17 May 2010

Orac, Mockery, and the Absence of Outreach

I'm going to tread carefully here because I love reading Respectful Insolence. The blog's author, who goes by the pseudonym "Orac," is ridonkulous-smart, obviously passionate, and above all, not one to mess with.  I'm also going to stress that the following represents my personal opinion, has nothing to do with work. (I have worked in the past for pharmaceutical company clients; not doing anything with them currently.)

Orac spends a lot of his time mocking the anti-science crowd, as is his right.  He's quite good at it.  He does so from his perch at Scienceblogs, which according to their own marketing data is read mostly by scientists (or at least people with graduate degrees and people who manage scientific projects).  He's apparently gotten some criticism that he's simply talking to other scientists when he makes his arguments - that he's "preaching to the converted" and this helps no one.   I've made a somewhat similar argument, though I've never called out Orac specifically:
Science has a serious PR problem, and it's this: Critics of science are searching people out and talking with them in the simplest terms possible. Scientists and "science writers," if they talk at all, are basically talking with each other.

So I was interested in his response, which you should read but is summed up like this:
When I hear such charges now, I think I'll just refer the one doing the complaining to this video:

Let me stress Orac is under no obligation to be a Science Ambassador.   It's not his job to move the public opinion needle.  He can write whatever he wants, and I'll probably read it and nod my head and smile.  But given that he made this response, I assume he's at least interested in the issue.

I realize this response wasn't made personally for me. But it oversimplifies the criticism.  First, who assumes there's only "agree and disagree?"  It's precisely because there are so many people in the middle that I think Science's PR problem is so tragic.   (oh, and the little bit in the video making a play on the word "converted" evaporates if you prefer the term I sometimes use, "preaching to the choir.")

This video is a curious defense of homophily.   Of course it's good to have discussions within one's own community.  Of course it's good to galvanize ideas and sentiment and rally the base - it just can't be the only thing you do.  (See "Palin, Sarah.")

The thing that irked me the most about the video (and I realize this isn't Orac's original material) is this idea that posting material online "makes it available" so people can see it when they're ready to change their opinions or accept new information. 

Sorry, this is a cop-out.  Again, no one is forcing Orac or anyone else to be an Ambassador. But if he cares about "moving the needle" in the public, he's smart enough to know this isn't how diplomacy works.  The anti-science cranks of the world aren't waiting around for people to find them.  As Orac points out, they're showing up on Huffington Post and Oprah and daily news shows - you know, where the people are.  And they're listening to people and communicating in terms that resonate.  (And by the way, they're pushing their new book or their new line of organic herb supplements that remove "toxins" or cancer-curing magnets, which could be yours for just 4 easy payments of $29.95 but supplies are limited so ACT NOW!) 

The whole premise of the argument is based on the notion that people outside Orac's circle are either already getting his information, or will actively seek it out and know where to find it in the future.  That's just not how communication and persuasion works.   You don't convince people that a particular treatment for a disease is important simply by publishing an article in JAMA.   It's just the first step.

Calling the other side a bunch of quacks probably feels good.  Using scientific data to show why they're quacks probably feels good too.  And if that's all you want to do, that's fine.  I'll keep reading it.

If you're interested in more, you have to get out and find those people in the middle (we know they're not reading scienceblogs and they're not likely to look for scienceblogs) and listen to their concerns and understand their motivation and explain your position in terms that are relevant and understandable.  You have to get out of your comfort zone a little.

As always, more soon.


Kristjan said...

If you look at the comments to the very Respectful Insolence post you're referring to, you'll see many people who Orac has reached/convinced.

David said...

yes, I saw those comments and it's a valid point - but it scratches the surface of what's necessary. and to be candid, I'm not completely convinced that comments from the pro-orac crowd (awesome as they are) make the most convincing defense.

My point is Orac hasn't really "reached" out to anyone. His methods are passive. That's not a bad thing, but only the people who wander to his blog learn his thoughts. The fact that he's convincing is even more reason to do outreach.