism, homeopathy. The panelists discussed specific events and general strategies, but they really only discussed confrontation. I left with the nagging feeling that identifying and refuting non-science, however well it's done, isn't enough.

Scientific misinformation needs to be contained, but it also needs to be diluted. Photo by kk+.
The trouble with refutation is that once creationists or anti-vaxxers piss in the information pool, it's nearly impossible to clean up the water. A widely-cited recent study of fact-checking in news articles has shown that corrections often fail to reach people who don't want to hear them—and the act of correcting a misperception can actually reinforce it [PDF]. Other works shows that even when you convince people that the information they cite in support of political positions is wrong, they hold on to those positions [PDF].

When real-world pollution can't be extracted from the environment, there's one final line of attack: dilute it. In the sense that what we call pollution is often a dangerous artificial concentration of some substance that is non-dangerous at much lower, natural levels—carbon dioxide, for instance—the solution to pollution is, indeed, dilution. In the case of information pollution, which we can't really prevent or contain, we can dilute non-science with, yes, science.

In other words, the best weapon against denialism may not be explicit takedowns of denialism, but good, clear, accessible discussion of science and all the ways it's awesome. I can speak to this from my own experience growing up in a neutral-on-evolution household in the midst of quite a lot of creationists. I can't recall that I ever decided evolution was a historical fact because of something I read against creationism. Instead, I came to accept the fact of evolution because I read and watched and listened to a lot of popular science—National Geographic, Ranger Rick, and Nature on PBS—that just took evolution as a given, and showed how it explained the world.

So, while folks like PZ Meyers, NCSE, and Ben Goldacre fight the good fight, I think we shouldn't forget the value of celebrating science without making it a confrontation. And in the era of Science Online, we're surrounded by people pointing out things as cool as glow-in-the-dark scorpions. See Scicurious's Friday Weird science posts, Carl Zimmer's tale of Vladimir Nabokov's contributions to entomology, Olivia Judson explaining brood parasitism, or Radiolab's mind-blowing meditation on stochasticity for just a few great examples selected off the top of my head.

This kind of science communication focuses on the grandeur and fun of the scientific view of life, and it wins supporters to science one story at a time. That's not necessarily the most exciting part of the struggle against ignorance and denialism. But every time we get someone to say, "That's pretty wild," we're making progress.


Bullock, J. (2006). Partisanship and the enduring effects of false political information. Presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association. PDF.

Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. (2010). When corrections fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior, 32 (2), 303-30 DOI: 10.1007/s11109-010-9112-2

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