Empathy Counts for More Than Reason

In another reminder that democracy and science are different games played by different rules, a recent Slashdot story links to this story on Ars Technica
The recent AAAS meeting had session devoted to understanding how the public receives and evaluates scientific information. I can’t find any primary information about it but the AT artcile itself is interesting. I’m especially interested in the report of Anne Schuchat of the CDC’s assessment:

Simply speaking from a position of authority isn’t enough, Schuchat argued. She cited surveys indicating that, for credibility assessments in areas of “low concern” (she suggested Tsunami risk in foreign countries as one example), US citizens are happy to defer to expertise, rating it as accounting for 85 percent of their assessment. When the topic shifts to areas of personal concern like family medicine, the importance of expertise vanishes. Schuchat said that it drops to where it accounts for only 15 percent of the decision, equal to a sense of honesty and openness, and far below the value of empathy, which accounts for roughly half of the decision. The message was pretty clear; for the public, how decent medical information is conveyed counts for more than the quality of the information itself.

The conclusion of the article strikes me as about right. It’s where “In It” came in.

The clear message of the session was that a command of facts is never going to be good enough to convince most segments of the public, whether they’re parents or Congress. How the information is conveyed can matter more than its content, and different forms of communication may be necessary for different audiences. As became clear in the ensuing discussion, most of the public act as consumers of information, with journalists acting as middlemen. To connect with the public, scientists have to work with the press to ensure that two things happen. Reporters have to overcome their ingrained aversion to the uncertainties of science, and have to avoid presenting uncertainties as a matter of balance that’s addressed via material from crackpots with credentials.

Framing, in other words.

The best advice is to be honest and patient, and look honest and patient while you’re doing so. Don’t attempt an advanced undergraduate lecture series every time you are asked a question. That is not how the truth will out. Remember that you have adversaries playing a very different game.