As applied public
health scientists, epidemiologists can experience first hand the
frustrations of having their data ignored, distorted, or
misunderstood. Science writers are another group that can
experience similar frustrations of failing to communicate
effectively about science facts. Recently, a conference and
workshop were held at the University of Wisconsin to dissect the
causes of “science denial” and to apply the insights gleaned to
devising more effective communication. The lessons learned and
ideas for solutions are of considerable interest to
epidemiologists and other scientists.
Goal of the
As stated in the publicity,
“Science writers now work in an age where
uncomfortable ideas and truths meet organized resistance. Opposing
scientific consensus on such things as anthropogenic climate
change, the theoryof
evolution, and even the astonishingly obvious benefits of
vaccination has become politically de rigueur, a litmus test and a
genuine threat to science. How does denial affect the craft of the
science writer? How can science writers effectively explain
According to the
organizers, one of the highlights of the conference was the
presentation by Sean Carroll, a University of Madison
Wisconsin professor of molecular biology and genetics and vice
president for science education at the Howard Hughes Medical
Institute. Carroll’s talk was entitled “The Denial of Evolution
and the Evolution of Denial”.
He recounted his
early encounters with persons who deny the existence of evolution
and thought initially the resistance was “about the data”. He
finally came to understand he said that the resistance to
evolution, as well as that to other current science controversies
of the day, has its roots in other non-data related causes.
presentation, Carroll compiled what he believes amounts to a
“Manual of Denialism” for all of science from a paper he read
tracing the history of anti-vaccination arguments put forward by
chiropractors over several decades. This is a common “playbook”
with six arguments that come up repeatedly regardless of whether
the anti-science ideas relate to evolution, vaccination, climate
change, or other topics, Carroll told the attendees. He said that
he can now fit any argument made against evolution or scientific
topics into one of these six categories. They are:
1. Doubt the
According to Carroll, this works by simply making any kind of
argument that can be thought of that casts doubt on the science
2. Question the
motives or integrity of the scientists.
According to Carroll, this amounts to saying that scientists have
another agenda, for example, saying that scientists have a profit
3. Magnify the disagreements by citing gadflies as authorities.
This consists of exaggerating legitimate disagreements by
scientists or stating that a balanced view of opposing sides must
be taken when in fact the size of the two constituencies in the
scientific community in not equal. As the conference planning
documents state, “There are multiple sides to every story---but
not every opinion deserves equal ink or bandwidth.”
potential harms even if the science is correct.
This argument may be used if the others are not working by saying
that even if the findings are correct, then the potential harms
5. Appeal to
This argument works well, particularly with Americans,
according to Carroll. One often hears, “I’m an American, so I
don’t have to.”
would repudiate a key philosophy
This argument states that to accept the findings would repudiate a
key philosophy or belief and may be one of the more important
reasons for resistance.
The two-day event
was organized with four key note speakers and panel discussions on
the first day followed by a workshop on the second day during
which participants were to apply the insights they obtained.
The University has
made the presentations from the first day available online in high
quality videos which show the speakers and the panel discussions.
A journal article describing the Conference in Environmental
Health Perspectives provided an overview of the conference
including observations from many of the participants.
in learning more about the conference proceedings may visit: