Sciencesplaining Won’t Solve All Our Problems

I am as guilty of this as any other scientist: we think that by simply informing people about the scientific facts of something – climate change, evolution, GMOs – we’ll resolve our disagreements. People, currently misinformed, will come around to seeing issues from the proper scientific perspective if we just lay out the evidence.

It generally doesn’t work out that way, because not understanding the evidence on an issue like climate, while common, is almost always not the primary barrier. Public skepticism about the science, about whether evolution happens, whether climate change is real, whether GMO foods as safe as conventional foods, is a manifestation of an unarticulated, deeper concern that has less to do with the science – faith in one’s religion, concerns about regulating business, or the impact of Big Ag.

So if scientists want to clear up misunderstood science, we need to do more than sciencesplain* – we need to clarify what the argument is really about, and engage on the unstated issues that are the real barriers to agreement.

This is long-winded lead-in to my latest column in Pacific Standard, about a weird piece of sciencesplaining published in Genetics. The Genetics pieces describes how rates of cancer and other diseases among survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings and their offspring are not as high as you might expect. It accurately summarizes results of the still-running epidemiological study of the survivors, and indeed, most bomb survivors did not get cancer, and there is no evidence of higher rates of genetic disease among their offspring.

But the weird thing about the piece is the framing: its premise is that the public has a wildly exaggerated view of the harmful effects of radiation. By informing people about the actual data on bomb survivors, we can have a less irrational discussion about, say, the place of nuclear energy in our efforts to cut carbon emissions.

In my Pacific Standard article, I explain why this is misguided – irrational fears about radiation are the least of the nuclear industry’s problems: Economics, security, and the fact that, while accidents are extremely rare, they are enormously consequential, probably play a much bigger role than irrational fears.

* Yes, the whole “X-‘splaining” fad is annoying but sometimes effective.

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